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  • Writer's pictureKelly Burns

How an Airhead Model Dropped Out of High School and Learned The Secret of Success Is Failure

Updated: Aug 17, 2018

I returned to college at 44 at the suggestion of my boss. When he mentioned I should probably get my college degree, I thought to myself;

“Why do I need that? I have come this far already.”

I decided that perhaps he knew more than I did about what the future might hold. I wasn’t sorry for choosing to go that route.

I have worked for many years in financial services. I passed the Series 7 exam while in my twenties, then the Series 6, 63, and 65. I have worked for very successful investment companies and brokerage firms. I also sat for the CFA exam.

I worked my way up from a receptionist of a small institutional sales and trading brokerage office, to being the Director of Operations, Trading and Compliance, at an investment company, all without having a college degree.

Even though, I never excelled at math, I was never afraid of it, and I think my propensity to avoid it had more to do with the fact that I loved to read and write. Algebra takes a lot of time and effort. I worked as a trader in many of my professional roles, and I also loved handling the I.T. problems and troubleshooting computers for the offices I worked in.

My father worked for IBM on Cottle road in the 60’s. He taught me to love computers and he taught all of his three children DOS in the 80’s. He nurtured in us the ability to problem solve and question the world around us.

At age twelve, he taught me and my two brothers, to solve the Rubik’s Cube. I started to solve Rubik’s Cubes for friends while on breaks at middle school, then I returned them at the end of class. My father encouraged my nerdy side. He made math and science fun and conversational.

He had an electric car in the 70’s and also installed his own solar panels for his swimming pool. He built computers from scratch, and made wooden puzzles which he tried to sell to toy stores in our neighborhood. He also used to create his own hand blown glass figurines.

I was an insecure teen. I was more introverted, but I was also sociable, and I was voted the homecoming princess of my junior class.

One autumn day in 1985, I called my mother from the school’s administrative office. I told her I wanted to drop out of school. I was only 17. My mother was very liberal. She encouraged me to have an entrepreneurial mindset. I was thinking about being a model, and had an offer to sign with a modeling agency in San Francisco.

I was encouraged to make important decisions for myself at a very young age. My mother arrived at my school, we had a short chat, and then she allowed me to drop out. I felt empowered, a little scared, and courageous.

I was dealing with my maturing teenage body, the attention of boys, and trying to figure out who I was as a young person. In high school, I placed into Honors English, but my grades declined and I was kicked out.

This chapter was the catalyst that pushed academia further from my reach. I did have one teacher in high school, Mrs. Stamme, who was always supportive and encouraging. She invited me to join the Academic Decathalon. Her presence in my life and her affirming ways are still with me to this day.

My second break with academia came when I went ahead with my plan to drop out of high school. I attended modeling school when I was 14, and then signed with an agent at 17. I thought that I would try to become a model. It was a difficult career choice, but I was excited to give it a try. I asked a teacher to sign my release form. She asked me what I was going to do with my life. I answered her:

“I am going to be a model,” to which she replied,

“Oh, so you are going to be an airhead model, are you?”

As she rolled her eyes, I felt a wave of shame sweep through my body, and her words permanently lodged themselves into my internal memory network.

After that, my career path seemed as though it were fated. I only chose industries where I would to begin to battle my own intelligence and the limits of it into infinity. I chose to work in financial services.

The financial services industry, in my experience, is an industry where each day you are grappling with an incredible amount of information that you do not know. It is as though there is a Tsunami of information continually coming at you, and if you don’t take the time required to absorb it all, people can get hurt.

There is a lot of information to digest on any given trading day. My insatiable need to cultivate a growth mindset, was probably a byproduct of my biology teacher’s words.

I spent 30 years trying to prove to myself that I am smart enough. But is financial services the career I want to work in? I am still not sure.

What I have enjoyed is the fast-paced nature of it. I enjoy the feeling that there is an information Tsunami coming at you, and if you don’t try to pull it apart and dismantle the details of where the earthquake (or problem) came into being, such as why a stock tanks, or why earnings have failed to hit their targets, then you will be judged severely, or worse, you can lose a lot of money for your clients.

It was the perfect career where I could continually live inside the gap of what I do not know and strive to push myself to be a lifelong learner every day. After twenty years in the investment business, I went back to college.

I enrolled in a small community college near my home, which was easy and convenient. I was the oldest student in the room. I took an English class, a Cultural Anthropology class, and a Science class. I loved the classroom setting, being engaged in discourse, and learning from young adults who had just graduated from high school. I was inspired. They were so young and full of life, but so serious. I noticed how focused they were on excelling, transferring to an even better college, and getting good grades. I was the old crone, who wanted a change, or “an experience.”

This was my second attempt at college. I attended college in my early 20’s, but it was inconsistent, and sporadic, and I never finished. Now that I was settled, I could really engage and debate with the professor and fellow classmates on specific topics, which I enjoyed.

While still attending community college, I applied and was accepted at California State University — East Bay.

At CSU East Bay, I finished the remainder of my GE classes and began taken classes in my major, English. I also chose a minor in Creative Writing. I was not working, and I was still paying rent, as well as paying off credit card bills, which I had accumulated from previous years. This created a bit of a predicament. Each semester or quarter, I had to take a specific amount of units, in order to qualify for grants.

In the beginning I couldn’t qualify for the best grants as I made too much money the tax year before I enrolled. It was all very complicated and then the stress hit me. I achieved all D’s in my first semester at East Bay and was placed on academic probation. Everything I had worked so hard for in the past three years would be gone, like that, “Poof!,” and I was in danger of beginning to “Chase my G.P.A.” if I did not change my ways.

Paying my bills while enrolled as a full-time student, then having to learn how to study all over again, was new to me. I tried to buckle down and find ways to step-up my study skills. The financial stress I was under was quite immense. I only shared this with a few teachers.

I had to borrow money from my family and friends and I also sold my grandmother’s jewelry. There were many times where I had no food in my refrigerator, but thankfully, I always had a roof over my head.

The next semester, I made the dean’s list. All A’s! Tears streamed down my cheeks as I opened and read the dean’s letter.

The airhead was living into a new future.

I began to trust myself in a way I hadn’t in previous years. In high school I was too curious and restless and I wanted to see the larger world beyond my own small town.

Studying in my major opened me up to a world I had no idea existed; I read short stories by Hemingway, Murakami, Kincaid, Ishiguro, Rushdie, and Raymond Carver.

We wrote flash fiction, and discussed tone, themes, and literary devices, while our professor posed a question: “What is this story about?” We also workshopped our original writing in a group setting, and gave each other crucial feedback. This helped all of us to become better writers.

Being in the presence of some of the world’s greatest educators, scholars, poets and writers doesn’t hurt either. It was kind of like taking a long sabbatical from my job on Wall Street.

I was six months away from graduating, and my income was running low. I didn’t know if I would make it, or if I would have to go back to work before I completed my degree.

My parents were getting worried. They suggested I get any job, in order to make ends meet. This would have crushed me, as I had a full course load and would not have been able to study. It was tough. My credit was ruined, but I stuck it out and I graduated nine months later. Oh, and I got my grandmother’s jewelry back too.

A few months before I graduated, I found the job of my dreams, but unfortunately, I was laid off. I am looking at what is next for me.

Now that I have achieved a college degree that is a calling card to a better future, I sit here and ask myself:

“What is possible now and where do I want to go next?”

I can hear the answer, if only I allow myself to be quiet and listen.

My inner truth is speaking.

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