When it comes to the stories of how our Fellows chose VFA, no two are the same. Each morning at Fellow Training Camp, we ask one Fellow to choose one of Venture for America’s “credos” that really speaks to them, and tell the story of why.
2014 VFA Fellow Spencer Wolfe tells the story of how he learned to be inspired instead of intimidated by his peers.
I will create opportunities for myself and others
I spent a great deal of time thinking about Alexander the Great on my 16th birthday. When Alexander was 16, he had led several successful campaigns and founded a city in his own name. When I turned 16, I got my driver’s permit and delivered food for a Chinese restaurant (I named my car Bucephalus after Alexander’s horse). When Alexander was 20, he was king of Greece. When I turned 20, I was voted student of the month and had my first real girlfriend. I developed a bad habit of understanding my accomplishments only with respect to Alexander the Great’s—admittedly a tough act to follow; hence his title.
At Columbia University I continued my love for Alexander by studying Greek history. I also continued the bad habit of judging myself relative to others. However, now my peers were at a caliber I had never before experienced. I met engineers better read on Greek philosophy than I, a girl who spoke five languages and played the piano like she was born during the crescendo of a Chopin concert (she was pre-med, naturally), and my roommate who, between building websites in his free time, would read whatever piece of literature I was reading in a third the time. He enjoyed spoiling the endings—I had no idea that Anna Karenina killed herself until he told me over a Thursday evening beer. I was intimidated. The façade of Butler Library, etched with the names of my idols—Herodotus, Homer, Sophocles—became not a beacon of learning but a reminder of what I would never achieve. Navigating such a potent sea of talent became oppressive. Overshadowed by my peers, I retreated inward. I found a small group of friends, got a work study job—paid on Friday and broke by Monday—having done nothing of consequence in the interim. The overachieving, ambitious high schooler I once was became lost among the Warren Buffets, Enrico Fermis, Asimovs and Kerouacs of Columbia University.
It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized something very fundamental—I had a choice. To be inspired and to be intimidated are two sides of the same coin, and I had the agency to govern my reactions to these impressive people. It became clear that feelings of inadequacy are not so far removed from feelings of awe. I could choose between intimidation and inspiration. At this, I promptly walked into my roommate’s room, the one who spoiled the ending of Anna Karenina, and asked him to explain what an IP address is. The following conversation (also over a Thursday evening beer or five—perhaps you’re noticing a trend) was one of the richest I have ever had. For every question I had about my computer, he responded with a question about naval tactics in the Peloponnesian War. I was happy to oblige. I spent my last semester choosing to be inspired by my fellow Columbians, suddenly surrounded by countless opportunities to learn and think differently. I became more confident, outgoing, friendly, and reaped the requisite benefits from my peers. I learned as much from my classmates in these last several months as I had in four years of an Ivy League education. My final takeaway: for every person I was intimidated by, there were an equal number intimidated by me.
This is the lesson I brought to my credo talk at the beginning of the VFA training camp. In a group of 106 overwhelmingly brilliant and talented twenty-somethings, it would be easy to lose track of one’s own strengths. Thus I called on the VFA class of 2014 to be inspired by one another. However, I took it one step further. With only five weeks together, it is imperative to actively seek out one another’s strengths and stories. Each fellow is a mini-opportunity for the whole class to learn and grow. With this in mind, I asked to get breakfast, lunch, or dinner with each fellow over the course of training camp. “I want to take each of you on a date,” I joked. The response was overwhelming. After creating a quick Google spreadsheet, I had nearly every slot filled for the entire summer. While not all of these lunch dates have been honored (the product challenge derailed my ambitious schedule, though I got to know my core group all the better), the conversations with fellow fellows have been some of the highlights of my summer. Over dining hall chicken fingers, Hetali and I debated feminism, as cordially as imaginable. Alexa, T, and I had a conversation so powerful about love, long distance, and the future, that I missed a group meeting by well over an hour. I plan to wake up at 4:30am next week to have breakfast with those fellows observing Ramadan. In the spirit of fellows teaching fellows, I am happy to say I have learned more than I thought possible from my peers. I hope I have given back even a fraction of that.
The second to last credo reads, “I will create opportunities for myself and others.” It’s easy to write this off as either a derivative of volunteering in our cities or looking to found a company that will eventually employ a hundred people. I argue there is a more quotidian reading—one that encourages us to interact with and learn from each other on a daily basis. Inspire and choose to be inspired. You’ll be amazed how much you learn.
I turn 23 next year. At 23, Alexander the Great was undefeated and well on pace to conquering the known world. Impressive. But if I have learned my lesson, I won’t stack my own achievements against his. I’ll recognize the opportunity, choose to be inspired, and learn.