A few months ago Andy Sack got me a subscription to The Next Big Idea Club. Every quarter, a box with two books in it shows up. These books were chosen by Adam Grant, Susan Cain, Malcolm Gladwell, and Daniel Pink – several of my favorite contemporary writers and thinkers.
A box showed up at the end of last week. On Saturday, I read one of the books in the box – Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America by Zachary Wood. I was pleasantly surprised that it landed squarely in the memoir category even though Zachary is only 22.
While Zachary is clearly an incredible human, his story is even more remarkable. The first 75% of the book is his story of growing up in poverty, with an abusive mother, an emotionally distant father, with time split between Detroit and DC, while – at a very young age – falling in love with books, reading, learning, and ideas. Against an extremely challenging backdrop and even more challenging odds – ones that many people grow up in – Zachary developed discipline, grit, and determination that caused me to be awestruck.
When I took the backdrop of his childhood out of the equation, many of his intellectual pursuits and academic achievements were similar to what I experienced growing up. To do this though, I had to delete at least half of the time and energy he put against just surviving day to day, getting to school, having enough to eat, finding money to do pretty much anything, and avoiding endless emotional and psychological pits. Then I had to delete another 25% of the stress he faced being different – both from his academic peers and the kids he lived around. Then I had to delete some more, which was the result of my nurturing parents, in the comfortable middle-class neighborhood, with the safe house, in my own bedroom, surrounded by friends who looked like me and acted like me. There’s a lot more that I kept unfolding as I turned each page, getting a feeling for an entirely different type of struggle than the one I had growing up.
Halfway through the book, Warren Buffett’s famous phrase about winning the ovarian lottery was echoing in my head. While I’ve worked hard all my life, I know I had an enormous head start being born in America, male, white, in the 1960s, healthy, with a good brain, to two loving parents who were both well educated, surrounded by lots of resources.
If Zachary and I were racing in a marathon, I got to start at mile 25 with clean clothes, a Clif Bar, and a water bottle. He started at mile 0 without shoes, wearing jeans, after having stayed up all night.
The last 25% of the book is about his time at Williams College, with a particular focus on his journey with the Uncomfortable Learning organization. To get a sense of the intensity and intellectual commitment of Zachary, take a look at his Senate Testimony from June 2017 titled Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses. To process any of this stuff, you have to put all of your biases (of which we all, including me, have many) on the shelf, in a box, and hide them in the corner. Then, while pondering what Zachary is doing, reflect on the intense negativity, anger, hostility, and ad-hominem attacks that are endlessly directed at him. And, rather than fight them, he embraces the conflict, while trying to elevate the discussion so that learning occurs, even though it’s uncomfortable.
I went to bed Saturday night with a lot of new thoughts in my mind. My dreams were strange, which is always a signal that I’m processing something new.
Andy – thank you for the gift. It’s a perfect one.
Also published on Medium.