The Debt-Free PhD

A few months ago, I received a great book that questioned, “Where will you be five years from today?” What an exciting thought! So much can happen of the course of five years, 1,826 fruitful days.

The author continually probed and provoked, question after question. What is my calling, my life’s aim? What inspires me? What are my core values? Which activities are they urging me to pursue? How can I help others? How can I find personal fulfillment? What’s the best means of achieving my full potential.

I revisit the book each week, contemplating questions, completing activities, and pondering the future, my future. Sometimes we get so caught up in the busyness of what we think needs to be done that we forget to tend to the things that we actually want to do. Maybe instead of waiting for opportunity to come knocking (or open the door on which you’ve been so persistently banging), it’s time to decide what’s next in your life and strategize how to get it.

I really, really want to go to graduate school. I want to obtain a PhD in Social Psychology and spend five to seven years working 16-hour days on projects that I’m intensely passionate about. I want to be engulfed in academics and surrounded by thoughtful, intelligent people. I want to make discoveries that will help improve people’s lives. I want to perform research, I want to teach, I want write, and I want to inspire. There is nothing I want more. Actually, it’s strong than a mere wantWhen I break down my values, strengths, and skills, I’m confident that it really would be the ideal situation for me. And upon graduation, I’ll be able to go out and continue to discover, share, and inspire.

I began the doctoral application process my senior year of college. I enrolled in a graduate school preparation course, asked my professors dozens of questions, talked to current graduate students, and contacted the professors whose programs I was most interested in. And then I got cold feet.

What if no one accepts me? What if can’t get any financial aid? Is this even worth it? What if, even after another degree, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life?

I’ve started asking myself: What’s the worse that could happen? It took me some time, but I have my answers. If I’m not accepted into a single program, at least I can say that I tried. If I can’t get financial aid, there are always student loans and on-campus work opportunities. If I were to dedicate several years and significant sums of money to educating myself and exit the program without a single job offer, I would still be happy with my decision.

This summer, I took Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course. I’ve never had any interest in finances, but I know that money management is an important skill. It was a great course; however, I was shocked to hear education classified as a want, rather than a need. Having completed college fully scholarshiped, maybe I simply can’t fully grasp the idea of student debt. Though I disagree that education is merely a “want,” it led me to thinking… What if I could go to graduate school without going in to debt? What if I could achieve all my goals without worrying about money?

Several months ago, I bombarded everyone in my life with the idea of somehow earning a significant amount of money within the next year or two and then using that money to fund my education. Every single person shot it down. “You can’t earn $100,000 in a year, or whatever you’re aiming for.”

Why not?

I have a novel under my belt. Nowhere near publishable, but it has strong points and it’s something I could work on developing. 

I’ve been blogging for long enough to know what I’m doing. Several people out there blog for a living. Maybe I’m on to something and don’t even realize it yet. 

I’ve done writing, editing, tutoring, and life coaching both paid and unpaid. Maybe that’s an avenue I could pursue. Is “professional experience” truly better than passion-driven experience?

I have several ideas for services, products, and online platforms. I don’t have the attention span or the skill set to follow through on any at this point, but maybe if I dabble around with them a bit more, something will click.  

As of today, I have a full-time job, a part-time job, and a handful of miscellaneous writing, editing, and tutoring gigs, most of which fell into my lap over the past 48 hours. (See what happens when you pout?) My non-existent social life has just slipped even further into oblivion. I am absolutely thrilled for the regular schedule, extra income, and opportunity to learn new skills. 

I’ve said before, I’m overly ambitious and often juggle more things at a time than I can manage. What if I could fit all my small goals into a larger framework? Instead of choosing between graduate school and creative endeavors, what if I relabel my aimless pursuits as stepping stones towards personal fulfillment and possible graduate school funders? And if I choose not to attend grad school, I’ll still have actually done something, and built up a hefty savings.

Instead of feeling guilty for writing, sketching, dreaming, or catching up with friends, maybe I need to reframe those activities as means of shaping my future self, a scenario in which every choice is the right one.

