I love mazes. I used to draw my own on giant desk pads and pray that I wasn’t leaving a twisted trail of dead ends in my wake as I moved from one corner of the paper to the other. I like running through mazes and about the only thing that would take away that enjoyment would be being chased by Jack Nicholson wielding an axe. Oh, and the dead ends I mentioned before. It’s not really a maze if all it succeeds in doing is getting me trapped and unable to get myself out.
It is never a person’s goal to turn their existence into a maze. Their education, their career, their relationships – nobody wants any of those things to be anything remotely resembling a maze. The problem is that walls can pop up where we least expect them, and unlike those mazes you crayoned your way through as a child, there is not exactly an easy way to see how you got stuck at your dead end and there is also definitely not an easy way to see where you should be going to get to the proper exit that seemed like it would be so simple to find when you were just starting out in school or fresh-faced at a new job.
Dealing with these dead ends is rough. Even if you left a perfect trail of breadcrumbs, sometimes the correct (or only) solution is to start scaling the walls and be thankful there isn’t a ceiling. Then again, sometimes that ceiling is exactly the dead end you are stuck against, looking all around you as all your peers climb past you on the big career ladder and you hold on for your life from the tiniest of outcroppings just hoping for even the slightest attempt at a helping hand to potentially save you.
So what can you do when you find yourself stuck at a dead end?
There can be any number of variables keeping you from taking the so-called “easy way out”. For people in a career it might be a return to school or even just a new job. For a student, it might be throwing away a few semesters of work and cash to start anew in another major or even at another school altogether. Yes, I know, I said these were “easy”, but more often than not these first choices many people think up for repairing your life can be the most difficult to accomplish. Do you know what is way easier than quitting a long-held job for two or three more years of school work? Sucking it up and getting to work. Do you know what’s way easier than trying to explain to damn near everyone in your life, both blood- and academic-related, that you’ve decided to give up your Business Management degree and throw yourself into the topsy-turvy world of Underwater Basket Weaving? Pretending your biggest dream in life is to be a proud member of the middle management work force and skip the baskets for an early start at the wonderful carefree life that is khaki-ironing and perfecting your best fake smile. Sure you’re a third semester Junior, but do you really want two more years of school after you’ve already done – what – like sixteen in a row (IN A DAMN ROW).
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever take a chance like that. It’s not as impossible as all those words up there make it seem like it is. But starting over from scratch is not something most twenty- or thirty-somethings can do without paying a harsh price (both literally and figuratively). Almost everyone in their late twenties with a go-nowhere job dreams of maybe (just maybe) going back to school, and then they remember how much they hated their classmates or how much they really hate seeing a student loan bill in their mailbox and when they add up more financing plus oh-crap-I-would-have-to-probably-quit-my-job-and-I-have-so-many-bills— they just sigh and dejectedly throw themselves back into the Bog of Eternal Stench that is their job/major/whatever and hope (and only hope) for the best.
Sorry to say this, but hope isn’t going to get you out of a dead end unless it happens to be goblin-shaped and holding a poisoned peach (and even then you might want to beware the peach). As usual with these kinds of posts, work and effort are the two fallbacks to get yourself out of these kinds of situa–
Wait, let me back up a second.
Work and effort are important, but when you really are stuck in one of these dead ends observation and introspection are just as important if not more so. You aren’t really trapped in some kind of high-walled castle of twisted corridors and half-man/half-bull monsters (unless you are, in which case I don’t think this is the kind of blog that can help you), you are stuck in a (ta-da) dead end job or dead end educational path. You can see your way out, or at least the beginnings of dozens of ways out.
It very well could be that what you need is a change of scenery – a new job or a new curriculum. It could be that you need to have some healthy conversations about what is both expected of you and what can be gained by going above and beyond those expectations. Those conversations might just need to happen within yourself. Are you happy where you are? Do you see a situation where you could be happy? What does it take to get there?
There are a lot of questions that need to be asked and answered to get a clear picture of not just where you are in the maze of your life, but where the exits to success can be found. There might even be more than one waiting somewhere out there beyond the walls you feel so trapped inside. It might take battling through a 1980s Jim Henson film, but maybe if you are lucky David Bowie might be there to turn into an owl and blow your mind while you party with Jennifer Connelly (don’t worry, she’s of legal age now).
