The Panic Attack That Turned Me From Braveheart Into Sir Robin

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My whole life in one fell swoop. I was literally so insane that I had to make a decision that second or I would go insane.

I don’t know that I was necessary ready for college. Academically there was no question in my mind that I could handle it, but in high school the goals were much more apparent and straightforward. I showed up when I felt like it, tried not to let my boredom translate into too many detentions, and did everything that appeared to be a necessary part of getting into a good finishing school. As far as I was concerned, I was as bright as anyone who had ever gone to my high school and my grades and test scores reflected that. I was accepted into Northwestern through the early admission process, which meant that after getting my notice my official presences at West Geauga High School were few and far between. Oftentimes my mother would call the school and say that I was feeling a little ill and that I would be showing up a little late. My high school started at something like 7:45 in the morning, but luckily for me they had a junior high school bus that I could take that showed up about an hour and a half later. This not only meant that I could sleep in a bit, but that I could also sign in at the school office whenever I felt like it. Often this meant that I would wander around the school for most of the day, hang with my favorite teachers in the English office, watch some videos with my friends in the audio-visual office (really a closet with a couple television sets), and officially attend my last class of the day. For this I would get credit for a half day of attendance.

My best friend Andre and I had worked out a system. I was absent on the days of English tests and he would stay home during Calculus exams. We would then pass on the requisite information to each other and our scores remained outstanding. One would think that this pattern would become apparent to our teachers, but we were hardly there on any of the other days either and we were seen as the cream of our class so everyone seemed satisfied to let us slide. I think the official number of days that I missed my senior year was 52, but that didn’t even scratch the surface of the number of days I was a half day attendee. I would be willing to bet that I missed at least part of well over half of the days school was open for business that year.

My first class of the day during my senior year was physics and I don’t think I was ever there, and yet my physics teacher marveled at the quality of my work. No matter how many days in a row I missed I would always show up armed with the previous day’s assignments completed. The fact that I had copied almost every one of them from someone else never besmirched his notion that I was the most conscientious though sickly student he had ever taught.

The coup of my high school career also involved physics. This one was so dastardly and likely to infuriate the other kids that Andre and I swore each other to secrecy. We were assigned a project that would make up most of our physics grade for the semester. Projects made me physically ill. I was still pale and famished from having to paste bugs onto construction paper in the seventh grade. Luckily, I had a brainstorm. My next door neighbor Mark Roussy had built a set of speakers for his physics project at a distant and private Catholic school. They worked well and looked splendidly home-made.

At some point I think we really felt bad about this. I mean there were kids who must have worked for hours constructing gyroscopes, gluing things together with ball bearings, measuring the weight of the sun with a ruler and a couple of popsicle sticks. Andre and I showed up one day with Mark’s speakers, my stereo, and a signal generator that I had borrowed from my father. I probably had spent all of twelve minutes figuring out how to evoke separate tones from the different sections of the speakers, and Andre had conjured together about a page and a half of prose directly from the Encyclopedia Britannia. At the end of the presentation, our impressed physics teacher asked us whether or not it had been necessary to cut open a section of the speakers during our assembly period. I looked at Andre. He looked at me. God knows we had no clue. I somehow mustered up a yes, which apparently was an acceptable answer because our instructor spent the rest of the period scolding our gyroscope wielding classmates about how ‘this’ was the type of effort he had been expecting on these projects. We got the highest score in the class, kept our mouths shut and took the rest of the day off to haul all of equipment back home.

As far as the majority of my high school teachers were concerned this type of behavior would be fine in high school, but the house of cards would come crashing down in college and I would get my ass kicked by higher learning. To the extent that I had any goals in college it was to disprove these theories. I never slacked off in college. I maybe missed one or two classes due to sickness during my whole stay at Northwestern. Sure my first class freshman year was at noon, and I was more than likely to nod off in a couple, but I was determined to come out of college with a clean and impressive record.