The first step of my plan was to sign up for the Graduate Record Examinations. Done! I’ve been in contact with a few professors whom I’m interested in working with, I have a completed GRE study guide that plan to review, and I began applying as a college senior so I understand the process. Maybe this isn’t as daunting as I’ve painted it all up to be in my head. Since applying to graduate school can be stressful, leisure activities and fun projects, exercise, getting adequate amount of sleep, and eating healthfully will help keep me sane. Awesome! Everything I do – in some way, shape, or form – will guide me towards my debt-free PhD. That is, until I change my mind and decide to travel abroad, start my own business, or pursue something else completely. Setting a goal, any goal, is a great way to promote productivity and that sense of doing something that we all inherently long for.

Anyways, as I mentioned above, my life has all of a sudden become pretty crazy. For the next two weeks, between my full-time and part-time job I’ll be juggling 16-hour work days , so I may be MIA for awhile. For good reasons, though. I’m practicing for graduate school!


Sails and Shackles

The happiest day of my life.

In the time leading up to, and following graduation, my life was spilling over with hope and possibility. The day I graduated college was the happiest day of my life. It’s what I’d spent my life preparing for. In that moment, I was invincible. I was going places. I was capable of changing the world, making it a better place. And I would.

Where did that eager anticipation disappear to?

When did landing a full-time job become such a pipe dream? Is this what I’ve worked so hard to achieve? Moving back into parents’ home, borrowing their car, and barely being able afford food and necessities, let alone save money for future education, travel, or far-off retirement. 

Rather than glamorous sunsets illuminating endless boulevards and glowing auroras dancing upon desolate hilltops, the sky has gone cold and blank. Dreams have been shifted, shattered, and sifted until only the tiniest fragments remain. Maybe I can rework those shards into something new. Maybe…

The greatest philosophers would suggest that a life charred at the edges is made more luminous at its core. Perhaps that’s true. If so, it would inevitably take time and effort to chisel away at that roughly abused exterior. Is it even worth the effort? As I hack away at my shell, I’m beginning to believe it’s a futile task, done completely in vain. I do believe adversity can lead to growth, but then what are you supposed to do with your new realizations?

Sleeping things are beautiful –  a newborn baby as his chest rises and falls, the bud of a flower building up the energy for its grand début, an old dog as his legs tremble with excitement, the love of your life as she lies beside you in the early dawn. Might yet unrealized potential be the same? Laying dormant, building up. Simple, beautiful. Invisible. Maybe my current situation – which I perceive as a masterful failure – is a sleeping beauty, a butterfly patiently awaiting the chipping away of its asphyxiating crust.

The blustering winds that were scheduled to fill my sails and carry me away never arrived. Will they ever? While consulting maps and forecasts, while sorting through and considering the other options, thick vines emerged from the deck and grabbed hold with irresistible force. Stagnant and shackled, overcome by the gentle torture of watching my hopes and dreams slowly drain from my side of the hourglass into someone else’s half-full glass. Where did I go wrong? What could I have done differently? Where can I find a community garden at which I can go and pluck an assortment of new hopes and dreams?

A particular light emanates and encapsulates. Dull and yellowed beige. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They said: maintain a high GPA, take honors courses, build relationships with professors, obtain experience in your chosen field, join clubs, volunteer, network, attend job fairs, put yourself out there. You’ll be set when you graduate, you’ll secure a decent (though less-than-ideal) job within three months, we’re sure of it! The cruelest of lies. No one knew, I can’t blame them.

If you know a soon-to-be graduate, I beg you not to tell them things will work out. Entering the “real world” with a bouquet of balloons, lifted to the skies by hope, and then slowly watching each burst into oblivion is devastating, heartbreaking. Even for the gleaming optimists and sliver lining searchers. Clarity and sharpness. Intensity and fullness. Depth and poignancy. Compassion. Intelligence. Experience. Articulation. Drive. All null and void. Completely worthless. Conventional advice is no longer applicable.