The goal of completing a maze is finding the exit, but if you don’t know what that exit looks like, everything will look like a dead end. Visualize your exit and then find out the twists and turns it takes to get there. Just as I drew my way through home-made mazes, draw your way through to the successful life you want. Think big, think small, think whatever you have to think to rid your life of wasteful dead ends that never should have been created in the first place. It might not be the easiest or simplest path from start to finish, but it definitely beats giving up and taking your place among the frozen topiaries for all eternity – though the Overlook Hotel bar did have a fairly decent selection of booze back in 1921.
Class dismissed. But stay away from Room 237.
I was going to start out this post with the simple statement “Everyone has a switch.” but before my fingers even graced my keyboard I decided against it. The reason I have decided against it is because I’m not entirely sure that simple statement is true. As this has been something I have been thinking about on and off for about a dozen years, it leaves me a little disheartened. I guess I need a new opening statement. Here goes nothing.
I have a switch.
I have a core competency in proper switch usage.
I could teach a night class at the local community college about this damn switch.
So what’s this switch exactly? Do you, the reader, have one?
When you are out in your job, or in a classroom, or doing anything that might potentially be defined as “work”, you are engaged in a constant battle with that switch – especially as your desire to do said work decreases. The switch is what turns you from the employee or the student or the worker into the social butterfly or the distractor or anything that basically involves not doing the work. I would like to note that what follows from here is not a declaration of war against people who decide that they might want to have an off-topic conversation with their friends at school or at work. What it is about, though, is knowing the right side of the switch to be on in a given situation.
I have worked many jobs in the ‘customer service’ sector, and in most of them there tended to be a bit of a line between servicing the customers and doing all the other necessary work that enables one to help service the customers. Some people only seem to see one side of that line or the other, especially if they have no desire to do what is on the other side of the line. Flipping their switch is the last thing on their minds.
These are the people that fall on the low end of the “good at their job”/”good in school” scale, especially because in most cases they are not on the side of the switch that says “do your job” and “get an education”. For those that are on that side, they end up trapped on the low end of the “good at being a normal human” scale, in so much as being able to foster adequate personal relationships. We all know people that ride solely on one side of the switch or the other, but it’s no way to live a life. If you were fine sticking to only one side, that switch wouldn’t exist. But it does, and you need to learn, both with speed and intelligence, when and when not to flip it back and forth.
Your existence isn’t some kind of light-switch rave, after all. You are not some kind of work/school-life strobe. That’s usually how collegiate-aged alcoholism starts. Between the ages of 16 and 24 is one of the only times we exist with the potential of not just a simple on-and-off, one-and-zero switch, but some strange amalgam of relays and circuits trying to tie your life into both school and work and trying to make it all co-exist without causing psychological electrical fires.
Is there an easy way to do this? Any, as they say, life hacks? Just like using a literal light switch, it all comes down to what your environment is and deciding which way that switch should be. Are you in some dark room and trying to sleep? Best not to turn that switch on. In a dark room and trying to read War & Peace before going back to school after New Year’s (shout out to Charlie Brown)? You might want to keep the light on (and discuss proper homework assignments for young children with your teacher). If you are hunkered down behind a cash register with a line of thirty people waiting for service, it is probably not the best time to pick up your phone and talk with your bestie about your weekend plans. It sounds so simple, and it honestly can be pretty simple if you want it to be, but you really have to want it to be. Like, super really. Really really super really.
If you make the wrong decision, don’t worry, someone is sure to point out to you just how difficult it is to answer corporate email while trying to defeat Minesweeper, or the pitfalls of reading up on the American Revolution for a particularly nasty test in your test message inbox. It’s alright to make those mistakes, you just have to be willing to recognize your poor decision making and then make the right call. Turn the light on when you need it and keep it off when you don’t. Save that energy. Balance that energy. Those fuses can be a bitch to replace.
Nobody likes to study. Anyone that likes to study probably doesn’t need to. The point of studying is to slam information into your brain that your brain isn’t all that ready to accept. As an example, say that I’m a big fan of model trains and I get a book about model trains. I would never say that I am “studying” model trains, but I would totally say that I am “learning about” model trains because they interest me and I want do what to learn more about them than I already know. “Studying” makes it seem like there is going to be some kind of test or written essay at the end that I need to pass and I don’t think my previously accrued knowledge is good enough to get me that high grade.
