I received an email from a reader on Tuesday morning. This isn’t anything new. I receive a lot of emails – or texts or tweets or comments or direct messages and sometimes even the occasional phone call – from readers. But the contents of this particular email were new.

They were, in fact, quite incredible to me.

It was from a high school junior named Brittany in Falls Church, Virginia, not far from where I used to work at The Washington Post. She had an English assignment, she said, to find an author who writes on a topic she’s interested in, to research said author, and then write them an email critiquing their work.

I stopped eating my breakfast mid-chew.

A high school junior did an English project on me?


In a technical sense, I fit the criteria. I am an author of two books, with a third on the way. The student is a libero on her high school volleyball team, and indeed I do write quite a bit about volleyball, a topic she’s interested in.

But still: me?

Of all the incredible and gifted and far more experienced and talented writers out there, it took multiple reads of her introductory paragraph to accept the fact that she had indeed chosen this 27-year-old masquerading as a grown up to research and critique for her English assignment.

Her email was lengthy, which I appreciated, because I’m a long-winded writer and I know the great deal of time it can take to write something of length. And besides, as a teenager, she should be among the attention-deprived generation, should she not?

This email took attention and time and care.

I wanted to return the favor.

And it was patently clear she put some time and thought into this, for she detailed multiple, very specific stories that she liked and why she liked them. She liked Trevor Crabb because he called Ty Loomis a sand-throwing fool, which I found funny, because Trevor has been trying so very hard to be disliked. The irony was beautiful.

She liked learning about the new partnership of Summer Ross and Sara Hughes.

[podbean resource=”episode=bxbqa-84c49b” type=”audio-square” height=”400″ skin=”2″ fonts=”Helvetica” auto=”0″ download=”1″ rtl=”0″]

And then she got to the crux of the assignment: the critique.

“I have noticed,” she wrote, “that you have a tendency to write about the success of others instead of yourself. Would you consider writing more about yourself?”

Another line where I stopped mid-chew.

Why would anybody want to read about me? My job, as a writer, is to, after all, highlight others.

Or maybe it’s not. Maybe an exception is allowed here and there.

She elaborated on that point, writing: “I would like to see more articles about failure, as I noticed that most of the articles I read were about failure leading to success, or just success. I know there are people out there who do fail; it happens to everyone at some point in their life. I think the article titled “Mewhirter: “I’ll be that man in the arena until I know victory” was my favorite article, and I personally think this is one of your strongest pieces. Therefore, I would be delighted to see more about you because I know you have a tendency to focus on the spotlight of others. When you wrote about yourself, I related so much because I am currently in that stage of my volleyball career.”

I read that with both a wince and a smile. I remember writing that story quite vividly, at 2 a.m. in my apartment, the only light being the glow from the very laptop I’m typing on now. I sat on the floor. My dog laid next to me, head on my knee. My girlfriend was fast asleep in the bedroom behind me, and I envied her peace and equanimity, her stillness, while my mind chewed and stewed and churned over the same five or six plays from the Hermosa Beach qualifier, over and over and over.

It was a cathartic story for me to write, and it seemed the same for a number of my qualifier friends, who texted or messaged me the next day saying thanks, that they felt the same, that it was nice to see someone else feels that way too.

But I never could have imagined those words would fall on the eyes of a high schooler in Falls Church, Virginia, three time zones and some 3,000 miles away.

I often forget that as a writer, and as a podcaster, that my words are, for reasons still unbeknownst to me, read and listened to by individuals I’ve never met and likely never will. And sometimes those words carry a very real impact. I almost fell over when I was approached on the beach one morning by a parent who said her daughter’s entire volleyball team listens to the podcast I do with Tri Bourne.

I wanted to race to my laptop and edit out every curse word we’ve said.

I have been asked to write about many things, though failure is a new one. I find it curious that it comes from a teenager, though in many ways it makes a lot of sense. My high school days are not tremendously far in the rearview, though far enough to be rather different. This next generation is one of highlight shows and braggadocio and social media, where much of what they see are the glimmering facades of everybody’s else’s lives around them – expensive vacations, mouth-watering food, awards, achievements, accomplishments, highlights, highlights, highlights.

It’s becoming exceedingly rare that someone showcases their failures, as I did in the story Brittany mentioned. I felt a bit naked, to be honest, and it reminded me of a brilliant quote from best-selling author Neil Gaiman, who said, in a commencement speech in 2012: “The moment you feel that just possibly you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what’s going on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”

I’ve been asked a few times to write more about myself, but I get a bit squeamish, because one of the few things I genuinely loathe in this beautiful life we have is writing about myself.

But I am happy to become a bastion of failure.

I’ve found that people relate to failure far more than they do success. Failure is everywhere. Sometimes we have to search for success, to find it in the small nooks and crannies and cracks in life. Brittany and I have, as she mentioned, been playing volleyball almost the exact same amount of time. I’m just shy of four years – my first tournament was in June of 2014, a date I know because I moved to Florida in April of 2014 – and she’s about the same. We’re in a similar phase of volleyball development, so to speak: the macro skills are not mastered but no longer major problems, and now the steps of improvement are smaller, less noticeable, harder to find.

I cannot promise I will write on myself with regularity, though when inspiration should strike, I suppose I’ll let it happen every so often.

This is, essentially, a long-winded thank you to Brittany, for a wonderful email, one of my favorites I’ve received in quite some time. And if her English teacher happens to be reading this, this is also me putting in my two cents that Brittany get an A, for making a writer laugh and smile and stop eating breakfast to read the most unexpected of responses.

And yes, I’m happy to remain the Man in the Arena.