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Fusing technology, arts, and entrepreneurship to celebrate the essential and enduring qualities of the human spirit.
This morning, I stumbled upon an ad for the University of Southern California’s newest program in the July issue of WIRED. Two hours later, after voraciously consuming all of the content the one-page website has to offer, sending a link to the article to 20+ people and drooling a little on my laptop, I’m still at a loss for how to use my little blog to convey my
excitement, no, relief is really a better word for it, at catching a glimpse of a breath of real innovation in higher education.
If you know me, or you’ve read a little of my blog, you know that I carry around a set of credentials (an art degree and a business degree) that most people seem to view as oil and vinegar. I am frequently asked questions like “Why did you switch from art to business?” as if the two vast disciplines can be distinguished, preferred and mutually excluded, my decision amounting to an educational costume change - the ceremonial tossing of my stereotypical beret and dark-rimmed glasses aside in favor of a well-pressed pantsuit.
I’m not surprised by how often I’m asked that question and others like it, because our institutions of learning have, for the most part, completely compartmentalized their products to the extent that students are forced to choose between complementary and overlapping disciplines in order to graduate with a degree. I’m a perfect example of this system; I have two degrees, from two different colleges in the same university. During my time in each program, I was kept completely segregated from the populations of the other six distinct schools of study, save for a few required undergraduate “All-University-Curriculum” lectures that most people either skipped or slept through. The concept may be well-intentioned, but we miss so many opportunities in the execution.
Too many students graduate with an understanding of a few molecules in their area of specialization, but having never seen the strength of the bonds they are capable of forming, the relationships between disciplines. If we want to even attempt to think in a truly creative and original process, it is essential that we cultivate not just a knowledge of but a passion for art, business, science, engineering, mathematics, music, philosophy, psychology, theology, and so on. That’s why reading about the new USC program makes me wish I was a high school junior again, looking for my next home away from home. Bravo, USC, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre.
The Practice of Satisfaction
"Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday." - Winnie the Pooh
As I was writing the last post, I was already planning the triumphant “Well, I Did It!” post. The poignant, humble and reflective-without-sounding-overly-accomplished words I assumed I would write would accompany my nervous walk across the stage, as I proudly wore my funny hat and rented graduation robe, and a hood so unnecessarily complicated that we joked that we deserved an additional graduate certificate for having figured out how to display it properly. My last post was easy to write. I hadn’t actually graduated yet, so it was easy to believe that by the time I did, I would still be content to answer “I don’t know” to the most popular question I’ve been asked in the last six months: “So what’s next?”
Graduation came and went over a week ago. I didn’t write the “I Did It” post then, and I’m not going to write it today. It’s not that I don’t want to celebrate my accomplishment, although for those who know me, you know that doing so doesn’t come naturally. I didn’t write that post for the same reason I don’t do a lot of things; I was convinced that whatever I said had to succinctly but eloquently sum up the past twenty-two months of my graduate experience, be both witty and reflective and serve as a meaningful lesson to my future self and others, all in 4 paragraphs or less. In other words, it had to be perfect. When I couldn’t figure out how to make it perfect, I couldn’t even begin to write it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism throughout this journey, and decided to write about it today after reading a post by Vanessa Cogshall on Tiny Buddha that describes the debilitating mental effects of perfectionism with extreme precision. Ms. Cogshall describes herself as a “recovering perfectionist,” a label I hope to wear someday but cannot apply today with any honesty. I’ve hidden behind perfectionism for as long as I can remember. Many people assume that perfectionism comes from strict and demanding parents, but mine seemed to be part of my innate structure, like chromosomes and blood cells. When I was very young, my parents actually worked hard to relieve the immense pressure I put on myself by assuring me that they were proud of my A-s and B+s, and that it was okay to make mistakes when I was practicing piano, as long as I was enjoying the music. This would work temporarily, but only until the next goal - and the next potential for failure - became apparent.
I’ve kept this internal pressure at the boiling point for the past twenty-nine years, and I’ve told myself that it’s the reason I’ve been able to accomplish things like getting a Masters degree while working full-time, but the truth is that being a perfectionist is exhausting, unhealthy and unsustainable. As proud as I am of the things I’ve done this year, I can point to so many things I want to do that I haven’t even started, simply because I might have to settle for a end result that is “good enough” instead of “perfect.” When I find myself incapable of making that choice, I miss the opportunity completely and end up with nothing to show for the mental anguish I’ve caused myself.