When I talk about “the fine art of studying”, I’m not so much talking about sitting in a clean room full of ferns with ocean sounds playing and a pile of books in front of you just begging to be slogged through. In fact, I’m barely talking about studying at all. I am talking about acquiring useful information – and not just for some potentially meaningless test. I know that there are plenty of people out there than can say they hardly ever use the stuff they learned in school, and while that does say volumes about the education system it just tells me that they weren’t looking in the right places for things to ‘study’.
Like I said before – if you really want to know it, you are not going to consider it to be studying. And you say “but sometimes I have to learn things that I don’t want to learn” and to that I will just roll my eyes and take you back in time to the myriad of things I have written about finding what interests you and using it to your advantage. Education is about perspective and it is about using what you already know (or in this case what you really really really would like to know) to your advantage. That is what ‘studying’ should be about. No matter what the information is, there can always be a way to make it work for you and be something that can be carried for longer than “until summer starts”.
As for what else studying should be about?
– Keep good, legible notes.
– If you handwrite them, type them later. If you type them, write them later. Repetition matters when it comes to having a better understanding of a subject.
– Keep those notes as long as you can. (there’s a good reason libraries will never completely go out of style)
It takes time to gain a good knowledge base for any subject, but just sitting in a study hall or trying to cram yourself full of words the night before some big test are barely enough concrete for a paver stone let alone a good foundation to build a future on. I know that sounds cliché and ripped straight from a poster with a surfer or a majestic eagle on it, but it’s the truth. Education should never be about survival, and studying as most people see it or remember it was nothing but trying to keep yourself alive.
If you want to be a good studier, be a good understander instead. Be a good learner instead. Information is not meant to be ingested and regurgitated. Your education is more important than that. Treat it like it is. I’m not asking you to be some kind of educational prodigy that knows everything about everything the second you lay eyes on it. I’m not asking you to pigeonhole yourself into a single subject and never explore. What I am asking is that you understand that your education serves a real purpose and that there is just as much an art to learning as there is to, say, composing a grand opus. That grand opus is your future, and while you may never be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that doesn’t mean you sure never play the figurative piano. If you really want to make the most of the rest of your life, you simply can not wait until you are neck-deep in it to try and claw your way out. Whether you like school or not, that school is handing you a chance at something better and it is up to you to use those tools to succeed. Why hum some old tune when you can create a symphony? You can’t just study instruments, you have to use them. That’s where the real knowledge comes from.
It’s been about five months since I last wrote anything of length or substance. That is totally my fault. What it all comes down to, sadly, is something I’ve spent a good bit of time on this very site deriding – apathy. It had become incredibly difficult to care about things like education because I got tired of seeing very little in the way of conscious advancements in the field. All I have seen lately are reddit-worthy photos of people’s trials and tribulations with things like Common Core and that more time seems to be spent debating its merits and muscling through its inadequacies than simply allowing it to fail and starting over.
I know I have made cases for failure being both good and very, very bad, but when something like Common Core can potentially affect (effect? crap…) the educational growth of hundreds of thousands of students it would be wise to have something a little more focused and less full of holes to be your foundation from which to foster the future.
But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about myself (mostly). I have been quite apathetic lately. I have not cared as much as I should about these sorts of issues. Wait, scratch that. I have never stopped caring about them, but I have not found myself with as much desire to *do something about it*. “What does it matter what I think, anyway?” is an honest thought, of course. I don’t know why anyone should care about any of my words. I don’t have children stuck inside the system. I don’t volunteer. I don’t seek out my local Board of Education with petitions while shouting hum-drum repetitive rhetoric. Should I maybe do those things? Should I volunteer? Should I stand on a soapbox outside of some wall of bureaucracy and try to make my points heard? Even if they listen, what good will it do? It’s hard to just be one man against this kind of system.
That was my train of thought six months ago when I started falling off this wagon. I was trying way too hard to be that one loud voice against that mountain of red tape and government machination. I needed (and need) to get back to what I feel really matters – the people like me. Not the people that don’t have children and still feel compelled to yell. No, I mean the students stuck in those classrooms just as I was for over half of my life. I still feel I can make a difference for them, no matter what the people in the offices or behind closed doors think should happen or want to happen. The students are always the ones who deserve the assistance, not the bureaucrats.
