From Gunner To Funner

crispydoc Uncategorized 6 Comments

Like many docs, I took all the accelerated classes our high school offered. I remain in touch with several close friends from those days. Some stay with me for our shared values, others  for our shared history. At the wedding of one such friend, I had the opportunity a few years back to reconnect with the class gunner.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a gunner is the hyper-competitive kid who sees life as a series of opportunities to pad a college application. It's the kid who is willing to ingratiate herself to a teacher in a manner that loses the respect of her peers.

A recent critique of meritocracy discussed a generation of privileged kids who spend so much time preparing for the future that they do not make time to exist in the present. Little C, our class gunner, was their poster girl.

She followed in the footsteps of her older brother, who represented the Platonic ideal of gunnerhood and had procured a business degree from an Ivy League college admission as the bitterwseet fruit of his labors. We regarded her with equal parts pity and disdain.

"What did you get on the [test/problem set/presentation]?" Little C would inquire within seconds of the teacher returning a graded assignment, incapable of resisting the urge to compare herself to others.

If we were feeling wicked (my group of adolescent boys was prone to such feelings) we'd keep a straight face and mention fictitious extra credit we'd received on a bonus question, which put Little C into a frenzy of shuffling papers to understand how she could possibly have overlooked a source of extra points.

We'd eventually break a smile, cuing her relief that she had not fallen behind. She was socially awkward but well-meaning, as if she couldn't make up her mind if it was okay to let her guard down and befriend the competition. Because she was so intently focused on competing with us, she could not quite figure out how to relate to us.

I included her in a monthly AP Chemistry problem set study group I hosted. Despite the neuroses she wore on her sleeve, all of us felt in some visceral way that we understood and shared her fears - we just kept them beneath the surface to maintain an only slightly less nerdy facade.

Little C ultimately reached her goals and got the college acceptance letters she'd worked so hard to produce. We attended Stanford together, and while I seldom saw her on campus, neither of us made an effort to maintain our acquaintance.

Fast forward to the wedding. There was an enthusiastic greeting, and a long conversation catching up over drinks. Little C had undergone a rebirth during and after college - what she sought, after some critical introspection, was a life of adventure and engagement instead of the endless achievement treadmill that had characterized her early years.

She applied and was accepted into the U.S. State Department, where she met her her husband while on assignment in Asia. Their children were cosmopolitan beings fluent in multiple languages, and she had served assignment in 5 countries on 3 continents thus far.

She didn't mind giving up control of her geography in exchange for a generally higher quality of life and the sense of adventure that came with it.

By the time the wedding weekend ended, I'd come to regard the several hours spent chatting with Little C as one of the weekend's personal highlights. I reflected on why I was so moved by her trajectory, and this is what I realized:

  • There's an arc of redemption in proceeding from a myopic focus on building a CV for personal advancement into a broad focus on engaging the world for personal growth.
  • She exuded a kid-in-a-candy-store sweetness in delighting in her life in the moment instead of putting shoulder to grindstone for her uncertain future.
  • It takes big ovaries to live life in the State Department. You are deployed where you are needed. To raise a family abroad is a mixed bag - you get a lot of lifestyle bang for your buck (nannies, cooks, drivers, private school stipend) that offsets the need to be far from the family and community you were raised in.

I'm willing to acknowledge I might be an overly judgmental doofus for thinking this, but someone whose constricted world view and safe choices I once might have pitied now leads a bold life I have great respect for.

The parallels I see to medicine are that it's never too late to take stock of your life, pivot, and re-prioritize.

Life's short enough without feeling resigned to inhabiting the life you have instead of working to transform it into the life you seek.

Comments 6

  1. Sounds like Little C was fortunate that she was able to transform from a gunner to someone who now enjoys life for what it is and getting of the competitive treadmill. Unfortunately I would say that she would be in the minority of gunners who successfully can make that transition.

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  2. So what was the point of Little C’s life? It would seem to be acquisition of checked boxes on a CV.
    Clearly it wasn’t acquisition of knowledge. I taught Physics at a university for a while, and tutored physics and organic and inorganic chemistry to undergrads. Premeds were the worst. The poets just didn’t have the proper frame for understanding and the trick with them was building the proper context. In the context lay the spark of understanding. The premeds had the frame, they just could care less. Just tell me what’s on the test was the premed mantra. It was a phony environment based on the proposition we’ll pretend to teach, you’ll pretend to learn, you’ll get a piece of paper and I’ll get a pension. Fortunately some actually do grab hold of the reins when the time comes. Mine are 23 and 21. One firmly has the reigns in her paws, the other is a bit of a poet, but I signed up to be her teacher forever so she never will be without recourse. It’s my feature.

    “No reason to get excited,”
    The thief, he kindly spoke.
    “There are many here among us
    Who feel that life is but a joke.
    But you and I, we’ve been through that
    And this is not our fate
    So let us not talk falsely now
    The hour’s getting late.”

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      It was a late turn in life, but Little C eventually became the second of the “two riders approaching,” the one who learned to value presence and was slower to develop an internal scorecard than her peers.

      She climbed down from the watchtower before the wind knocked her off.

  3. I really enjoyed this! We all knew multiple versions of Little C. Heck, perhaps I was, at a time, some version of Little C. This story does not always end on a positive note, as you know. One Little C that I knew from med school ended up in prison for Medicare fraud!

    In the end, this overachieving drive often improves or resolves over time, with maturity and life experience.

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      Once again, your wisdom shines through. Little C is very much a “there but for the grace of…go I” student.

      So funny you should mention that the drive to compete landed your Little C in hot water. Some years ago, over Thanksgiving, my father was catching us all up on a recent summer visit to old friends from his childhood in Havana.

      One friend in particular, a cardiologist, had opened multiple nuclear medicine imaging centers across certain neighborhoods in NYC. Per my father, he was extremely successful financially. My father regaled us with stories about his friend’s entrepreneurial ingenuity. My cousin’s husband, seated next to us, did a quick google search on his phone, only to find that this friend had just been indicted on charges of Medicare fraud and violation of the Stark Law (he was referring to his own imaging centers for profit).

      Maturity and recognition of mortality hopefully provides the checks and balances for most of the Little C’s out there.

      Happy to see you in these parts again!


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