Is it really the economy? Or is it just me? Though I already know the answer, it’s a hard question to evade. Of all the applicants out there, I should be towards the top of the pile. After two years of searching, over 400 applications across a variety of fields, and far more networking and “putting myself out there” than I’m comfortable with, why is the best I can do a part-time, minimum-wage gig, for which I’m far overqualified? How am I not competent for unpaid volunteer work, performing tasks that I actually enjoy? Somebody explain this to me, please.

What happened? Where can I find that vivacious breeze filled with pockets of possibility? I can huff and puff until my lungs give out, but I can’t get this ship moving without a little help, without a gentle push.

Life feels like a joke with no punchline. I keep waiting, and waiting…for something to laugh at, for something worth smiling over, for opportunities, for my deflated sails to billow out again and propel me into a future drenched by unlimited possibilities.

The Cultivation of Creativity

Human ingenuity is endless. We harbor an intrinsic need to create and to affect our world, to build a legacy, to be remembered. Popular wisdom tells us to think BIG, dream BIG, and to follow through regardless of obstacles that lie in our path. Nearly everyone would believe that passion will move you in the direction of your authentic self, and that honesty in creativity will lead to success. But how much of that is true? Are there, perhaps, other factors that aren’t being taken into consideration?

Creativity is the purposeful generation and implementation of a novel idea, or as Justin Vernon so poetically defines it, “Creativity is about unfurling into yourself – an act of becoming.”

This is not a plug and cord; it’s a neck scratcher.

Creativity stems from curiosity. Rather than thinking BIG, as we’re so often advised, research shows that originality is awakened when one is able to break ideas and material items into smaller, undefined parts. A candle is not a “candle,” but rather a cylindrical glass container filled with scented wax and a short piece of string. Novelty is finding “new” in the mundane.

It’s far easier to innovate and repurpose when you don’t limit yourself with old conventions and common beliefs. Learn to pay attention to the visual properties of objects, such as their shape as size, and ignore their function. Be open-minded, release constraints, and allow your mind to wander without regard to the rules.

Prosaic thought, cognitive control, and focused attention are associated with bursts of beta wave activity in the prefrontal cortex, which guides decisions, thoughts, and actions. The quieting of this region is referred to as hypofrontality, and involves a more relaxed mental states, diffused attention, and lower frequency alpha waves. This state of lower cognitive control is highly associated with idea generation.

Recent data shows that incorporating periods of reduced cognitive control into your life can increase everyday creativity. Rethink ordinary objects. When you think contemplate the typical use of a tissues (wiping your nose), you utilize your prefrontal brain region. However, when asked to come up with an uncommon use (protective stuffing for a package), activity in the posterior brain regions, responsible for visuospatial skills are heightened. The practice of regularly devising novel applications for common objects helps reduce the filtering of knowledge and experience, which then enables people to consider a wider variety of possible solutions.

Another way to boost creative thinking and add an element of abstraction to a thought is to think of it as far off. Solving problems to be sent somewhere physically far away, imagining yourself solving a problem in the future, and working in solitude all contribute to increased problem-solving skills via obscure means.

True creativity extends beyond mere idea generation, because a new concept is useless if nothing is done to bring it to fruition. It’s important to evaluate your options, choose the best one, and then implement a plan for realizing your vision. In this stage, the cognitive filter needs to be switched back on to objectively discern the best choice. The ability to aptly combine the generation of novel ideas with the implementation of these ideas is known as cognitive flexibility.

Now that you understand the backbone of the creative mind, what can you do to inject more creative energy into your everyday life? Pay attention to visual properties and components, rather than practical and common usage. Think up new ways to perform everyday tasks, such as preparing a sandwich or driving to work. Take breaks to shut off your thinking mind and sink into a relaxed mental state while strolling through the park or playing with your pen. Mediate your fears of risk. Stop forcing ideas and allow them to emerge organically, and when a dozen brilliant ideas pop their heads up at the same time, know how to choose your winner and follow through.