That is what I always should have been focusing on. That is why I’m apologizing – to myself for getting lost in the haze that is things like Common Core and all its ills and not making it abundantly and super duper crystal clear that what matters is that you learn new information and not how precisely you came about acquiring it. It was never important that I keep an encyclopedic knowledge base of how exactly to shade in dots on a multiple choice test, and yet I probably went over those instructions more than I went over the basics of primary and secondary colors.
Okay, now I’m rambling. Just…sorry, guys. I hope in the next few weeks I can get this train back on the right track. I don’t want to teach that apathy is acceptable. I want to destroy it. I hope you are prepared and, geez, I hope I am too.
I don’t understand why this seems to be such an issue. I really don’t. Almost every news story I see talking about education involves one or more of the following: cheating, athletics, politics, the economy, government funding, or various levels of praise or damnation for things such as standardized testing and Common Core standards. There are stories about Texas and problematic tutoring programs and New York state having troubles with kindergarten students and multiple choice testing. UNC has become the center of another scandal involving student-athletes.
Why is it so difficult to simply do what is best for the student and for their education?
You might say tutoring students is a great way to help them. It is, yes, but not when it appears that the businesses peddling these services are more in it for their own profits than for the ability to actually help students improve grades. Texas created a system that benefited the companies who used better advertising and recruiting techniques than anything resembling quality service. I am not going to say that there are no good tutoring services in the state of Texas, but when some of them are waving the possibility of free laptops and smartphones in your face (especially without the need to finish instruction), then alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear. Note: If you create a business where the goal is to help give students a better education – do it. Just <expletive deleted> do it. A good product, especially in this field, is its own advertising and marketing.
New York decided it wanted to test four- and five-year old children with multiple choice tests, despite many of these students having difficulty holding pencils, understanding the questions, or even being able to properly shade in a circle about the size of an eraser tip. I’m pretty sure I went outside the lines a few times in high school and college. I can’t imagine what a kindergarten version of a Scantron sheet would look like. What is ostensibly a system for determining the abilities of brand new students has them being asked to complete tasks that are so far out of their comfort level as to not even be relevant. It would be like going to your very first day of driver’s education and they suit you up in a flame-retardant suit and enter you in the Indianapolis 500 “just to see how much you already know”.
As far as UNC and it’s athletes goes, it seems to be a growing problem to treat those on sports teams as different from the rest of the student body. I don’t care if it was two professors, a talking parrot and a magical lamp that were the cause of the entire ‘scandal’, it’s not like this is the first time it has ever happened nor will it be the last. Athletes will always be treated at least a little differently because what they bring to the university on game days and the fact that many of them are not looking at their education as important as they should because when the light at the end of the tunnel has a 7 figure salary attached to it and it doesn’t involve knowing anything but how to hit hard or catch a ball, you tend to not want to do a whole lot of term papers. I get it. I’m also not saying that every single student-athlete treats college as an obstacle course to pay day. Contrary to the popular culture spin on ‘teenage slackers’ or ‘collegiate alcoholics’ (some of which definitely exist, my neighborhood’s police reports would probably attest to it), there are good students out there. There are good young people out there willing to try hard and work their tails off to get into good schools and get good jobs. It can just become disheartening when they see that these things that they burn the midnight oil to get through are treated as jokes by not just some of their fellow students but by the people that are put in charge of giving them the best possible shot at the future.
If you are in a position to help shape the future of even a single student – a single child – you owe it to yourself and to them to do what is best for them. If you are a student yourself then you know that above all else you can at least focus on your own hopefully important future. Just because other students around you don’t care what happens to them in two, five, or ten years (or whatever), doesn’t mean you should blindly fall into the current and hope the sound of the waterfall you hear in the distance is just your mind playing tricks on you. This isn’t about the economy. This isn’t about politics or paychecks. It’s not about “your team” winning the big game. It’s about learning and it’s about your future.
