Oh, the joy of a high school reunion. The time when you get to see that most of your former classmates have done better than you, at least on the surface. My reunion was last week (let’s not discuss how many years it’s been) and I debated long and hard about going. Part of me said, “Go. It’ll be fun to see old friends and catch up,” and the other part (the part I really should listen to more often) said, “Stay home. You really don’t want to see how much everyone outclasses you. Your ego can’t take it.” So I went.
The thing you have to understand about my class is that, for some reason, it churned out some of the most successful people on the planet. They aren’t necessarily famous and if I said their names, most wouldn’t ring a bell (although some would). But they are incredibly successful. And intimidating. There’s the woman who is a successful entrepreneur making millions off some gizmo she designed in her garage. There’s the jock who made the pros and is raking it in. There’s the prize winning scientist, the singer who’s releasing Grammy winning albums, and the author who’s penning legal thrillers to the tune of $500,000 a pop. There’s the politician (whose money may be dirty, but he’s still rolling in it), the prize winning journalist, a well known cartoonist, and a host of leading doctors, lawyers, and researchers.
And then there’s me. The career-challenged person who spent too many years jumping from job to job, only to learn that corporate America had no place for me. I’m too weird, too quirky, and too unwilling to put up with BS. I finally gave up, accepted my true nature, and now eke out a small but respectable living as a writer of grants, proposals, technical pieces, and, of course, financial columns from home. It makes me happy, but wealthy and famous I’ll never be.
I may be financially comfortable, but it’s not because I landed some great career that’s netted me millions. Nope. It’s because I clip coupons, shop sales and thrift stores (in fact, the dress I wore to this fabulous event came from a thrift store), eat at home almost every night, and pinch pennies until they cry for mercy. I’m comfortable because I save money rather than spend it on things that so many in my class take for granted, like new cars and expensive vacations. So it’s a little intimidating to walk into a room full of very successful, wealthy people and expect to be able to hold my own, even if I did see that politician’s skinny knees in gym shorts in the ninth grade.
So there I was in my thrift shop dress, trying to pass myself off as at least moderately successful and failing miserably. To anyone who asked what I do for a living, I answered, “Writer,” hoping they’d think I was at least in the same ballpark as the legal thriller writer. Unfortunately, they kept asking, “What kind of writing?” and there’s no way to make what I do sound like it’s remotely sexy or wealth-creating. So I’d just mumble something and move on, slightly embarrassed by my lack of success.
For this story to make sense from here on, you have to understand that I no longer live in the town from which I graduated. I moved away and I don’t keep up with much of the local gossip. I should, because it’s interesting, but I’ve tuned it all out. I no longer have close friends from that class, so I don’t get filled in on all the details like I used to. So all that I really know about these people is what I see in the media, from press releases and, occasionally, on a website or in a magazine. In other words, I get the sanitized versions of their lives; the image they want to project rather than the truth.
Anyway, this reunion had the makings of a miserable evening until enough alcohol had been consumed that the truth started coming out. I was speaking to someone who had once been a close friend and we were chatting about this and that when she says, “Oh, you know Kyle (names have been changed to protect the stupid)? The one who plays in the NFL?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Drugs.” She say in a lowered voice. “He’s spent all his money on rehab and to top it all off, he’s in danger of being cut form his team.”
Okay, I thought, so the brand new Ferrari he pulled up in was probably a mistake.
My old friend went on to spill the beans on several other classmates. The singer? In debt up to her eyeballs and unable to make the payments on her house, even with her recent Grammy win. (Her tour bus had just been repo’ed, too.) The legal thriller writer? Dropped from his publisher because his last book underperformed and now he can’t pay back the huge advance they gave him because he’s blown all his money and he doesn’t even want to write anymore. One of the researchers? Busted for fudging test results and lost his job. The politician? Lost his bid for reelection and now can’t find a job anywhere because his time in office was filled with some sketchy activities that no company wants to be associated with.
Granted, some of the successes were legitimate and apparently carefully managing their money and fame (ironically, those were the people trying the least to impress everyone else), but many, many of these people that had so intimidated me only thirty minutes before now looked like big idiots. They were all running around trying to impress everyone with money and positions they no longer had. All I could think was that I might not have much, but I was at least smarter and better off than some of these jerks. It gave me a good ego boost.
I may not be famous or wealthy, but I am debt free, have I house that I own, have paid for cars, have a good cushion in the bank, am not in danger of going to jail, and have not blown all my money on drugs, cars, women (or men, either) and other luxuries I couldn’t afford. I may live a small life, but it’s apparently a heck of a lot happier than these peoples’ lives. And here I was thinking that all their money and fame somehow made them better than me? I should know better, but sometimes it’s hard to get your brain to focus on reason when you’re feeling overwhelmed and intimidated. Needless to say, the night’s revelations were the equivalent of giving a speech while imagining people in their underwear. It’s impossible to take them seriously when they are laid bare, whether physically or fiscally. I didn’t look at any of them the same after that and, in fact, got up the nerve to tell several of them that, among my many jobs, I write for this website. After that, I had quite a few of these famous, intimidating people asking me for financial advice. Which was pretty damn funny, all things considered. The night wasn’t a total loss and I went home feeling better than I had in years.
What’s the point of this rather lengthy story that I realize now sounds like a version of “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion”? That things are not always what they seem. Just because you aren’t wealthy (or famous), doesn’t make you less valuable than anyone else. You have no idea what their true circumstances are or whether they are only putting on an act. If you have money in the bank, a stable home life, a job that you don’t hate, and are debt free or at least carrying a manageable load of debt, you’re probably further ahead than some of the people that intimidate you. You might be surprised to learn that some of those people you envy actually envy you and your “smaller” but happier, less complicated life. You should be proud of your accomplishments and remember that, as the old saying goes, a lot of these people might be, “All hat and no cattle.”