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Thin Envelopes of Opportunity

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What do Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, and George Harrison have in common, other than their musical genius and success? According to Ken Robinson in The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Sir Paul and George were given no encouragement as children for having musical talent, the Liverpool Cathedral choir rejected McCartney as a member, and the local glee club told Elvis that his voice would “ruin their sound.”

Musicians aren't the only people who often succeed despite early failure. How about journalists Tom Brokaw and Meredith Vieira, and business giant and philanthropist Warren Buffet? They were all rejected by Harvard, but that didn't stop them from living the lives they wanted. In fact, Brokaw is quoted in Sue Shellenbarger's article, "Before They Were Titans, Moguls and Newsmakers, These People Were…Rejected" as saying, "The initial stumble was critical in getting me launched." And Vieira believes that her rejection led to her career in journalism.

Boy Checking MailboxThese are important reminders at a time of year when high school seniors and their parents are anxiously checking their mailboxes, hoping for those fat envelopes that signal a packet of college acceptance, roommate preference forms, and other documents. Our current culture places enormous importance on early success, getting into the right (best) college, going to college in the first place, and avoiding any missteps along the way.

In the midst of this pressure, parents and their children can easily lose perspective. Learning how to manage, live through, learn from, and capitalize on not always getting our first choice, or even our first few choices, are life lessons learned only through time and experience and, yes, occasional failure. A little adult guidance never hurts, either.

We can't control which envelopes our teenagers receive, but we can do ourselves and our children a huge favor by thinking back on our own pasts and remembering how, sometimes, not getting what we wanted led to, in the words of philosophers Mick and Keith, getting what we really needed. Perhaps an overlooked part of Warren Buffet's success is due to the perspective and support of his father, who responded to his Harvard rejection with "only this unconditional love…an unconditional belief in me."

That's a fat envelope we all can give our children.


Photo courtesy of Alexander Redmon.

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About Lisa Rivero

  • Nice, really nice. Thank you for a crucial reminder.

  • Carol, thanks very much for the clarification. I should have written that Paul and George received little encouragement at school for any musical talent.

    It is both fascinating and encouraging to know how people whom we may think had smooth paths to their well-known success had to muster both self-confidence and diligence to reach their dreams. Young people, especially, often don’t hear that side of the story.

  • Carol

    Nice article, if a little inaccurate about Paul and George. The encouragement they got was at home. Paul’s father had had his own jazz band, played piano to Paul in childhood, paid for piano lessons which Paul quit, and bought him a trumpet. Paul exchanged the trumpet for a guitar, and the rest is history. George’s mother bought him a better guitar than the one(s) he had been teaching himself to play on. The Cathedral choir did indeed reject Paul, but another church accepted him. Both George and Paul would have succeeded even without the parental support, but their families were behind them.