Allowing myself to feel truly satisfied with where I am and who I am in this moment, and to practice staying in that moment, is more important now than any of the “next steps” that traditionally follow a graduation. I expect this journey will be much harder than the one I just completed, but I hope to find it even more rewarding.
Inside the Hive
There are 71 days between today and my graduation ceremony. I know that there are 71 days because I keep refreshing this web page on my phone, encouraged as I anticipate the return of Thursday nights and Saturdays, sleep and maybe even a social life (however unlikely.)
People keep asking me what I’m going to “do with my MBA,” as if the diploma is the critical ingredient in some world-changing concoction I am expected to manufacture, thereby proving it was worth sitting in a classroom for two years and amassing all that debt.
I have never known how to answer this question. It is narrow in its implication that I am required by the Masters Degree Gods to immediately change jobs upon graduating. I am still learning, challenged and motivated in my current job, and in today’s market, I know very well how fortunate I am to be able to say that. It is uninformed in its premise that I will not begin to apply the knowledge acquired in graduate school until I am done. I have been working full-time throughout the program, and in that time have completed many projects I would not have been able to manage without the skills I learned in my last class. And it is ignorant in its presumption that I went to graduate school to learn how to step on other people on my way up the corporate ladder (in case there’s any doubt about that, I did not, and that’s not actually what they teach in business school.)
And yet I do agree that in a greater sense, accomplishing this goal is an opportunity for reflection. Am I making the most of the chances that are given to me? How do I learn from this experience to be a better leader/daughter/friend/partner/etc.? How do I pay forward the gifts others have shared with me? I don’t have the answers to any of these questions either, but my nightstand is supporting a pile of books like this to help me harness my thoughts into something productive.
The title of this blog was inspired by something I use in meditation, when my mind is full of unanswered questions and disorganized thoughts. It’s no secret that I want to be a beekeeper (why is a story for another post,) and that in many ways, I think bees are smarter than people. When I am overwhelmed and anxious about the future, my mind is like an unhealthy beehive. Without a leader (a queen bee), the inhabitants of the hive run in all different directions, making lots of noise without getting much of anything done.
When I meditate, I visualize a healthy, swarming hive, in which the voices of individual bees are indistinguishable. Each bee is completely focused on performing its work, which it does in order to sustain the hive. It’s not a competition to get ahead. No bee sits in the corner of the hive complaining “What’s in this for me? I work so much harder than the other bees. I have a masters degree and they treat me like just another drone. No one ever notices me in this hive. My life is so unfair.” Self-absorbed bees would never be tolerated in a hive. In fact, when a bee stops contributing, it is immediately and unsentimentally removed by the other bees (for more about bee behavior and its applicability to us, read this book.)
Ultimately I think my answer to the “what will I do next” question will not be about using my degree to get the next bigger and better and fancier thing. It will be about applying my skills in a more meaningful way, and one that does some good for people beyond myself. I don’t need to know right now how I will accomplish that; I just need to keep an open mind, and remember that I can do anything for 71 days.
In business, when we learn about strategic planning, all we are really studying is the art of articulating a vision - first to ourselves, then to other people in our organization, then to people outside of our organization who have an interest in what we are doing. Every great vision starts with a simple idea, and every great innovation is simply the result of a person or a team of people who are willing to do whatever it takes to make the idea come to life.
What if we took this concept and applied it to education? We lament over the collective national lack of interest in science and mathematics, but maybe all we need to do is get a little better at communicating our vision to our youngest and brightest minds. Instead of forcing bored teenagers to memorize periodic tables, what if we started by showing them what humans are capable of creating when they possess a basic understanding of the building blocks of life?
Take “Big Idea #2” from the attached WIRED article, for example. We can teach anyone that a proton combined with an electron creates hydrogen, but why do we expect them to care if they have no concept of how a single molecule of hydrogen is relevant to them? But if instead, we open with, “We can create enough free fuel for the entire planet as long as we have sunlight,” maybe now we’ve captured their interest long enough to teach them how a battery works.
I’m sure there are many great educators who are already doing this, and I applaud them. I can’t help but think that if we enthusiastically encouraged and funded this type of approach, we’d have more aspiring scientists, mathematicians, technologists and innovators than we’d know what to do with.