Of Apples and Oranges: An Open Letter to my Six-Year Old

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My dear Titilayomi,

Happy 6th birthday! I’ve waited till now to tell you a personal story that happened around the time I was six years old.

Where I grew up, a student’s rank in class was clearly stated in their school reports. A “3/36” meant you placed third out of 36 students in your class. In other words, there were two smarter students than you in class that term, but hey, you could be happy because there were 33 bozos lining up behind you. Some schools pasted this ranking on the bulletin board for all to see—talk about public shaming. But even in schools that didn’t take it this far, word got around. You kinda knew who came 1st, 2nd…all the way to who came dead last. I usually placed 1st so you can imagine the pride I felt walking around school. {I know every parent tell their child they were number one in school but you need to believe me on this one, ok? Or ask your uncles and aunties.) That 1st position was more than a score on a piece of paper, it was my ticket to being picked first during sports, being called first to give my opinion, and being first on many students’ list of friends. I was first and I knew it, and it felt good. As a six-year-old, I couldn’t ask for greater validation…or could I?

Home, for me, was the antithesis of school. In school, I was compared with other classmates; at home, I was compared with my brother, who was seven years older and reputedly much smarter than me. When I came home with a 95 on a test, I was quickly reminded that my brother had made a 99.9 on that same test seven years prior. At six, I had read an impressive number of age-appropriate books, but it impressed no one at home because, at that same age, my brother had apparently read all the science encyclopedias we had (this was before Google/Wikipedia). In sixth grade, I placed 1st on a standardized exam in the school district. I was elated—until I got home to be told that my brother, in his time, placed 1st in the entire State. Elation turned to deflation. In short, whatever I did, when compared against my genius sibling, was not good enough. The impression I got was, “You are good, but the real McCoy is your brother.”

Comparing two dissimilar objects comes naturally; we do it without thinking. Evolutionary and socio-biologists believe this practice saved the early men from extinction: comparing individuals helped to clarify roles and responsibilities. (The bigger guys, for instance, were tasked with defense.)  Comparing people is a natural act we engage in often without intent to praise or malign. My teachers weren’t writing “1st“ on my report card to celebrate me anymore than my loving family was judging my results against my brother’s to denigrate me. Life just has a way of giving you unsolicited feedback without regard to your sensitivities. Luckily, it is not the action of others but our own reaction that matters the most.

Because I got widely differing responses to my work depending on whether I was at home or at school, I struggled for a while with my identity. Was I smart or dumb? Hardworking or lazy? Progressing or retrogressing? In the end, to keep my sanity, I decided to let go of the effect other people’s evaluation of my abilities had on me. I decided to compare myself with one person and one person only: Oluwafemi Michael Taiwo. Me!

This, albeit very early, life crisis is one of the best things that happened to me, because at a younger age than most, I learned firsthand the folly of comparing myself with others. I wish I could say I did it because I am naturally good or precociously self-aware, but that wouldn’t be true. I did it for the same reason most of us do anything: as an act of self-preservation. Feeling differently about who I was based on the audience was exhausting, and trying to reconcile which of me was the true me was a Freudian exercise I couldn’t continue. My id, my self, was about to break down, and my way out was to look at the person I saw in the mirror as the only one I needed to beat, every day.  My way out came in the form of not comparing myself with others. I was an apple, they were oranges, and there was no basis for comparison.

Whenever I look at what I do, I ask myself:  Is this the best I can do today? Is this better than my previous work? Does this represent growth? My satisfaction or discontent comes from whether or not I answer yes to these questions. I became free from thinking I am better or worse than others. I just am. Unshackled from the burden to compete, I collaborated better with my mates. I could sincerely cheer for them and root for their success. This is why many of my school mates are still my best friends now. My outlook continues to serve me well in the corporate world, where I don’t see my colleagues as adversaries to be subdued, but co-stars to be supported.

Regardless of what I achieve, I still measure myself by those three questions I mentioned earlier. I know I am incomparable. No one will ever be me, and I will never waste my time trying to be anyone else. This is the lens with which I will judge your work going forward. Not whether it is better than the person sitting next to you in class, or born next to you at home, but whether it represents your truest effort, whether it stretches your ability, and whether it indicates development. I do this because, my dear, I know you are incomparable. Literally. You are an apple, everyone else is an orange, a banana, and so on. My job is to help you be the best apple you can be. So help me God. Happy birthday again.


I love you,