midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the category “motivation”

Sweating it out to the End

I was sitting in the sauna after a swim, trying to meditate (and lose a pound), when the thought hit me (a welcome thought, nevertheless showing I don’t know how to meditate): the only thing separating me from graduation with a clinical mental health counseling master’s degree was one more paper, the fourth chapter of a final project.

In the heat, I felt a surge of accomplishment, the dripping sweat an appropriate metaphor for the 5 ½-year graduate school and internship marathon. I reflected on all that had happened during that time – a broken leg requiring surgery and a year of

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These grads, including my son Daniel (left), are younger than me, but I’ll be celebrating the same experience soon.

recovery; turning 50; my mother dying; leaving a seven-year job under contentious and demoralizing circumstances; both of my kids leaving for college – and felt amazed I had arrived at this moment. I had nearly dropped out after the first of my 22 classes and three internships, the path seemed so complicated and daunting.

 

So other than giving myself a pat on the back for perseverance, what can my experience say about sweating it out for a goal at midlife that perhaps could resonate with others?

  • Personal growth and development keeps life interesting. I feel more alive and engaged with new challenges and goals to pursue, and restless when I feel stagnated and mired in routine.
  • It’s never too late to learn new things or set new goals. Changing careers is another matter entirely that involves issues of practicality, responsibility, risk and sacrifice. But those complexities shouldn’t preclude exploration.
  • Moving forward on faith can work out, and could be a necessity for progress. Sometimes pushing through doubts is the only way forward. I still don’t know how my whole counseling endeavor ultimately will work out, but I have faith that it will. Needing a guarantee on an outcome may preclude the journey.
  • Find a way. Don’t let something that seems too hard stop you, if you can creatively discover ways to make it work, even just one step at a time, especially if you believe you might live with regret for giving up on a goal or dream too easily. I feared living with regret, which helped propel me to continue grinding ahead. Sometimes “a way” may seem impossible, but perhaps as likely self-imposed limits make it seem so.
  • Pursuing something new, whether a hobby, pastime, education or career, can bring you into contact with a new community that can enrich your life. The people I’ve met through my graduate program have provided community, enhancing my life and helping me learn.

I’m sure hoping this new counseling gig works out. I entered the Loyola University-Maryland Pastoral Counseling program at age 48. Back then, I couldn’t imagine getting to the end, which has now arrived at age 54. I’m excited to see where it leads. At the least, it will open up a whole new range of opportunities and a greater chance to self-direct my career – possibly in the form of my own business and other entrepreneurial endeavors – as I head into its latter stages. I’m feeling now all the sweat I’ve poured into it has been worthwhile.

[In a serendipitous coincidence, my graduation is the same day as my daughter Rebecca’s graduation from the University of Maryland. Read about my decision of whose big day to attend.]

Guitar Hero

Guitar-MusicStand (2)At neighborhood events, I often see my former guitar teacher, my neighbor who has a guitar studio within walking distance where I once took lessons. And then, inevitably, a wave of regret and guilt washes over me.

I feel compelled to tell him every time that though it seems like I quit, that I really haven’t. No, not me, no quit in this mule. I haven’t given up, at least not in my mind. I’m just on a long, long hiatus. He humors me and listens, probably thinking, “Yeah, sure, I’ve heard that line before.” But I’m serious.

I’d love to be able to play guitar well. I surf YouTube videos of guitar performances and marvel at the seeming ease with which the musicians strum and pick, no need for sheet music. What a thrill it would be, I imagine, to play some kick-ass rock song before an audience with both hands working instinctively to reach the right notes and chords.

But that’s skipping right over those pesky factors of study, practice and work, the disciplines required to develop a skill, no matter if one is highly or modestly talented. Author Malcolm Gladwell promotes the “10,000 Hour Rule,” stating that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is required even by the most talented to become truly masterful at a craft or skill. At the one studio recital sponsored by my teacher in which I performed, I verged on Choke City, getting through my piece shakily.

My original inspiration to pick up the guitar goes back 25 years. I had a friend who took guitar lessons. It struck me that I was missing out by not being able to play a musical instrument. I regretted quitting the clarinet as a kid after playing through 6th grade. Music is one of those things that’s easier to learn as a child than as an adult. I remember playing in the Holiday concert and feeling like I had the songs mastered.

I quit playing in school mostly because I didn’t like having to carry the instrument back and forth. Lame excuse, but my parents didn’t force me to continue.