How to Be an Entrepreneur of Identity

Charisma, at its essence, entails powerful personability, an undeniably magnetic personality paired with a genuine and enthusiastic interest in people, and a compelling charm that can inspire devotion in others. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is often viewed as the epitome of the word. What did he have that other less popular presidents and public figures lacked?

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

President Roosevelt artfully transformed his disadvantages into advantages. Despite suffering from incurable paralysis from the waist down, Roosevelt was able to convince the public that he was recovering, and that he was a capable leader. In regards to both his health and the well-being of the country, FDR was able to skillfully shift the focus from the negative qualities of a condition to the more positive aspects. He illuminated the strengths of a situation and put forth the effort to repair the broken pieces. Roosevelt appear both “of the people” and “for the people” – he was equally a leader with the capacity to promote change and an average American citizen. In conjunction with placing himself on the same level as every other American, the President was able to integrate the country’s history, hopes, and values into a coherent and highly relatable story.

A charismatic leader is an entrepreneur of identity. The most well-respected, memorable, and charming luminary is he who clarifies what his followers believe, rather than preaching what he personally believes. Charisma is strongly correlated with building a strong personal connection with one’s audience, and depends on the capacity of a leader to be seen by followers as advancing group interests, and that power will slip if the leader is discovered to be acting in their own best interest. Contrary to traditional thought, charisma is not the attribute of a leader, but rather an attribution created by followers and developed through evolving group dynamics. Just think of how the best political leaders, teachers, and comedians are able to improvise and play off their audiences.

Several Psychology studies have shown that U.S. presidents who use more image-based words in their speeches are perceived to be both more charismatic and greater leaders. In addition, many leaders famed for their charisma have a keen interest in poetry and the craft of language. It’s no coincidence that these great leaders know how to convey, connect, and persuade. The most highly charismatic leaders are able to cultivate narratives in which their personal sense of self comes to be seen by followers as emblematic of their shared group identity.

So, what can you do implement this new knowledge into your own life? There are generally assumed to be three hubs around which effective leadership revolves:

  • Reflection: Learn about the culture and history of a group. Read and understand popular political, religious, historical, and literary works within the community. Listen before you speak and learn all you can from people. Remain humble and realize that countless others helped you reach your current level of success. Be empathetic.
  • Representation: Present yourself as both a member of and proponent of your group. Intertwine your narrative with that of the group, building a coherent, consistent, and highly relatable story. Consider your appearance, tone of voice, and word selection. Lead the audience to draw the conclusion you want, rather than spelling out the ideas for them. Appear authentic and artless.
  • Realization: Turn the things your group values in principle into reality. Relentlessly pursue the group’s top priorities and inspire others to mobilize. Negotiate difficult situations. Don’t wait to take action. Care about those whom you represent and make sure that every individual within your group feels as if they matter.

The Ecstasy of the Realization of Life

Have you ever contemplated the journey from existential terror to awe and wonderment, in response to this incredible life? Have you personally traveled that path?

Each morning, YOU wake up full of possibilities. YOU are absolutely teeming with unbridled potential. Has anyone ever told you that? Do you realize what a gift that is?

Have you ever stared into the oblivion of the starless night sky – that empty existential fog – or listened to the rain oscillate between trickling and pounding on the rooftop, that subtle resonance of life begging for your attention? What feelings does that evoke in you?

You are surely familiar with the sense of discovery, that glimpse of wisdom within the mundanity of the everyday, that knowing that there is so much more to life than we can currently grasp. You know exactly what I’m referring to, don’t you? You must have felt it before, at some point.

Can’t you see the unity of all things? The Lumbricina acting as the Earth’s intestines, turning the soil sans machinery. The iris, a mirror image of some distant nebulous eternity, the window into one’s soul. The ancient cyanobacteria, which gave rise to this hospitable atmosphere, shaped this now habitable planet. The fact that Earth has gifted us with perfect conditions for life is miraculous.

The Blue Planet is a self-organized and self-sustaining living entity, and we are a part of it. There is a companionship and interdependency between all living organisms. We are all one in the same. We need one another.

