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Chris LeBeau: 42nd Percentile


As I have moved further into my adult and professional life, immersing myself in new experiences, learning about new concepts through books, videos, conversations and more, one statement I have come face-to-face with a couple of times from someone I am working with is along the lines of, “you’re so smart!” I do not lay this out there out of pride but more because that statement has pushed me to combat a narrative I have carried for a couple decades.

Until I reached tenth grade or so, school overall felt like something I did reasonably well. As the academic rigor went up, a plethora of A’s began to have greater company with B’s and the occasional C or two. I don’t know that much of the learning came easy to me but with dedication and some tutoring help, I was able to obtain decent grades.

At some point during sophomore year, we were informed about standardized tests like the pSAT, SAT and ACT. Whether it was my parent’s urging or my own volition, I remember acquiring an ACT preparation book and it not taking all that long after opening it to feel overwhelmed. As I worked through various sections it felt more and more apparent to me that I was obviously not all that good of a student because this test in no way made me feel like one.

My memory of ACT test day is hazy now and I do not remember what my disposition was as it wrapped up but I do remember how I felt when my results arrived. I had scored 19 out of 36. While percentile rankings of today may have shifted a bit for all I know, an internet search tells me the same score today would place me in the 42nd percentile. With a score like that my future with respect to college felt less like, which one did I want to attend and more would any have me?

Over the course of the next year or so, I took the test another 3 or 4 times, including once at Camdenton high school in the Ozarks while on spring break with my family and another time in Edwardsville, Illinois because it wasn’t offered in Missouri during that round. Over the course of those repeat attempts, one of them carried me to a 23, what is reportedly the 68th percentile.

During that 18 month period what I feel that what I learned was I was not smart. Through some level of grace and luck, I was admitted to Truman where it felt like most people were there on some level of academic scholarship while I was not. I’ll never forget one student telling me he had been out at a party the night before he took the test and came in exhausted and hungover and as he told it, fell asleep during the final section and still managed to score at 31/36.

If this has been a story up until now about the educational system informing me in high school and college I was not smart, then this is where it transitions to my unlearning that. What I have come to believe is the most important thing in one’s journey is finding the resolve to push forward. While grades and diplomas say something, others can speak for us too.

Curiosity is something we can cultivate and determination keeps us going and when paired with a library card, internet access and the confidence to ask others for guidance and support, you are on your way. Most of the things I have invested in have cost me very little in terms of money but quite a bit in effort and time.

If you want to push yourself further, pick up some new books, listen to some podcasts, attend meetups that sound interesting or whatever floats your boat. It also goes with saying that these commitments do not have to be protracted. Is the book you checked out boring? Stop reading it. Is the it podcast your friend recommended not doing it for you? There are plenty more to check out. Things do not need to be taken to completion but you’ll never know if you don’t turn the rock over. I will add one bit of nuance to that. In order to do most anything well, there is no shortcut. It’s instead about deciding to push through The Dip.

Mastery of a skill or depth of expertise does not come from reading the Cliff Notes or a 5 minute Youtube summary. These are great places to start your investigation but in order to achieve some level of mastery or establish a unique point-of-view requires an investment. As an example, one of my resolutions for the year is to try standup comedy so I recently pulled up a blog looking for a bit of guidance on common mistakes comedian make. Two were offered of which one was: giving up too soon. The author explained,

"I was touring with a guy who used to be the head writer on a comedy show. I wrote a joke about Congress that I was pretty proud of. I told it to him. He said, 'dig deeper.' I wrote another one, he said, 'dig deeper.' He kept repeating that until I had put 3 hours in on the joke. By the time I was done I had 30 lines for that one joke and the more I worked, the funnier they got."

I am fortunate that I wake up most days excited to encounter new things. While some level of this could be from my upbringing or environment, part of it is in response to moments where I have invested myself in something and seen it pay off. It lines up well with The War of Art, in which the author says it’s about staring down the forces, largely in your head, which tell you you’re not [insert your insecurity here] enough, acknowledging them and then moving forward because that is what a professional does. They don’t wait to feel in the mood to train or learn, they just do it.

Go Forth Boldly

“Everyone has more power than they think they do”

Seth Godin


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