Missed It By That Much

Missed It by that much

As in sports, so in life. Lots of people have used sports as a metaphor for life, viewing athletic pursuits as a microcosm of our lives. It is not too much of a stretch, then, to say that in life, as in sports, fractions of an inch or a second define the difference between a win and a loss. Sometimes the games are crucial, sometimes they are of less importance. Occasionally, those thin margins separate greatness from obscurity.

Let me tell you of a two very near misses in my life.

Bill Gates and I are near contemporaries. Gates is a year older than I. Gates was born and raised in Seattle. I was born and raised in Berkeley. So far, the resemblances are unremarkable, right? Accidents of birth. But wait, there’s more.

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell describes the particular circumstances into which Gates was born that contributed to his brilliant success. When he was in 8th grade, Gates was provided with a computer that required punch cards to operate. Later, he had access to a computer at the University of Washington where he could practice programming.

When I was in sixth grade, I was part of a gifted and talented program at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley in which we were introduced to computers that were programmed with punch cards. I remember that demonstration and thinking how cool it was. We were allowed access to the computers. Later in High School in my computer programming classes we were connected with a computer at Stanford University and allowed to program to our hearts’ content.

See the parallels? I could have been Bill Gates.


Gladwell uses Gates as an example of his ten-thousand-hour rule of thumb—that is, you need ten thousand hours of dedicated practice at a craft to master it. I, uh, did not take advantage of my opportunities. Instead of ten thousand hours, I spent ten hours, maybe. Moreover, I found the programming challenging.

So, I could have been Bill Gates, but I lacked two minor qualities—intelligence and drive. Other than that, I was golden.


Tom Hanks and I are actual contemporaries. He was born on July 8, 1956; I was born on June 30, 1956. He is reported to have attended the LDS church with his stepmother when he was young; I attended the LDS church when I was young.  He attended and graduated from Skyline High School in Oakland, CA; I attended and graduated from Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California.

I’m the one on the right or the bottom depending on your device. Mr. Hanks’ picture was taken from an article in which he was described as being “Smokin’ Hot” even in High School.

He self reports as having been painfully shy in high school; I was painfully shy in High School. By one report I read, he laid claim to cracking people up in high school; I used to crack people up in high school (that is when we were both taking a break from being painfully shy). One of my children reported to me a number of years ago of hearing (or hearing of someone hearing) Tom Hanks in an interview say that he ran track at Skyline and was the fastest white boy in the School; I ran track at Berkeley High and was the fastest white boy in the school (yes, Mark Leonard, that was true no matter what you say). Tom Hanks was involved in drama in high school; I was involved in drama in Junior High (I starred in the 9th grade production of 1984!) and was in the drama department my sophomore year until my parents saw our production of Lysistrata after which they encouraged me to take up track rather than continue on in drama. (I think maybe it was the exaggerated erect phalluses used in the production that prompted that decision, or maybe it was the rumor that the head of the drama department was having an affair with one of the students. It might perhaps have been the rampant marijuana use in the department; it’s hard to say.)

Anyway, there you have it. I could have been Tom Hanks. I was right there, Hanks adjacent.

I ran this scenario by my eldest son. After he stopped laughing (uproariously for a long time) he said, “But Dad, you didn’t pursue acting after tenth grade, much less after high school.”

“Sure,” I countered, “but if I had gone to Skyline High, he and I would have been friends and gone into acting together.”


That was his one word reply if you can imagine.

“Besides,” he continued, “if you had ham, you could have ham and eggs, if you had eggs.”

“That’s a bit snarky,” I said.

He chuckled. “You taught me that. If you’re going to make things up, you don’t need to support your make-believe world with meaningless coincidences. Just make up the story.”

Sigh, I suppose he’s right. I could have been Tom Hanks, but for the absence of two insignificant factors—talent and desire. All of which leaves an obvious question: even if I could, would I want to be Bill Gates or Tom Hanks?

Nah. Fame and fortune are overrated; those grapes really are sour.

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