Do these questions and realizations spark internal dialogue, and perhaps ignite some luminous, deeply seated joy? What are your burning questions? Where do you find answers to soothe? How do you find calm in this chaotic world?

Perhaps start by relinquishing your grip on those ideas which define you, and confine you. Embrace your darkness and your faults, because they are inextricably woven into the beautiful and predictably patterned fabric of all else. Galavant into the whimsical unknown, fall into your familiar dream worlds. Reframe your fears of the unknown. Transform paralysis into mobilization. Always. Keep. Moving.

Study facts and abstractions, and that enchanting space in which they overlap.

Be intensely curious. Question everything. Learn all that you possibly can. Recognize the universal undercurrents of life, the harmonious resonance that is us all. Tumble into the irrational certainty that life is as right as it has ever been, or could ever be. Realize that the mundane moments of your everyday existence are loaded with fullness and meaning. Be selectively, but wildly excitable. Savor every moment. Thrive.

Allow yourself to be thrilled by obscure and outdated theories, and don’t be afraid to ask, What if? What if each of us is an acorn, inlaid with the blueprint of an oak tree? Perhaps each of us already holds the potential for all those possibilities unique to only us, or maybe those possible futures will be developed and hand-picked over the course of a lifetime. Or perhaps the concepts of free will and souls and uniqueness are mere illusions.

What if all of this life is merely an illusion?

In the vast darkness of reality, maps and directions are useless. Plans, expectations, and over-sized suitcases are more hassle than they’re worth. Why not, instead, sit back and watch as the world capsizes around you, as not so far off galaxies flare and dissipate? Fall breathless to your knees; feel the beauty and awe, as emotion is the chemistry of resonance. This life we live, the world which we inhabit is a beaming sphere of resonant energy. Is there anything more beautiful? Could there possibly be anything more beautiful?

Discover new absurdities within the world and be amazed. What a wonderfully amusing existence this is. Why do we rarely take the time to look at it, to simply be present to the fluttering oak leaves and chirping cicadas, to the scowls of strangers and the laughter of soon-to-be adults, not yet jaded by hopelessness and pain?

Today, allow the universe to embrace you in its arms and consume you. Stand at the lip of that ancient black chasm, stare down into the nothingness, and dive into free-fall. An invocation of the sublime: mute, pulsating, inexplicably jarring. An unguided tour of the abyss, a tiny glimpse of the future through a slightly cracked door in the endless hallway of existence. Trust the intrinsic connections that tie everything together, trust your purpose and your path. Be aware that life spontaneously becomes more complex, and then retains  that incredible and intricate complexity. Realize that YOU are a key player in this evolution and progression of life. Emerge tender, raw, and open; emerge from that nothingness that is everything ready to live.

Wonderment in nature. (Taken by my talented friend for her B&W Photo 101 class.)

You’re Going to be Thirty…Someday

I recently spent an afternoon with a good friend. We went out for sushi, browsed the mall, and drove around aimlessly looking for anything that might be open at 9 o’clock on a Sunday evening in our sleepy bedroom community. After driving past the same mall for the third time, out of the blue, my friend said “I’m going to be thirty in ten years. How weird…” I nodded in agreement. “Whoa, you’re going to be thirty in…you’re turning 23 this year? years!! Oh my gosh!”

“Whoa” is right.

We discussed our amazing meal, the surreal feeling that follows visiting a mall when you’re not really a fan of shopping, the eerily oversized yellow moon blanketed by dark clouds, our shared love of all things psychology, oh and my rapidly approaching death. Okay, maybe not death, just all those terrifying expectations that come with growing up. You know, marriage, childbirth, a “real job,” memory loss. Wait, what was I saying?

I may begin consideration of marriage and kids when I’m thirty, but seven years from now is far too soon! What if I want to spend the next decade in school? Maybe I want to travel, write a book, and actually have time to see my friends. Perhaps I’d like to keep my house organized for more the five minutes.

As wonderful as the whole growing up thing is painted to be – a steady income, a loving and loyal spouse, precious little children that look just like you, prestige and influence at work – I don’t particularly want any of it. At least not at this point in my life.

