I worked at a job one summer. It was a prestigious, well coveted, well paying internship with State Farm Insurance Company in Bloomington, IL. I had all the trappings of success being laid out before me. Several hundred college students applied and I became one of the lucky few. Our days were spent learning the fundamentals of business under the tutelage of accomplished business minds. Sitting at the helm was Mr. Dear. Mr. Dear hand picked me for the job as he had done several of my fellow intern comrades. It was to be one summer of excellence for all. Bloomington, Illinois did not disappoint. It was just big enough to be engaging and just close enough to Chicago to be enchanting. This city was also the first in my memory that I was ever called a nigg#@. I tell this because we are not immune. None of us. It would not be the last time I heard that vulgarity hurled my way. In not one instance did the person know me personally. It went deeper than that for them. Places I could not fix by just being me.
I wondered why throughout our internship Mr. Dear used to always get time alone with the minority interns. He always ended our encounters with "You have to be better than your yesterday in order to succeed. Average will not do" I heard this a million times from him over the summer until one day he called me into his office. I stilled myself for another much anticipated, hearty and insightful discussion which would end with, "You have to be better than your yesterday in order to succeed. Average will not do" Instead he invited me in and asked me to shut the door. His opening words were, "I would like to meet this one on paper." I looked down at the paper and it was my resume. My heart sprinted to my throat. Within minutes he went on to tell me that I had been a disappointment to him in my role as intern. I was not meeting his or my mentors' expectations in the job. I was not the person they had met on paper. Mr. Dear told me I am sharing this with you out of love. I am supremely interested in you succeeding not only this summer but in life. In order to do so I must always show up and outperform yesterday. My lack of performance was reflecting badly on his choice in selecting me and him professionally as he was a career executive with State Farm Corporate. The most senior African-American in his position.
Tears welled up in my eyes. Mr. Dear told me he had heard from another intern that I had been called a nigg#@ by someone locally (Burger King employee). He told me there was nothing further from the truth. He said you are a CEO waiting to blossom. And if I chose to I could come back and buy that Burger King one day. I knew in an instant Mr. Dear too was not immune to hearing that word.
I never forgot Mr. Dear's words. "You have to be better than your yesterday in order to succeed, Average will not do." The rest of the summer I kicked some internship butt and received special recognition from my peers. I have carried this lesson with me for over thirty years. Paper may open doors but is never strong enough by itself, to hold doors open. I hope it helps those that come behind.