When I was 22 years old, I graduated from Florida Atlantic University and was working as a security guard at IBM. These were the days before computer security — I was working in physical security, leveraging the muscle I gained playing football to protect the employees, buildings, and documents. I didn’t know what the future held, but I was in a race to get there. That said, I had NO idea of how amazing it could be. I had limited confidence in who I was or what I could become. My biggest dream was to become an IBM manager and own a home. Obviously, while that was a big step up from where I was, I wasn’t aiming high enough.
I wish I could go back and tell my 22-year-old self about all of the possibilities of the world. I never knew about things like entrepreneurship, and I thought many traditional professions weren’t available to people like me.
Although my early life felt very secure and was filled with lots of possibilities, catastrophe suddenly struck, and derailed my family. My father passed away unexpectedly when I was very young, and we had to scramble to make ends meet. He didn’t have any life insurance, and my mom had to go back to work to support five kids. We lost the air conditioner, hot water, and TV, and we also lost the opportunity to dream about what could be as we were too caught up trying to get by.
Things weren’t easy in school either. They wouldn’t let me enroll in Cub Scouts if mom couldn’t serve as a “den mother” — something she couldn’t do because she worked. Since the football program cost money to join, I couldn’t play on an organized team until junior high, when it was free. (I did save my own money from my paper route and scrape together enough to play in Little League.) Always, I was the kid without any father, and without any money. All I wanted was to be normal.
I got good grades in school and did well in sports, but no one spoke to me about applying for scholarships or aiming to go to college. I wanted to be good, but no one told me that I could be better than good — and that I could hustle my way to great. I was only told that I would have to take care of myself when I graduated high school. That curtailed the possibilities. While both of my parents went to college, I was the first of my siblings to finish their degree. All of us got married before or during our early twenties.
For all of us, the options felt limited. I wish we knew they were boundless. I wish I knew that we could create opportunities, jobs — an extraordinary life. In working, I learned that one opportunity could beget another and hard work, especially volunteering for the hard jobs no one else wanted, could yield stratospheric success. A pedigree, while a good stepping stone, was not the only way to get where you need to go.
The only way to get where you need to go was to actually go for it — to show up, and knock on the door, and then run through it. I cleaned up over the years, though never looked the part that got me in through the front door. But I learned there were still giant opportunities even when you came in through the kitchen.
After a decades-long career, I’ve come to understand that what society expects you to do is not all that you can do, or are going to or can do. Just because you don’t belong doesn’t mean you can’t belong. And it doesn’t mean you can’t make it even better.
We are all capable of more than we think we are. Dream big, but execute bigger. If you are willing to dream and then work hard and execute well, you can achieve more than you ever imagined. Tell that to everyone you know and the world will be a much better place. The future we create can be much better than the one we expect.