A decade after my friend introduced me to the idea, a colleague’s husband donated guitar lessons for a fundraiser auction. I bid and won the lessons, and stayed on as a student for several months. But then the usual excuses intervened — work, time constraints, two young kids, a 30-minute trip to the teacher’s house — and I stopped. Not quit. Stopped temporarily. Someday, I vowed, I would pick it up again.

Flash forward eight more years. When we discovered we lived in a guitar teacher’s neighborhood, we signed up my 12-year-old son Daniel for lessons. Aha, a chance for redemption! Soon after, I signed up as well.

It was clear Daniel had more aptitude than me, and/or his youth enabled him to develop skills faster. He performed at several recitals, and skillfully played more complex pieces than I could master. As it turns out, college freshman Daniel is strong in math and computer science, disciplines that emphasize patterns, sequences and intervals, and have correlations to music. But he lacked passion and commitment. He didn’t want to practice, and though I encouraged him, I didn’t force him.

About 18 months into his lessons, he announced he wanted to quit. As much as I tried to convince him about his high talent level, and the opportunities he could have if he continued progressing, it didn’t change his mind. It was like having a conversation with the young me, determined to quit the clarinet because I couldn’t envision the benefits. I hope Daniel returns to guitar some day on his own desire. The talent is there.

I continued with the semi-monthly lessons until the night nearly five years ago when I broke my leg in a soccer game. I had become proficient enough to play a book of 20 Easy Pop Melodies by bands such as the Beatles, Rod Stewart and Kansas, just for fun. But I discontinued lessons during my recovery, and lost motivation to practice as a situational depression set in. I never got back to it. I had just started my 5 1/2 year run in a graduate program, and, you know…the usual excuses.

I still have my guitar — actually, Daniel’s guitar — and the lesson and song books. I took the guitar to the beach last summer for my seasonal gig teaching tennis, vowing to pick it up again. But the guitar stayed in its case.

Practicing an instrument is something like exercising. The hardest thing about running for me is stepping out the door. With guitar, it’s putting the music sheet on the stand and taking the guitar out of the case.

April 26, 2017 marks the five-year anniversary of my broken leg and surgery, which signaled the end of my guitar progress. It would be a good day to take the guitar out of its case again. I haven’t quit. I’m just waiting for the right time — any time except the 12th of Never.

 

(Not) A Chip off the Old Block

Academically, my son Daniel doesn’t take after me – except for the fact that we have each attended college. And in today’s increasingly specialized and technological economy and job market, I’d say that’s good for him.

As a freshman computer science major and bioinformatics minor, Daniel is taking a heavy dose of computer programming, biology, statistics and math. I predict he will separate DanAdam2_PotomacHallhimself from the masses who hold college degrees, which no longer guarantee entry into the professional world, by going the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) route and will find himself in demand in the job market. No post-college Parental Unit Domicile (PUD) basement-dwelling likely or necessary for him!

I, on the other hand, took an occasional math or science course three decades ago at my liberal arts college – only enough to meet the requirements to graduate – and overdosed on philosophy, history, political science, economics and English courses, emerging with a smorgasbord-style International Relations degree that led to nothing in particular.

But in that era, being a generalist with a broad liberal arts education could still work as a professional launching pad for many occupations. It’s not that it can’t work today, but it just appears harder.

Industries can be more selective in hiring graduates who more closely fit the profile for their jobs based on their degrees, internship experiences and technical and industry-specific knowledge. Those without more targeted, specialized and immediately marketable degrees will flood the “generalist” markets, like education, communications, sales, fundraising and social services, creating the immense competition that has left many college graduates on the sidelines.

While teaching tennis at an beach resort last summer in the midst of my career transition to counseling, I talked with a doctor at Minnesota’s renowned Mayo Clinic after a tennis clinic. His wife also was a physician. He had two kids in college, and explained his parenting philosophy about his kids’ college education. He did not take a laissez faire approach, like many parents who allow their kids to “find themselves” – or not – by experimenting and dabbling with a variety of subjects with no clear idea of where they were heading. Guessing and floundering, and possibly wasting time and money, was not acceptable, he emphasized. If his kids were going to attend college, he demanded that they have “skin in the game” and demonstrate a well-thought out plan outlining what they would study, and how their field of study would lead to a career path and jobs immediately after college, based on real-world economic and occupational data. Otherwise, the parental money pipeline would be disconnected.

It made sense to me. And immediately after my discussion with the doctor, I was struck by pangs of guilt: My daughter Rebecca was about to enter her senior year of college as a liberal arts major – sociology and French minor – and I had never really had that practical conversation with her about the real-world application of her college pursuits. I was the laissez faire parent!