A good portion of my childhood friends now have kids; some are married, some divorced, and most are single parents. Many went straight from high school into real-world jobs with a thick glass ceiling. Many go out to clubs several times a week wearing skin-tight dresses and caked on makeup. These statistics are courtesy of Facebook as I’m no longer in touch with any of the aforementioned. I can’t help but feel these people have sold themselves short, sought validation and an ego-boosts in the wrong places. Maybe they simply don’t have the same dreams and desires as I do. Having studied psychology, the wide spectrum and variation shouldn’t surprise me, but I simply can’t imagine someone my age actually wanting to take on such huge and lasting commitments.

Seven years feels like nothing and time seems to accelerate more and more so as we get older, but seven years is a long time. Seven years ago I was a freshman in high school, wearing shorts that could pass for denim underwear and shyly avoiding as much social contact as possible. Well, maybe things haven’t changed that much. However, in terms of knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and hopes, I’m an entirely different person than I was back then.

I’m going to be thirty in seven years and 102 days. That’s a terrifying thought, but it’s also slighty exhilarating. If I learn and experience as much in the coming years as I have in the past, than it will be well-worth any of those perceived negatives. (Does age thirty even have any perceived negatives?) Although I’ve yet to reach that baby-crazy stage (and I’m doubtful I ever will), though I have zero interest in marriage (or any type of relationship, for that matter), and despite the fact that I have no particular career path or ultimate goal in mind, I’m not too concerned. I’ve spent too much of my life worrying about things I can’t control and living up to expectations that don’t align with my beliefs or desires. Things have a way of working themselves and the right people and opportunities always present themselves when you’re ready.

Why is thirty any more significant of a milestone than tomorrow? It’s interesting to ponder what the future might hold, but I don’t think it’s quite as important as we’re led to believe. If I have $100 a week to live on, an enjoyable and productive job or hobby, and a few good friends and my family, I’ll be happy. Marriage, children, and a prestigious and well-paying job are all wonderful things, I’m sure. But why all the pressure to achieve them within a certain age range? I’m continually nagged by several people in my life to think about the future, to start figuring out what I want out of life. I’ve got a lot of life ahead of me (hopefully). Yes, I’ll be thirty someday and yes, it’s weird to think about now, but less so than it was when I initially had that you’re almost old sentiment ringing through my ears.

The point of this rant being, we’ve each got our own internal guide and innate life schedule, which should take priority over and override the opinions and actions of others, although listening and taking others’ opinions into account is also beneficial. Also, growing up isn’t scary and commitments aren’t the equivalent of a ball-and-chain; they’re just a few of life’s many stepping-stones, and you have permission to take as big or small of steps as you desire to reach those responsibilities, and you’re more than welcome to take a few detours along the way.

Actually, it’s kind of nice being caught in the in-between stage, that place where you can be goofy and sophisticated in the same day without any sense of dissonance or feeling irresponsible. I enjoy being in that stage where I’m an adult, but have yet to take on all the adult responsibilities or commit myself fully to one thing or another. Hopefully I can hang out here for a while.

Andrew Belle and The Milk Carton Kids

One of my favorite bands, The Decemberists, is in town tonight. However, I couldn’t justify the cost of ticket. And, unfortunately, the band is taking a three year hiatus after this tour to work on other projects, so they won’t be back anytime soon. I’m slightly disappointed about that, but I suppose that’s why bands release their music. If you’re not familiar with the Decemberists, they’re worth checking out.

Coincidently, another favorite artist was in town last night. Although I would have loved to see both shows, Andrew Belle was the perfect consolation prize.The Chicago-based singer-songwriter has been a favorite for quite some time, so I was excited to learn he would be coming to the valley.

The concert was held at the Rhythm Room, an intimate venue in Phoenix with a fun atmospere. Andrew Belle was alone on stage with his guitar and put on an amazing show. He was followed by The Milk Carton Kids, an impressive duo with whom I was previously unfamiliar.