How did I end up on The Apprentice? This story is as interesting as anything that came after.
It’s the first Thursday in the eighth month of 2004 in Cincinnati. I’d been working and living in Ohio for a little over a year and had just stumbled upon a newspaper article mentioning that the hottest show on TV at the time, The Apprentice, was coming to Cincinnati to do a casting call the following day. While this seemed interesting to me, I never seriously considered it. I might as well try and be an astronaut.
Later that day, I saw a few friends– Sylvia and Scottie. They talked, in passing, about trying out for the show. My friend Scottie had a meeting, but Sylvia and I decided it would be a fun way to start our Friday morning. I got all dressed up in my finest (and only?) suit and head over to the Cincinnati Museum Center. Sylvia is already waiting there, and we agreed to trade places so she could attend to a meeting. I waited on-line for about an hour.
Once the doors open, we wait in an auditorium for another ~3 hours. Once it was our turn, we went into a large room in groups of 8 at one of 3 different tables. Each circular table had a casting director seated at it. I luckily sat directly across from the casting director, Jill, and waited for the fun to start. We went around introducing ourselves and since I happened to sit across the table from the casting director, I was able to make good eye contact, smile, and even managed to tell a joke. After introductions, Jill asked a question about the upcoming presidential election: “Bush, Kerry, why?” This was too easy. I had followed the election with the fervor others typically save for Super Bowls and World Series. I was the first one to speak up, slam my hand on the table, say my choice and strongly state 3 reasons why. Other people talk. I ask some of them questions, correct some of them. Before we sat down at the table, I had gotten to know the people in our group while we were on-line. So when one gentleman didn’t get a chance to talk, I pointed out that this wasn’t fair, and we should let him speak. I calmly controlled the flow of conversation.
Before I knew it, Jill thanked us and we were done. As we left, Jill said, “Surya,” paused, and “will you stay back a second?” And there it was. I knew. The others look over at me, and I try to look away. I move over to Jill and she smiles at me and tells me that she wants me to go in the back when I’ll get details on what to do next.
Fast forward 4 weeks to September. I’m flying home from Los Angeles on the 7:45 AM flight. The movie that’s playing is The Stepford Wives. And I’ve never, that I can recollect, felt this badly. There was this incredible and total emptiness within me. It was sharp and grating. The night before, less than an hour after learning my “fate,” that though I’d made it to the final round (~25 people for 18 spots), I was not selected, I went to bed. I woke up no less than 50 times that night. Each time from almost the exact same nightmare: That I had been at the finals in LA, and had made the show. Each time I woke up sharply, and realized, like a kick in the stomach each time, that it was only a dream, and the reality was the opposite. Seemingly every 10 minutes that night, it repeated itself. Every time I closed my eyes on that flight, I grew angrier at myself. It was starting. I could hear every single thing I had said in my interview with Mark Burnett and company. Everything that I didn’t say, but should have. The could’ves, would’ves, should’ves had started. And they wouldn’t stop. The three days that followed were unlike anything I could remember having experienced.
I should add at this point that my reaction was pretty jarring. I have always fashioned myself an intensely introspective, rational, balanced person. I don’t get too excited about great news. And I don’t get too sad about bad news. I loved reading books about buddhism, zen, etc. I believe the role of luck and randomness to be far too great in our lives for our successes or our failures to be wholy our own, and so I choose to strive to celebrate effort, not outcomes. But here, in this most bizarre of cases, this went out the window. I had tried to not want it. To, at every step along the way until they gave me the news that night, believe that the odds were against me and refuse to let me get ahead of myself. And that night I learned that was all for not. It doesn’t hurt any less even if you try not to hope for it. It’s human nature to race ahead. Steeling yourself from disappointment is often futile. And so my reaction was astoundingly strong. It shocked me.
I felt that I had my whole future ahead of me. And that I had in a short few minutes, based on everything “wrong” that I had said in my interviews, squandered all that away. At the time, The Apprentice was the hottest show on TV. Seemingly every former cast member was now a mega-superstar getting tons of offers, endorsement deals, and speaking everywhere. I felt that my entire life, every accomplishment, every lesson learned, every painful failure, all of it, had led up to that moment in my life. And I had let it slip. The eminem movie, 8 mile, was in my head.
“Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?”
