Success is supposed to breed more success. Those extra lost pounds are supposed to inspire harder workouts; that first million is supposed to inspire more hard work and creativity; the first A is supposed to inspire harder work to keep up the grades. Until the summer session started, I can’t say that was the case for me. The beginning of the school year would always start with plenty of promise, and I’d do reasonably well in the first exams. However, while most of my friends improved or at least stayed consistent over the semester, I would invariably start to fall behind. By the end of the semester, I’d be hopelessly behind and my grades would reflect it. The spring semester would start off on a bad note and only get worse. I could never figure it out — why wasn’t I inspired to work, to keep up the grades and succeed in school?

The answer may lie in something I only accepted recently. Until the summer session, I never worked for any of my grades. My high school Magnet program was supposed to offer higher level courses, and it certainly did…but I got a decent GPA on minimal effort for all four years. The first few weeks of any course are always easy, and I always did well without studying very hard for any of them. The resulting grades were never much of an inspiration because I had invested so little of myself into them. As a result, there was no feedback mechanism telling me to work harder (or to work at all) for the next exam. My grades would suffer, but at that point I was unconcerned, and the ultimate grades in the end were always good enough. I’m not proud of my high school GPA at all, but it was good enough to get me into an excellent college.

So what happened at Cornell? Having never truly studied in my life, I attempted to pull off the same feat in the fall of 1995. Again, the first round of exams was reasonable, and again I had convinced myself that no real work was necessary to do well. Well, that barely worked in high school and it most definitely didn’t work in college. The fact that I did as well as I did (which was not very well), and that I graduated on time, is a testament to my creativity and problem-solving skills more than my work ethic. Looking back, I can’t believe I totally squandered the academic opportunities that were right under my nose. I can’t say that I spent all of that time doing something more productive, because I truly didn’t. I never had a passion for my school work; while some of that couldn’t be helped, I now realize that a lot of “passion” is really the dividend of good hard work.

While consulting was never truly for me, I think I repeated the pattern at Accenture. I very strongly believe that my talents were underutilized and that my first few roles really left me burnt out. In retrospect, however, I see some situations in which I could and should have acted differently. When faced with a seriously distasteful task, there were better ways to express my annoyance and better paths to finding a solution. In the end, I think I still would have left. But maybe the last five years of my professional life would have been a little happier, a little less bitter, and a lot more personally satisfying if I’d understood the value of true effort.

I hesitate to say that I’ve wasted a lot of time. I can think of important lessons I’ve learned every year, and I’ve certainly grown a lot since leaving college. But the fact is that I’ve sort of reset myself, put myself at the beginning of a long path, one that places me some seven years behind most of my academic peers. I can’t do anything about the lost time, and it’s tempting to ignore the years, but doing so would probably be dangerous. I have a lot to offer from my experiences, as well as a lot to remember for myself.

Most importantly, I have to remember that nothing in life is free. The biggest rewards have the highest prices; surprisingly, those prices have little to do with money. Indeed, the non-financial costs figure to be much higher and more dear than anything my checkbook could buy. And our greatest asset — time — can be our most powerful ally or our worst enemy. Making the most of my time, using it to invest in myself and work towards a goal, is really the only way for me to find satisfaction in any field. It’s not just about the passion.

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