They wanted me to learn the “right” way. Half notes and full notes. Metronomes and clefs. I stared listlessly at beginner’s piano books, littered with children’s classics like “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.

Well, I had a little secret.

When they weren’t looking, I was playing everything by ear. I began to play songs that weren’t in that book, ones I’d heard on the radio. And then I started writing my own songs, stringing chords and notes together where the choreography of my fingers was just as mesmerizing to me as the sound they created.

One day, after another lesson in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with my piano teacher, I asked him if I could play something I’d just finished writing. He chuckled, and really, who wouldn’t find it adorable when a 7-year old writes a song?

And so I played it for him…

After I finished, I looked up at his face and he was white as a ghost. “Wow”, he said. “That is just…amazing. You are a talent, and you must keep practicing.”

So I did the only thing I knew to do at a moment like that.

I quit, and never went back.

• • •

15 years later, everything was going just fine until I had to go and screw it all up, again. Life was feeling so right. Days spent surrounded by intelligent, passionate people. Nights poured over thick, red books that told the story of American society. A fire burning in me to become a constitutional lawyer.

And then it all evaporated, in an instant.

“O’Brien!”, the Professor yelled, startling me to attention. The whole law school class turned around and looked at me. “O’Brien, do you know why I’m calling on you?”

“No”, I replied, my heart racing as I searched my mind for the thing I’d done wrong.

“Because you are the top of the class”. He looked at me in the eyes, his gaze filled with wonder. “I have all the exams graded and O’Brien, you scored the highest”.

Several students leaned in to pat me on the back, while others mouthed “congratulations” from across the room. The Professor pulled me aside after class to shake my hand, and told me I was going to become a great lawyer.

So I walked to the parking garage, got into my car, and did the only thing I knew to do at a moment like that.

I left, and never went back.

• • •

I studied the Cyrillic alphabet for months before I even got on the plane to Bulgaria, my new Peace Corps assignment. There were only 30 letters, many of them the same as our alphabet, so it wasn’t that complicated. But I loved the immediate feeling of disorientation when I looked at a sign in a train station or a map of the capital city. It was like a challenge where I had all the tools, and just needed to piece them together.

I practiced my Bulgarian non-stop. I started thinking in Bulgarian, writing essays in Bulgarian, and reading Mark Twain in Bulgarian. I had conversations for 10 minutes at a time where Bulgarians didn’t realize I wasn’t one of their own.

One day, my Peace Corps-assigned language teacher leaned in to tell me something, and with a sparkle in her eye, ruined everything I’d worked so hard to achieve.

“I was talking to the other language teachers”, she said, “and we think you are going to be the first ‘Advanced Level’ Bulgarian speaker we’ve had in 5 years”.

I was flattered, touched, and filled with joy.

So I did the only thing I knew to do at a moment like that.

I left Bulgaria, and never returned.

• • •

Why do some people with so much talent & drive stall out?

It’s been a long time since I ran away from something I loved. And I’ve now built a life and a career that I’m immensely proud of and couldn’t imagine leaving. But for years, I’ve been ashamed that I ran away from so much in my younger days. Partly because I ran away from a talent I wish I’d mastered. But mostly because I was running away from myself.

I was running away from the fear that I wasn’t actually that good. If I kept starting new things, and mastering them, I could leave while we all still believed I was excellent.

I could shut it down before the truth came out.

We talk about learning in America as a means, and success as an end. But after being in Silicon Valley for the last decade, entrenched in a very different way of thinking that has led to one of the greatest industrial eras in history, it occurs to me that Americans may be focusing on the wrong thing, as was I.

From afar, I bet Silicon Valley looks like a bunch of success mongers, hungry to build algorithms and take over the world. But the truth is that, on the whole, it’s a place that values learning above all. And necessarily, failing as a means to learning as an end. Success of course is important, but eventually.

This is place of builders, creators, people who dream something up and then line-by-line of code, make it real. There is great patience for learning cycles, for screwing up, for being frustrated, for the struggle that almost always ensues before traction arrives.

Silicon Valley saved me. It taught me how to think, how to learn, how to fail, and how to get over myself. It taught me the value of learning over being “the best”.

I often think about people I’ve known and loved who had so much talent and drive, yet ran away from themselves. I understand them, because I was them. But I wish they’d chosen not to run.

I worry about our culture, and how we’re teaching kids. In an era of Instagram filters, and education budget cuts, and the zeitgeist of apathy that comes with great economic times, the risk of a generation who never learn to learn, and never realize their full potential, is very real.

In the end, it’s not about money. It’s not about success. And it’s certainly not about being the best.

It’s about sticking with something, enduring failure, and not leaving.

It’s about allowing yourself to be who you really are — fallible, imperfect, uncertain, and a little scared.

It’s about making a difference. Because the difference starts with you.