That’s an intense thing to do to yourself. To carry around that you had just cultivated and executed the failure of a lifetime. It’s another if you’re delusional enough to believe that you had also let everyone around you down. I pictured how proud my parents would have been. How happy co-workers would have been. The reaction of all the teachers, mentors, and friends I’d ever had. And thought that by making the show I would have justified their faith in me. I then proceeded to carry around all this within me for the next 6 months. That first weekend back, I couldn’t even bring myself to staying at home. I sat in my condo when I got home Thursday night and literally stared at the wall. I realized that I couldn’t sit alone that weekend so I booked a flight home for the long Labor day weekend. I sat on my parents couch all weekend. My mom was incredibly worried. In all of my 22 years of life (I was just a baby!) to that point, she had never seen me so despondent. I’m normally a ridiculously cheery person around people. This was so not cheery. I knew that I was healthy. My family was healthy. I was unbelievably blessed. And it’s not that I was ungrateful for any of that (though in hindsight, wasn’t I?). It just stung so very shockingly badly.
While lying on that couch staring at the TV, I came across a Rocky marathon. Like every single movie. (Well maybe not Rocky V. You know the one where he and his family are poor, he would risk brain damage by fighting again, and yet he fights for free, in the street, anyway. For free. Yeah, brilliant move for your family, Rocky. So I don’t know if Rocky V was on or not, because I think that movie is a travesty. Moving on.) I sat there and watched hours of Rocky. One after the other. It had that effect. It did something. I found a notebook and I wrote furiously. It was my inspiration. The catalyst. I promised that this “failure” wasn’t the end, but the beginning of whatever it was that I wanted. And I promised myself that I would tear myself to pieces over the next 6 months in improving some things about myself, and in 6 months, I would make the cast of Apprentice 4.
I should also mention that I could not even bring myself to watching The Apprentice after this. Just watching it, raced my mind to what I would have done. To picturing myself in their shoes, giving interviews or taking part in a challenge. It was too much. In fact, I not only gave up The Apprentice, but all TV.
So I did that: I obsessed. Eventually there would actually be some days where I didn’t even think about The Apprentice. But only some. There was a pawl over my days. And honestly, I didn’t want it gone either. I didn’t want to go soft. I didn’t make that cycle of The Apprentice either. I had sent in a tape. Tracked down Jill’s phone number. Even driven up to a casting call in Columbus. Nothing.
Six months later.
I thought about the disappointment less and less. But I was still not the same person. I said I was done w/the show. But it hung there. Over my life. I couldn’t forget this failure. I couldn’t forget that lost opportunity. To this day, I’m not sure what haunted me: Was it that I had failed? Or the fact that I wasn’t going to take part in what I saw as a life-changing opportunity? At the last minute, in the span of a day, I made another tape and sent it in. Nothing.
Six months later.
Same deal. The silence this time may have stung even more in this third “rejection.” I promised myself that I had to move on. I had an amazing job, worked with incredible people, had good friends, and a family people would kill for. I promised myself that I would move on. No one should live life beating themselves up every day, and fixating on a single goal.
Six months later.
The email popped in to my gMail like any of the 100 or so I’d get in a week. But this one had a subject that made me stop cold. “Apprentice”. You see Randal Pinkett the season 4 winner was from Rutgers (my alma mater). He was going to headline a casting call for alumni that they were going to do for Apprentice at Rutgers a day before the NYC try-outs. I looked at it for five minutes. I wondered about the absurdity of this email ending up in my box. I thought about it. My friend Angela knowing how close I had come previously, forwarded the email to me. I thought long and hard about it. And so, against everything that I had said, I flew to NJ. I went to the call. And I made an impression. I did more interviews. I was back in LA. This time after over 18 months of thinking about it, my interviews with Burnett and Trump went so smoothly that it wasn’t even funny. Saying I killed it would be an understatement. Like saying I blew it 18 months earlier and had a tough time w/that wouldn’t do that justice, either.
What followed over the next few months could only be described as surreal.
5/11/13 – It’s easy to see why I had such a hard time: It was my first real defeat. I had never put myself out there before and failed. For example, I applied and was admitted to two in-state colleges and that was that. My failures were things that I never really deeply cared about. Little things like a lost election freshman year, a job I applied for, etc. Aside from being inept with women that I liked, I hadn’t put myself out there all that much, and when I had, I was fortunate enough to find success. As I re-read this entry, the memories still feel so real. I’ve had more staggering setbacks since these, and they’ve come more frequently through the years. I like to think that it’s the result of reaching for bigger goals. Today, I’m embarrassed by how seriously I took such a stupid show. I get that it was more about my own tenacity and proving to myself that I could make than it was ever about the show, but still. It’s weird and a bit unnerving to thing that someone as cartoonish as Donald Trump will end up being part of a major phase of my life.