On the empty sidewalk opposite my house, I was toodling along on my bike recently — and yes, I was also talking on a cell phone with my brother — when I heard a driver yell, “HEY BUDDY, WHY DON’T YOU WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING?”
Before even looking up, I responded: “WHY DON’T YOU GO F*** YOURSELF?” Then I saw my neighbor, still so stunned he hadn’t quite erased the jolly, just-joking expression from his face, sitting behind the wheel.
My wife later reminded me that since our street diverts cars one block to the north and two to the south, I didn’t even have to look up to know that the only possible target for my bizarre spasm of aggression was someone I’d see every week for the next decade.
When you think about it, your whole life is like that street, much shorter than you once imagined, almost entirely populated by people you’ll meet over and over again.
But for a long time, I didn’t think about it. Until I was 15, my twin brother and I began every fall term by apologizing to our assembled friends for the way we were the year before, as if the coming year could make everyone forget the fleas we occasionally picked up from our dogs, or our tendency to yank on one another’s headgear in tussles.
It wasn’t until I was a hiring manager who called job applicants’ references that I considered how long people would remember all the ways you act up as an adult. I began to reflect on my greatest hits. It was like hearing your own voice on an answering machine, except instead of taking 30 seconds it seemed to take 30 years.
I now see amazing job candidates, some better qualified to run a business than I am, dismissed with the slightest gesture by some dude we dug up from LinkedIn. “Can you send us a few thoughts about working with Jerry?” we ask in a note. The message back makes the rest a formality: “Can I call you instead?”
When you’re younger, you never wonder what would be said about you in such a phone call. The whole world is a vast frontier, a life without consequences. You rage through it like an instinctive animal. If you think you’re good at something, especially at a software start-up, you let everyone know it.
But then you get to the end of the street and have to double back again.