GROWTH LESSONS FROM THE KID WHO COULDN'T GROW

The summer I turned 13 years old, my family moved.  This was not our first move.  In fact, it was our seventh.  Changing homes was nothing new.  But this change was different.

By this time, it was starting to become clear that I was more than just “a small kid.” After numerous tests and trips to the Children’s Hospital, we discovered that I had a condition called Growth Hormone Deficiency Dwarfism.  Basically, my pituitary glands took a nap one day and never woke up.  And when your body’s pituitary glands don’t produce growth hormone, your body doesn’t grow.

That’s how I found myself as the New Kid, walking into an 8th grade classroom with the average height, weight, and facial structure of a 2nd grader. Tall, dark, and handsome I was not.

About the time I would try to convince myself that it’s all in my head, people aren’t really staring at me, my delusion would be shattered by some generous parent or helpful faculty member stopping me in the hall to ask—with all sincerity—if they could help me find my way back to the elementary school.

But I think what bothered me most was the loss of my identity.  I loved playing sports—football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, swimming.  An “athlete” was a big part of who I thought I was back then.  Even though I had always been small, in junior high, the size gap became a size chasm.  With every passing month, the kids around me seemed to get twice as big, twice as fast, twice as strong, and twice as coordinated.  Whereas I…didn’t.

The good news was that my condition was so severe that I qualified for a multi-year treatment with synthetic growth hormone.  To seize this opportunity, my parents would just have to shell out 2/3 of their annual income every year for the next five years.  The doctors assured me that if my adolescent self could stick to the plan of sticking my body with a syringe 7 days a week, 365 days a year it would only take until 11th grade—three full years later-- to get within striking distance of the bottom end of the “normal” size range.

I even convinced my parents to talk to the principal about repeating the eighth grade so that my body would have a chance to catch up.  But the principal wisely talked us out of it, arguing that it would be a mistake for a solid student to repeat a grade.

So, there I was at a new school.  I was an eighth grader who looked like a second grader.  I was getting my butt kicked in all my favorite sports.  I hadn’t grown an inch.  My freshman year of high school was right around the corner. That was my reality, and there wasn’t one damn thing I could do to change it.

I only had one option left:  To accept that reality.

After I did that, something strange happened.  Another picture of reality started to emerge.

Even though I was struggling in football, I was succeeding at making friends.  I think the other kids were just so surprised and delighted that somebody so little and cute and doughy could also be kind of smart and kind of funny. Toward the end of the year, I decided to parlay their social curiosity into my bid for next year’s class president.  Which I won.

Since you didn’t need size to spell, I participated in the school spelling bee. What do you know?  I won that, too.

I also made a strategic decision to focus all my athletic ambitions, all year round, into a single sport—wrestling. Even though I would still be much smaller than all my opponents for a couple of years, at least my 65-pound self would never have to square off against the 200-pound eighth-grader with more chest hair than my dad. Eventually, I found some success there, too.

Back then, I was obsessed with growth. I hoped to grow.  I prayed to grow.  I begged and pleaded to grow.

It wasn’t until years later that I finally realized my wish was granted. My prayers were answered.

Even though I couldn’t see it at the time, all the changes around me were in fact producing exponential growth inside me.  Every bit of growth and success I’ve enjoyed—personally or professionally—in the 30 years since then, I can trace back to the lessons I learned during that frustrating, gut-wrenching, and heart-breaking season of change.  Among all those lessons about grit and patience and focus, the one change lesson that lays the foundation for all the others is this one:  The moment I fully accept my reality—all the frustrations, fears, regrets, and mistakes—is the moment I become free to explore the full range of my possibilities.

I don’t know what your change story is.  Maybe you were the small kid, the tall kid, the dumb kid, the nerdy kid, the skinny kid, the fat kid, the weak kid, the poor kid, the hairy kid, the queer kid, the injured kid, or the weird kid.  Maybe your change story is about a sickness, a divorce, a bankruptcy, a job loss, or the loss of someone who can never be replaced.

What I do know is that the pivotal moment—the day where your grievances started giving way to your growth was the day you decided to bravely accept the reality of what is, so that you could freely explore the possibilities of what could be.

Maybe today could be that day.