I have been discouraged three times this month. The first time was on a flight from Atlanta back to Cincinnati. I was reading the August issue of Communications of the ACS and I was in awe of all of the amazing things that were happening in the world of computing. As inspired as I was, I could not help but feel that I completely wasted my undergraduate education by getting a BS in psychology. All the time I spent writing papers, reading about loosely supported theories, and naively thinking that it was going to get me somewhere in life. I could have been studying something that I cared about while my brain was still fresh. I could have been learning skills that would have allowed me to make an impact. Instead, I didn’t learn much of anything. I can not honestly tell you what I learned during my degree program, as many of the facts, theories, and ideas that I spent so many nights cramming into my brain have escaped me over the last few years.
The second time, I was reading the September Issue of MIT Technology Review where they showcased 35 under 35. The 35 brightest, smartest, most inspiring, and driven people (according to some committee). Their stories were amazing, the work that they were doing was inspiring, and once again I was in awe of all of their accomplishments. And once again I questioned my decision to study psychology.
The third time was this morning, when in my third graduate course I realized that the professor was completely disengaged from the class, and once again the only skills that I would be getting out of this program are the ones that I teach myself.
There are far to many bends in my story to really summarize the feelings that I have about the course of my life so far, but I cannot help feeling like I wasted the best years of my life in fruitless pursuits. So, in order to not feel that way I am going to write about it, and conclude with a positive message, so stay tuned.
After a brief semester of community college after high school, I realized I would never be able to afford college on my own, I would never be able to have the “college experience”, and I needed to make a change in order to reach my goals (which were still undefined at this point). I joined the military. It was the best decision of my life because I met some amazing people, I learned many important skills for life, and I did meaningful work. During this time, I took a handful of college classes on base and realized that if I excluded any notion of a social life for the next several years, then I could potentially graduate while I was still in the military. So I did, I took a full time course load year round and went to school during the night, on the weekends, and Online. I chose psychology because at a school like this it was the closest thing to science that they had. Also I toyed with the idea of becoming a psychologist afterwards.
During the last semester of my undergraduate education, I realized that this psychology degree would prove to be quite useless, and it would not really allow me to reach any of my goals (which had changed at this point). By this point I spent 4 years in a hospital and was determined to become a doctor. Despite finishing my undergraduate degree, I never felt that I “went to college”. I never got to do all of the interesting things that people always talk about when they refer to their college experience. In addition, I was naive in thinking that “a degree is a degree”, even though I didn’t necessarily go to a degree farm, the degree I got would never receive the respect that I thought it would.
I enrolled in more night classes and began to take the pre-requisites that would be required in order to get into Medical School. This went well, and I fell in love with Chemistry. For the first time in my life I felt challenged, interested, and was surrounded by faculty that was engaged and actually cared about the students learning. I got the crazy idea of getting a second degree in chemistry. So when my contract ran out with the military, I enrolled in a chemistry program in Cincinnati and was going to relive the college experience at the age of 23.
This was a complete failure. Don’t get me wrong, the school was great, the faculty was great, and the subject was fascinating. But I was too old to be in freshman chemistry, and on top of that I felt like I took two steps backward. On top of that, Calculus and Physics kicked my ass, and the further along I got the more discouraged I became. I spend a year working in a chemistry lab, it was an amazing experience. But other than the few fleeting moments of inspiration and joy, I would place the time I spent there as a failure. Which is fine, because we have to fail in life sometimes.
I dug myself into a hole, and my GPA became lower than it was when I graduated. I didn’t have a plan B. Then I got a job offer, and it was a life changing moment. I love my job in every sense of the word. I feel like I am doing meaningful work, It is challenging, and interesting, and I am learning more and more each day. But my educational aspirations have not escaped me, which is why I was discouraged the third time this morning.
Despite my experience with my Alma mater, and knowing what to expect in terms of quality of education, faculty engagement, and peers, I enrolled for a Masters program. So far, it is exactly what I expected which is not saying too much. I do not feel inspired, I do not feel like I am in a community of scholars, or thought leaders. I do not feel driven, I do not feel anything. It’s partially my own fault. Whenever someone asks me “Where are you going to school?”, I mumble the name and try to explain that “it’s not like those other on-line schools”, but… it is.
So I have created this cycle of self loathing, and self pity. Which is frankly absurd. Yes, I did not go to MIT or Harvard. Yes, I will probably never get into any of these schools. Yes, it is likely that life will never be as interesting, or exciting as it would have been if I would have went to one of those schools and got the education or built the connections that allow life to be interesting, and exciting. But this is all irrelevant, and I am completely missing the point. My life was never supposed to be easy. From the moment my parents brought us here from a war torn ex-soviet state, only to have their degrees and credentials stripped and be placed into crappy minimum wage factory jobs, the writing was on the wall. My brother and I would always have to work twice as hard to get anywhere, and we do. I finally realize that the people who went to Harvard who are successful are not successful because they went to Harvard. They are successful because they are driven, passionate, and want to change the world. Likewise, the people that are successful who went to my “not that kind of” on-line school are successful because of the same exact reasons that the people who went to Harvard are successful.
Success can be measured it many different ways. Some people measure their success in the amount of “stuff” that they accumulate over the course of their lifetime. A vehicle, a home, fancy shirts, or trophy wives. Other people measure their success by who they know, where they have been, or where they are. Others measure their success based on the level of impact they have made on society and humanity as a whole. There are even those people who measure their success based off of how other people perceive their success. The latter is in my opinion the worst place to be, because even if you succeed, it is short lived and you will spend the rest of your life attempting to win over the crowd a second time.
I want my success to measured by the impact I make in the world. So I will continue to go to my school, I will continue to spend late nights reading about topics that I may not necessarily care about, and I will continue to do everything in my power to reach my goals (which are clearly defined at this point). The reason why I will continue to do all of these things is because I want to change the world. You can’t change the world sitting around second guessing your life decisions, or crying about the way things ended up.
Everything that was challenging in my life, everything that was unfair, and everything that took a little bit of extra work has made me who I am today. The only thing stopping me from reaching my goals is myself. I will never again excuse myself for going to the school I go to. It may not be a U.S World and New’s Report Top 10 school, but I am proud of my school. The amount of time I spend feeling uninspired by my teachers and peers will instead be spent fostering a community of scholars. I will never again second guess my decision to study psychology, because I have a degree that I earned, and not everyone can say that. I will never again be discouraged by the things that I don’t have, or the things that I didn’t get to do – because this is nonsense. The amount of time I would have spent feeling sorry for myself will instead be put to good use.
Look out world, because I am going to finish this degree, and then get my PhD from a “non-traditional” school, and there is nothing you can do about it.
If you made it this far, you should probably follow me on twitter. 🙂 Follow @levlaz