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I highly recommend you watch this entire TED video.  If you’re short on time however start watching at 11:30 because this is where things get really crazy.  MIT researcher Deb Roy wanted to understand how his infant son learned language — so he wired up his house with videocameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son’s life, then parsed 90,000 hours of home video to watch “gaaaa” slowly turn into “water.”

He then applies this technology and big data principle to television feeds and social media traffic.  Mr. Roy is able to “get a true pulse on our nation at any given moment” by measuring what people are talking about and how they’re reacting to media in real time.  What’s really amazing in this video is how his MIT team visualizes the findings.

A journey of self-efficacy and the addiction of success

Eight years later and I finally understand the purpose Valley Forge Military Academy played in my life.  In many ways those two and a half years not only saved my life, they changed me.  Today people who knew how far I’d descended down the self destructive rabbit hole ask me, what did it?  What made the light bulb finally turn on? I can’t tell you how long I tried to understand that stupid light bulb.  I always thought about and explained this pivotal experience as providing a kind of clean slate.  Never really satisfied with that answer the conversation stumbled down to the phrase, ‘I learned how to succeed, I liked the feeling and I got addicted to it.’  Seems simple enough right?  This morning I walked into work, daily extra large Dunkin’ in hand, and proceeded to jump onto TED.com for a brain fix.  This talk by David Kelley, How to Build Your Creative Confidence, finally gave me the language, the tools, needed to understand and articulate my revelation from 2001 – 2004, turns out the ‘addicted’ theory wasn’t too far off.

Let me give you a little bit of background about the rabbit hole I found myself in that led up to my parent’s breaking point.  I found myself trying to maneuver through public high school without a clue.  A million and one clicks, groups, clubs and then there was my pathetic ass.  Freshman year I broke one ankle then immediately after getting the cast removed broke the other, so even the solace and comradery teenagers find in sports lay beyond my grasp.  Can you say up shits creek without a paddle?  All of a sudden I found myself on a quickly deteriorating runaway train of self-destruction.  Sounds like some sort of bad Lifetime movie right?  Let me assure you darkness is real and in the hollow of a young mind it’s all consuming.  I lived as a shadow, I opted out.  Frankly I shudder to think what 6 more months in that state would have meant.  I tell you this not as a sob story but because I am irrevocably thankful to my family, because this story is ultimately a happy one.

One day my parents pulled me out of public school.  They tried everything else (thankfully they didn’t take the easy way out and medicate me) and as it turned out the only way to break through came through a total and absolute disruption.  There was no going back anymore and little did I know that things would still get a little worse before they got better.  I was dropped at Valley Forge Military Academy in the middle of Pennsylvania winter, my head was shaved, belongings locked away, and I was now a number.  For six weeks I couldn’t use the first person.  I hadn’t earned the right to be a person.  They broke me and I’m thankful.  My mind and soul were poisoned, I needed to be wiped clean and reset.

If you never heard of the psychological concept of self-efficacy and related theories please take moment to read this Wikipedia entry before you continue.  The combination of David Kelly’s TED talk and this powerful concept comprise the foundation for the rest of the story.

In his talk David Kelly applies Albert Bandura’s research in helping people overcome phobias to the creative process.  Kelly suggests creativity is not the domain of only a chosen few but by going through a creative process, similar to what Bandura called ‘guided mastery,’ anyone can overcome fear and build new confidence to be a creative powerhouse.  Bandura calls this new confidence self-efficacy, “the sense that you can change the world and that you can attain what you set out to do.”  Basically a series of seemingly small steps (successes) lead to amazing transformations in people.  In two minutes this man explained how Valley Forge brought me back and transformed me subconsciously.

Valley Forge gave me the opportunity to start over and start experiencing small successes.  Now in the beginning I’m talking insignificant steps that at the time seemed annoying, wasteful, and torture.  Do you know how long it takes to shine a pair or real leather Bates dress shoes by hand so that you can see the white of your eyes in their reflection?  Not every cadet could shine their shoes into this condition because it took close to 20-24 man hours of shining per shoe.  I could and I did.  I had the best shinned shoes in my plebe unit.  Score one for self-efficacy.  Next notch on my belt were room inspections, best room got one hot shower.  I hadn’t had a hot shower in four weeks at that point and it was still middle of winter.  You bet your ass I was the only one with a perfect room.  Holy shit I was good at something.  It didn’t matter what because I was succeeding in my environment and slowly building confidence.  Eventually I earned the right to be a full blown cadet, then a sergeant and by graduation I was the only one out of my original plebe class to become an officer by senior year.

The ascension through the ranks represents only one example of confidence building.  It’s also what people did to get better perks so at the time it made sense.  What really sticks out in my mind today from those years are two year long projects I chose to dive into without any prior experience.  I became editor-in-chief of our school paper, The Legionnaire, and grew it from nothing to a 20+ page monthly publication that won several state awards.  This paper became my pride and joy.  In addition I wanted to involve every senior in the graduating class of 2004 in a senior graduation mockumentary of sorts commemorating our time at the school.  We got it done and each graduate got their own copy that year full of over an hour and a half of content.  You can find some random scenes that survived here.

Like everyone else by graduation we had all had enough.  We were done and good riddance.  Maybe we were all still way too young at that time to realize the transformation we’d just been through.  I can’t speak for anyone else but personally my climb was epic.  Writing this has been a pretty emotional and nostalgic experience.  Since graduation my parents asked me if I resented them for uprooting and sending me away.  Since graduation I have made sure to regularly thank them for saving my life.  I finally understand that stupid light bulb.  For whatever reason I wasn’t properly equipped to deal with life regardless of any natural intellect I may or may not have had. Thank you Valley Forge for guiding me into the light one shined shoe at a time.