That’s not necessarily a bad approach. There’s value in allowing your kids to make their own decisions, find their interests and passions on their own, and take responsibility for the outcomes. Parents foisting their own interests, desires and fears upon their kids to either force or influence them to take a certain path rarely works – at least not over the long haul – and typically ends in resentment. But I still felt remiss about possibly leaving Rebecca unprepared for a world that can be callous and crush souls.

So I called Rebecca that August day, knowing that merely mentioning the idea of developing a plan for her post-college life early in her senior year could ratchet up her stress level. She assured me that she was considering various ideas and researching careers, and that she wasn’t approaching her pending graduation flippantly.

That was enough for me. I could check off the Parental Duty box next to “Advise Child of Importance of College Choices.” I’ve never been a hard-ass parent. I have confidence Rebecca will find her way, just like I do with Daniel. And even though their career paths will be different, I’m glad both will be making their decisions based on what they want to do, not based on my ideas of what they should do or on pursuing a path based on fear that they won’t succeed. Because they will succeed if they have the desire and interest.

There are no strings attached to my investment in their college educations. I’ll guide where I can and when and if I’m asked. Otherwise, they’re on their own, and I know that’s the way they want it.

Learning the Value of Work, Intrinsic Motivation

I put on a jacket I hadn’t worn in nine months, stuck my hand in the pocket and pulled out a forgotten, folded paper. It was a job application form that hadn’t been filled out for Grotto Pizza, a popular chain in Delaware beach towns that recently expanded into our Maryland suburb. My find triggered the memory of a conversation my wife Amy and I had with our son Daniel in the car on our way to dinner at the pizza chain where I had picked up the application.

The gist of the conversation that March 2016 evening was that we expected Daniel to work after he graduated high school later that spring. I advised that the new pizza restaurant was looking for employees and recommended he fill out an application. Daniel expressed resistance to working – or perhaps just to me suggesting where he should work or what he should do – advocating for a last summer before college of doing whatever he wanted.danielshophouse

It got a little tense before we got to the restaurant, Amy and I frustrated at Daniel’s nonchalant attitude toward working and earning money for himself. We were concerned about him adopting an attitude of privilege. For a couple of years, I had recommended to Daniel that he get certified as a lifeguard because we live in a community with 23 pools, or that he work at a summer camp. But he didn’t take up my suggestions. Lifeguarding would be boring, and he didn’t want to deal with younger kids, he said.

So imagine my surprise when a month after our frustrating conversation, Daniel announced that he had found a job opening on his own and had an interview scheduled at Shophouse, the Asian equivalent of Chipotle Mexican Grill, also owned by Chipotle. He had two interviews, including a group interview with the whole staff to evaluate whether he would fit in, and got the job.

A second surprise came at the end of summer 2016. Daniel easily could have decided it was nice having his first work experience, but he was done with that chapter and on his way to college. Instead, he decided he would keep his job while going to school.

He has been like a utility infielder at Shophouse, working the grill, preparing food, explaining the menu and serving food on the line to customers, and operating as cashier. He is working his way to a promotion to kitchen manager. I dropped in one night recently for dinner, where he made me a chicken with peanut sauce bowl. I watched him serve customers, thinking he had come a long way in working with adults and learning about the responsibilities of a job.

He is developing a good work ethic, always arriving to work on time, doing whatever he is asked to do and embracing the team concept of his employer. He also is learning about saving and the value of money, spending on things that are important to him but saving most of what he earns for the future. He earned straight A’s during his first semester of college while holding down his job.

I am proud of the way Daniel has embraced his job and the pride he shows in his work and earning his own way, while juggling a rigorous academic load. I am cheered that he is learning about the concepts of individual responsibility, quality of work, working as part of a team and his ability to direct his life with his choices, work ethic and attitude. He already has started applying for summer internship jobs in computer science, his chosen field. His self-motivation has blossomed.

Several times with my kids, they have gone on to do things I had wanted and encouraged them to do, but they did it on their own and in their own way and time, not in direct response to or because of my nudging or urging, or so it has seemed, though maybe my fatherly advice and wisdom had an influence. I’ve always told my kids that it is preferable when they do things out of intrinsic motivation – based on their own desires and interests – rather than out of extrinsic motivation, such as pleasing their parents and getting the old fogies off their backs. I’m glad they are learning this lifelong lesson, as Daniel’s employment endeavor indicates.

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