But what if you don’t know what is best for you? What if you are five years old and struggling to hold a pencil the correct way to fill in a circle? That is where the system needs to be tuned to be able to give you all the help in the world to succeed. If you work in the field of education and what you do does not have a positive effect on the ability of students to get a proper education (and don’t kid yourself – you know if what you are doing does or does not do this), then stop it. Go back to the drawing board. Hundreds of thousands of students every single year can not simply depend on themselves to know the right steps to take. It’s a group effort. Like I said before – education is everyone’s job, it just isn’t a job that should be associated with a tax identification number.
I’m not a parent, but I know that being a parent can be an incredibly rewarding experience full of all sorts of life-changing moments. I also know that there is nothing that some parents like to do more than flaunt the abilities of their children. From first steps to career milestones, everyone loves having something to throw a parade about, no matter how much or how little they had to do with the outcome.
I do not want to sound like I am condemning the notion of being proud of your child’s accomplishments, but there is a fine line between pride and neighborhood (or social media) gloating. For a newborn or toddler, the child might not be very mentally invested; when they get older, however, this constant push and pressure can lead to all kinds of fantastic emotional and psychological problems. It can be incredibly difficult to be even the 95% child of a 100% (or more) parent. These kinds of kids are almost more apt to crack under the pressure than a child that has long since given up on making all their parent’s dreams and wishes come true.
None of this is okay. Okay, wait, back up. Being supportive of your children is wonderful and can pay very healthy dividends in both their lives and yours. It’s not exactly common to see a successful person say that what pushed them to be successful in a certain field was their parents telling them they couldn’t do it and should not even try and “why the hell aren’t you being a damn doctor like I told everyone you would be when you were still a fetus, anyway?!” Don’t force life choices on your child just because the choices they made annoy you. After all, they are their choices. Maybe you might want to be a little more active if you feel your children are doing something dangerous or illegal, but that’s a line one would hope you would never have to cross, and no, not crossing that line does not involve barricading up and patrolling every other possible line they might want to cross except whatever golden path you chose for them. After all, you could be incredibly wrong about what your child is and is not capable of, and pushing them to the breaking point because you always wanted to say you were the proud parent of a lawyer is selfish and quite frankly rude to the desires of your child – your child that you should be proud of regardless of whatever it is they decide to concentrate their waking moments on.
Good parenting is not about pressure, not about threats, and not about putting yourself above them because you aren’t happy. Good parenting is about guidance and understanding. Your child is not a brand that you peddle to show off how great you are. If your child is not in jail, the ground, or homeless, there is a pretty good chance you did at least a serviceable job of leading them through their younger life and into adulthood. No one is going to point an accusing finger at you because your child is Middle Manager Class III and not Middle Manager Class IV. This is not some kind of thoroughbred you are breeding to win races.
Your child is not a status symbol, and in the event that you do become extremely successful in whatever it is they chose to do, your child is not an excuse for you to act like a complete fool. If your child does well on his or her SATs or gets into one of those big fancy colleges with ivy on the walls, it is perfectly acceptable to shower them with praise and even give yourself a little pat on the back for raising them in a way that could put them in that position. “Well, my son/daughter goes to Harvard…” is not a phrase that should ever come out of your mouth in any form of daily conversation unless you are talking to someone who also has an affiliation with the school and you are about to tell them how great and wonderful you think it is and how proud you are of your son/daughter for managing to make it into such a prestigious university. I’m sure the person you are talking to will then say something along the lines of “you must be so proud.” which should be answered with a smile and a nod, not fireworks and streamers. This is especially useful if there are any Vassar alums in attendance. Nobody likes Vassar bashing.
Just remember: Pride is good, Ego is bad. Giving your child a sense that egomania is a natural emotion is like making Jack Daniels into an after-preschool snack. Put down the sippy shot glass (both of you) and pick up a book. It’ll be good for you, because nobody should live their life trapped in a bottle, especially if all their parents want to do is drink from it instead of help you not to drown on their own expectations.
Have you ever heard someone, usually in the act of staring down at you and rolling their eyes, say “just wait until you get out of school, then you’ll see real responsibility!” and then they scoff and harrumph and bah humbug their way to their front yard to shake their cane at the damn kids across the street playing stickball. Teenagers hear this bit quite a lot, especially when they are getting ready to get more responsibility handed to them than just the doldrums of school – like a car or a part-time job – and very quickly learn to absolutely ignore the pants off everything you are saying.
