Selected by LinkedIn as a top professional 35 and under. We shared shared our experiences accomplishing something for the first time. Read the original here or see below:
"I was the first person to go to Harvard from my hometown in 34 years. Here's what I learned."
"Concentrate on the process rather than the prize." - Bill Walsh
You can leave your hometown, but your hometown never leaves you. And that's a good thing. I grew up in a working class suburb in New Jersey named Dumont, where my parents ran a local auto parts and machine shop. During my childhood summers I’d be in the shop with my dad, watching him work on the engines. He’d say to me, "Jeff, I never got a chance to go to college. But I'm good at what I do. And there’s one thing I can promise you—nobody outworks me. I do the job better. I do it faster. Every time.”
The pride my dad took in his labor profoundly shaped my sense of self. My last name is Fernandez, but I don’t feel hispanic. I don’t feel white. I don’t feel black. I just feel working class.
An achiever is born
Fast forward to eighth grade. I was a chubby guy, hadn’t lost my baby fat yet, and I was getting picked on a lot by guys in my grade that were bigger than me. Let’s just say I needed to learn how to... defend myself. On a regular basis.
Halfway through the year, the school announced that students who achieved a particular GPA—straight As, basically—would receive a special award. In that award, I saw an opportunity to change my circumstances. Up to that point, I hadn’t really put much effort into school, yet I’d still earned decent grades. What would happen if I actually tried?
I decided that for the next quarter I’d put in two or three hours of work each day, apply myself fully to each assignment, and focus on my performance in every verse, so to speak. Maybe the small wins would lead to a big victory. They did. That quarter I got an A+ in every class. I won the award—and began to change the narrative about myself in the process. Achievement felt good, and I wanted more.
Aiming for the top
Fast forward again—this time to my first day of high school. On the drive to school, my mom asked me what I was most excited about for this next chapter of my life. “Ma,” I said, “I’m going to be valedictorian.” She looked at me like I was crazy. I think she expected me to say something about football, since I’d worked out all summer to join the team. But I had different plans in mind.
“Let’s say there are a couple hundred assignments every year,” I said. “If I do my very best on every one, I doubt anyone can do better than that, or have more stamina than I do. I really think I can do it.” Focusing on my performance in each small step had worked in eighth grade. Could it work in high school too? Mom smiled at me and said, “Just have fun."
Four years later, I was named valedictorian of the Dumont High School Class of 2001 (and First Team All State Punter). I immediately set my sights on the next goal: Harvard University, the very epitome of academic achievement.
Finding out I was the first
I went up and visited Harvard on a recruiting trip. Things went well, they offered to accept me, and I committed to the school while I was there. When I came back, I wore a Harvard shirt to my high school. Someone—I honestly don’t even remember who—told me that I was the first person from Dumont to go to Harvard in 34 years. I had no idea. At that moment, a tidal wave of emotion crashed over me. It wasn’t joy. It wasn’t pride. It was anxiety.
Why? I felt an enormous burden. I didn’t want to let people down. My parents were proud. The town was proud. Not I. I had been so happy doing all the work it took to get there. But the day I put on the Harvard shirt? I fell into a melancholy that lasted for months.
I learned a simple, powerful lesson that day: the work itself is the reward. Not the awards. Not the achievement. Not the accolades. The privilege of showing up, losing yourself in the task at hand, performing to the best of your abilities every single day—that’s what’s fulfilling.
The work is the path
In truth, being the first person to go to Harvard from my hometown in 34 years didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already learn back in the auto shop at my father’s side: the true value of your work is the effort you put into it.
The melancholy passed. I went on to spend four hard-working years at Harvard where I wrote my thesis on human performance. Then in 2010 I co-founded Grovo, a workplace learning company that helps employees in companies all over the world perform at their very best each and every day.
Work is something that unites us all. It’s an honor to work—a great privilege. Most importantly, the opportunity to apply yourself 110% to whatever work you do is always yours. And in that application, you can find fulfillment. I know I have, and I hope you will too. I’ll leave you with the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, who captured this sentiment far better than I ever could:
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of the Earth’s furthest dream,
assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour, you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.
Work is love made visible.