The problem was what classes to take? Where was I headed? What was I doing here? Most of my colleagues were majoring in drinking and hallucinogenics and neither one held much interest for me. Despite my natural inclinations to laziness I was well aware that my parents were spending a hell of a lot of their hard earned money to send me here. It was well implied that I was supposed to leave this place well prepared for the workforce.

I should have taken my time and fallen into some major or another, but that was never the way I worked. The question of what I would major in gnawed at my stomach and made me crazy with dread. I had significant math skills, but almost no interest in technology whatsoever. I had some inkling that I wanted to write, but that seemed at the time to be a frivolous and non-productive way to spend my college experience. Sure the notion that you should go to college to become a well rounded fully educated person sounds good but it held little merit with me at eighteen. Looking back I know that my parents would have been satisfied with anything I wanted to study in school, but I had little respect at the time for those with expertise in Philosophy or some other arcane pursuit. I had met quite a few Philosophers in high school who were brilliant, confused, and down on their luck. I needed to take something that would lead to a job.

I had a great algebra teacher in high school, named Lou Gmeindl, who would often voice his theory that going to college to get a job was a colossal waste of time. It was his impression that we would all be better off taking the hundred thousand or so dollars our parents were going to spend on tuition and opening up a pizza parlor with it. He was convinced that his pizza graduates would be well ahead of the curve by the time the rest of our peers graduated. There are times when I think that maybe he was right. There seems to be an awful lot of entrepreneurs with more money than me who
either quit school early or blew off the entire process. My Grandfather, who played a lot of golf with his copious amounts of spare time, often posited that he could hire plenty of smart people if the necessity arose.

A side story about Lou Gmeindl. He was one of those teachers that the smart kids loved and the hard working kids dreaded. He used to bet me a quarter on every algebra test we had that I wouldn’t get a perfect score. I had a friend named Doug Bank, who was no slouch mathematically himself. He would one day attend MIT. Finding himself disgusted with the complexity of a Gmeindl exam and unable to finish it on time, he scrawled “I don’t think it’s fair that you make these tests this hard just to win a quarter from Brad.” I’m pretty sure I at least broke even on our side bets that year, but back to my collegiate quandary.

My first official responsibility at the school was to attend a meeting of the three year scholar program. In essence Northwestern was willing to give me a years worth of credits, a sixteen thousand dollar value at that time, and let me register for all my freshman classes as a sophomore, which meant I would get whatever classes I wanted, all in exchange for my presence at one two hour meeting, which I nevertheless managed to fall asleep in before half of it was over. My room-mate had to wake me up and tell me it was time to leave after all the more ambitious students had gotten up and left.

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I have a habit of panicking and grasping out at the first thing that seems likely to reduce my anxiety. There was a guy, who I met during my debate debacle that was in an honors program called Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences. Students in this program would take a social science major, either Political Science or Economics, and supplement it with a second major in the MMSS program, which was designed to educate its participants in modeling, statistics and higher mathematical concepts. As it turned out it was pretty much the best education one could have to prepare for a career in options trading. This sounded reasonable and impressive so I grasped onto it and prayed that I would never regret the snap decision made to quell my anguished trepidation.

With my next step, I decided to major in Economics. There were others in the MMSS program majoring in Political Science. To this day I’m not quite sure what kind of a job Political Science prepares you for, but at the time I had no interest in one day becoming a Political Science professor or running for office, so I opted for Econ. I have to admit that at the time my only interest in finance or trading was my inability to understand how Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd made all that money selling orange juice futures in the movie Trading Places without actually ever owning any. The funny thing about Northwestern was that they had no business school. Perhaps I should have researched my college choice a little better and known this coming in, but that was water under the bridge. Being as there was no business school at Northwestern everyone who had found themselves in a boat similar to myself became Economics majors. After all there had to be some dough at the end of the rainbow for those who had spent most of their time studying money, and I would eventually figure out the end of Trading Places.

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