Why are these darn kids not paying attention to your steadfast warnings? I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, well, even teenagers without jobs, cars, or even romantic relationships, still have an insane level of responsibility that not only did you and all your old fart friends also have, but that every generation seems hell bent on ignoring even more than those blaring fog horn warnings of the previous generations that also ignored them and forget they even existed once they get past the age of 22 or so.
You might not think that wasting an hour every weekday in Mr. Half A Bald Spot’s World History class is all that important. You might be arguing with your body constantly over whether or not it would be wise to slam your head off your desk and concuss yourself all the way to the nurse’s office to stave the boredom emanating from Day 3 of his magnum opus on the real root causes of the Spanish-American War that even the textbooks don’t talk about, but just before your hand clutches at the back of your head to initiate the final blow, he offhandedly mentions the sinking of the USS Maine that he is going to be spending the next four to eight days on and how it is inconclusive to how it sank and for some reason in the back of your mind there is this little spark of intrigue that could very well eventually turn you into one of those wacky people on the History Channel that spends their life solving all the great mysteries of times gone by.
Before that moment, there may have never been a thought in your young brain that this was even something you could do. You might have never even watched one of those shows (or even the History Channel!!) and now you are knee-deep in maritime technical journals trying to piece together something that happened over a hundred years ago. The ability for this kind of mental wavelength modification to occur is not just bone-chilling but it is also able to happen at any time and any place and just loves to happen to children and teenagers way more than any other age range because those are the ages when focus is less of a helpful ability to keep your sanity and more of something that you know you will figure out someday but for now will just get in your way.
That, in and of itself, is a tough bit of responsibility to deal with on a daily basis. You have to know that at any given second you might find yourself on some kind of tangent that may get out of your body in five minutes or could simmer and boil for five decades where you either use it to your advantage or keep it pent up in some kind of soul-squeezing crock pot because who in the hell looks at old wrecked boats for a living anyway?!?! and then about the time retirement kicks in you are suddenly standing at the end of a long pier in an ill-fitting wet-suit looking way too excited to pull your buddy’s fishing boat out of the lake and see if he happened to hit a rock or maybe was in fact attacked by Champ or the Loch Ness monster, despite being nowhere near Lake Champlain or especially Scotland.
You should have it in your mind by the time you get to the age of cars and flipping burgers for minimum wage that school is not supposed to be a place where you happen to waste time while also (hopefully) maintaining a social circle. You have a future to unravel, and the quicker you understand just how loony that sounds the better off you will be. Can you imagine telling a seven year old that they really need to pay attention in Music class because they might secretly be fan-freaking-tastic at playing Nick Mason’s drum set from the Pulse tour and even though you have never heard of Pink Floyd you might just want to keep your wrists limber in case someone in your high school inevitably starts a cover band and needs your magic on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”? That’d be a tough sell to anyone, let alone someone who potentially hasn’t done a thing on a drum set that didn’t involve a few pots, pans, and wooden spoons.
Yes, this is crazy making, which makes it all the more confusing as to why it is so vastly ignored as a part of growing up. School is not “do your homework, pass your test, get out alive” any more than dating is ‘holding someone down until they relent to your superior size and weight advantage”. Your time as a member of the educational system is meant to prepare you for the future in ways you can not even comprehend the first time you walk into a preschool or kindergarten classroom and try not to wet yourself as your parents (and/or guardians) leave you in the care of someone who somehow still has an active nervous system after years of dealing with two dozen 5-year-old children on a daily basis. Handling this responsibility takes hard work, dedication, and a whole heaping helping of effort and it is not recommended that you traverse this asteroid field in auto-pilot like so many of your wise and cranky elders think you are doing because they also think that is exactly what they did when they were your age even though they very well could have been wetting themselves way after kindergarten, up to and including standing on that boat dock and wondering why no one else is wearing a tank and weighted belt like you found on eBay to conquer the mighty waist-deep lake before you.
He might look silly there in that neoprene outfit and snorkel, but while you might think your childhood was nothing more than a little back yard pond at the end of a dirt road, it is actually an ocean full of wrecked ships, drum sets, broken hearts, soggy french fries, and billions upon billions of things that not only can steal away your attention at any minute but are absolutely required to do so and there is nothing you can do to stop it. If dealing with that kind of reality, every single day, isn’t the absolute pure definition of responsibility, then I don’t know what is.