Summarizing the past year

Sorry to disappoint my skeptically inquiring readers, but I love reading my weekly Freewill Astrology post.

Rob Brezsny's Libra posts for the last three weeks have swirled around the idea of a cycle ending, taking stock, and looking ahead. Here's how his Aug 12, 2010, reading put it:

If you and I were sitting face to face and I asked you, "What are the most important lessons you've learned these last 11 months?", what would you tell me? I think you need this type of experience: an intense and leisurely conversation with a good listener you trust -- someone who will encourage you to articulate the major developments in your life since your last birthday. Here are some other queries I'd pose: 1. How have you changed? 2. What long-term process needs to come to a climax? 3. What "school" are you ready to graduate from? (And by "school" I mean any situation that has been a hotbed of learning for you.)

Well, of course, the use of the word "school" got my attention. And I think he's right about looking at the sweep of the last year for the big lessons, rather than picking away at the details of this or that assignment., or becoming obsessed with today's details while not acknowledging what has happened to me. I think I had a bit of that conversation on my last call with Cairene, and my just recently ended coaching relationship with Christine also raised some good thoughts about the experience.

So, what are the most important lessons I've learned since August 2009? No doubt I'll come back to this post as more stuff floats to mind. No doubt I'm missing more than a few.

  • Good friends are invaluable. Safe places are always needed. Even though I really couldn't afford the time to do it, I spent one day a week at my old job, where they had kept me on part-time. The extra money was valuable, of course, but simply walking into a place where I felt competent, where people were happy to see me and asked me about what was going on, where I could help out on a project in a pinch -- it did so much for my sense of wholeness. It was a cooling balm. My self-image didn't have to rely only on what was feeding back to me from school, which I often interpreted, rightly or (mostly) wrongly, as negative.
  • But you need to leave the safe places, too. There's Grace Hopper's famous quote about ships being safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are for. As welcome as my Friday visits to the office were, one of the reasons I went for the degree was that I had reached the limits of my safe job.
  • The universal answer: "It Depends." This is the punchline to most any question posed in classroom discussions. There are too many variables to most situations and so there can be no definitive answers; but there can be better answers for some situations.
  • Be clear about why you're doing anything. There's a famous theatrical anecdote (about George S. Kaufman?) where he was brought in by the producers of a show that was in trouble. "We think there's problems with the second act," they told him. After watching the show, he said, "The problem with the second act is the first act." In my case, I was never really clear about why I wanted the PhD -- what was it going to do for me? How would it serve as a bridge from where I was to where I wanted to be? The PhD is the means, not the end. By starting out not being clear about my goal, I set myself up for the problems I faced later.
  • If your Why is strong enough, you can put up with any What. I think I first saw that phrase in one of Christine's blog posts. One of the main problems of PhD school is simply persisting in the face of many obstacles. If you know why you're doing this thing, you'll put up with whatever you must put up with to get it. It's simply the price you've agreed to pay.
  • Indecision causes suffering. My first coach was PJ Eby, and this is one of his oft-related pieces of advice that I've found useful at work, school, and even when diagnosing character motivations in short stories. I never wholeheartedly said yes to the PhD, which divided my energies and made me susceptible to the pressures. I read one economics gradschool writer who said it's actually a good idea to burn all your bridges and not have a safety net if gradschool doesn't work out -- that way, the only direction to go is forward. You are forced to commit all of your resources to the schoolwork and your research. In this case, it may be that my lifeline back to my old job did me no favors. And even through the spring, I was talking to professors and PhDs about their experiences, trying to find some inspiration or reason to keep going.
  • Know thyself. One of the things I noticed with the other students ahead of me, and other PhDs I talked to, was they all said "You'll enjoy it more when you're done with classes and can get to your own research." But but but...I like classes! That's what I like best about school! I also discovered that I was mostly curious about the PhD experience and I wanted that curiosity satisfied. Consider that desire satisfied.
  • Deadlines and accountability work wonders for your productivity. The Accomplished Dr. Cassidy taught me that lesson: you have to put pressure on yourself. Send in the poster proposal before your data is in so it forces you to do the work. Otherwise, you'll wait and spend time to make it perfect instead of getting it done. As I look back over the time I've been in school (since the summer of 2006), I'm kind of amazed at how much work I've produced, its variety, and the various experiences I've undergone because of it. Left on my own, I'd probably have spent the last years watching Green Hornet videos on YouTube and puttering in my office. And making myself more miserable about my lack of productivity in the process. One of my personal challenges now is finding the right blend of activity and rest and accountability that will keep me producing things, but without the crippling stress.
  • Time will always be wasted. No matter how busy I was, no matter how much I tried to use my commute time to good effect, I still wasted what felt like to me vast amounts of time. I never got the feeling I was working smartly or efficiently; instead, I was working effortfully. Perhaps because I was working on the wrong things? Or that I felt so busy and deadlines felt so short, I had no brainspace left to work out how to do it better?
  • I'm not as smart as I thought I was. Or maybe I'm smart at other things. I took statistics in the Sociology department (reputed to be the toughest stats course on campus) and was astonished at how smart I was not. I quickly reached the limits of my capacity and felt increasingly humiliated when I confronted homework problems that I could barely understand, let alone calculate. This was a different experience for me, as I'd been sailing through most of my other classes up to this point. This, I think, is what most adults who go back to school fear that their experience will be like. Looking back, I could have probably done better if I'd had one fewer course and an extra 20 hours in the week to read the book more closely, do the work, and find supplemental explanations for the concepts. The goal of both stats courses was simply to nudge people a little further along, no matter their starting point, and I certainly do know more now than I did then.
  • Have a support team. During my darker days of the spring, I worked weekly with an in-person counselor and carried on email conversations with an academic coach. And of course, there are the always supportive friends and family and fellow students, who are more than happy to commiserate.
  • Self-care. I learned better how to take care of myself during stressful times. One of the keys being to somehow change panic mode to problem-solving mode. I took one of Havi's ideas for the Book of Me and compiled lists of methods, quotes, ideas, questions, etc. that I could use when I needed a pick-me-up. It also helped me to see a catalog of stuff I "knew" but couldn't always bring to mind when I needed it. Some days, I looked through it often. Lately, now that I'm out of the day-to-day hard stuff, I've not picked it up. But I keep it close by. Another bountiful source of methods to use when in a personal crisis can be found in David Burns' books, Feeling Good and When Panic Attacks, both of which offer mounds of techniques and tools for reducing the anxiety caused by over-thinking and over-imagining.
  • "The end is not fixed." The quote that Ben Casnocha produces in this post summed up some of the best and simplest advice. Liz loved that idea, that the end is not yet written.
  • The experience will fulfill you. Another mantra I held on to, that came from one of my counselors and that I duly wrote in my Book of Me. One of the thoughts here being that the fulfillment may not come soon, may not come for years, but that it will come and then I'll understand the lesson the experience was teaching me. Looking back over the last decades of my adulthood, particularly the bad stuff that caused me pain at the time, I can see the truth of that statement. If nothing else, this experience forced me to deal with a lot of dirt that came up. These were issues that would not have come up otherwise, and that I would not have had to deal with. The PhD hastened my self-education, which I believe is a good thing.