Doing the Work to Support Your Own Growth

I went to college at the University of Chicago. I have no doubt that I was better prepared than some of my classmates, but in the self-absorption of youth, I didn’t notice that. I did notice that I was far less prepared than many others. I had attended a decent public school and done well, but the content in my first year college classes was mostly new to me. Many of my classmates, on the other hand, were essentially reviewing things they’d learned at their more competitive high schools.

At the time, this felt deeply unfair. With the benefit of hindsight (my first year of college was more than 25 years ago!) and the comfort of knowing that everything turned out OK, I have a more sanguine view. Since the material was new to me, and I was expected to understand it at a much deeper level than I’d ever before needed to master, my choices were clear. Either I learned how to study effectively, or I became at best a C student.

I’m not sure what made me chose option A, but during the first two quarters of my first year, I did learn how to study effectively. Luckily for  me, there were quite a few resources available to help me. There were tutors to help me fill in the gaps in my knowledge, there were professors and TAs who expected and accommodated some floundering from first year students, and there was a free college counseling service that helped me work through some of the non-academic issues holding me back.

With the help of these resources, I learned how to study really, really well. I became an A/A- student again. When I got to the third year of college, I reaped the rewards of this effort. In my major (biological chemistry), third year meant inorganic chemistry. We were now learning material that no one had seen before, except the two kids whose parents were science professors. I remained an A/A- student. Many of my classmates did not. Even then, I knew that part of the reason for this was that I’d been forced to learn how to do the work of mastering a new topic, while many of my classmates were able to rely on prior knowledge and had not learned this skill.

I’m all for classes that use the techniques shown to best support learning, and I am a strong advocate for providing more resources to help students make the transition from high school to college. However, truly learning new things is work, and at some point, the student has to take ownership of that work. In many ways, I was fortunate to have had to do that early in my college career, when there were resources available to help me, and when most classes were structured in a way that allowed students to make up for poor performance on the early work.

I don’t want to read to much into this story. After all, some of my classmates no doubt learned to “own the work” during their more competitive high school experiences. Some of my classmates learned it in our third year. Some people never learn it.

However, it was certainly an experience that has stuck with me. When I’m chaffing against what feels like an unfair expectation, I stop and ask myself if maybe I’m being asked to own a new type of work. If I am, the next question is whether this is work I should rightfully own. Often it is.

This is what I thought of when the excellent @DrQualls tweeted this quote:

The quote really resonated with me. Having a famous PhD advisor can certainly give you a leg up in your career. Many hiring managers put too much emphasis on pedigree and not enough on a more nuanced appraisal of people’s skills and potential. There is a profound problem with both explicit and implicit bias in hiring and assigning other career rewards.

However, even against a backdrop of all of those unfair things, there remains this fundamental truth: no one can tell you what you should do with your life. No one can tell you what you should be aiming for in your career. No one can tell you what trade offs are and are not acceptable to you as you pursue your career. No one can tell you how to build a life that will be meaningful and right for you.

Each of us has to do figure those things out for ourselves. We have to do our own growing.

These are not easy questions, and when I first found myself confronting them, it felt deeply unfair. I had done everything “right,” so why was a struggling in my career? But the truth was, this was another instance where I needed to own the work. I can look for advisors and resources to help me, but in the end, I have to do the work of figuring out what matters to me, finding a career path that provides a plausible road to obtaining what matters, and then developing the skills needed to advance along that path. I have had the good fortune to work with a couple of great career coaches and some wonderful mentors over the course of my career, but they could only help me identify the work I needed to do. I had to actually do that work on my own.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this work, but I think it will be a lifelong endeavor. Growing the necessary self-knowledge and career skills is uncomfortable, and sometimes downright scary. The stakes feel very high, because they are high. I need to maintain a certain amount of career success to support my family. But it is analogous to the situation I faced in my first year of college, when I needed to grow my study skills, and once again, my choices are clear. I can do the work, or I can accept the consequences of avoiding it.  I will choose to do the work every time. As I learned in college, doing the work comes with definite rewards.


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