Room Mother

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As mothers with the demanding schedule of a career, I am going to assume that you, like me, have tried to overcompensate time and time again by bending over backwards for your children.  Well, I have overcompensated in the name of my children, but in looking back I realize that a whole lot of it was to prove to everyone around me that I was not in fact making my children suffer by being a working parent.

The way I know that is that my activities tended toward the “visible” on occasion, when my children probably didn’t care one way or another whether I participated in that exact way. Take, for example, the most obvious mistake that we ambitious moms make: We become a ROOM MOTHER. In my case, I made the ultimate sacrifice of becoming the HEAD Room Mother in my son’s KINDERGARTEN class. If you have made this same mistake, then need I say more? Being the head room mother for a kindergarten class is about the same thing as being the teaching assistant, only you don’t get paid and you are holding down another full time job, to boot.

I spent that year in a bad mood pretty much all the time because I was so stressed out! I would come home from a day at work and then have to go to the craft store where I would pick out materials for the teacher’s latest great idea for the school festival, or go to the grocery store to pick up ingredients for yet another baking requirement.  When under stress, I tend to start moving in a crazy manner at high speed – this does not combine well with hot burners and open oven doors. As a result, my arms read like a journal of all of my misadventures in the kitchen, assuming you can translate the hieroglyphics of scars.

Throughout the whole process, I expected my kindergartener to be so thankful that I was doing all of this for HIM, and would of course I frequently reminded him of such when I had no time to do other, less important, things like taking him to the park, reading, stopping a bleeding wound…

My son survived and I learned a valuable lesson, meaning that I did NOT volunteer five years later when my daughter was in Kindergarten. I tried to warn my career-oriented girlfriend about the whole room mother thing when her son got to that point, but she signed up anyway. When I ran into her later that semester, she seemed so calm, and I couldn’t figure it out until she reminded me that she employs an assistant who happens to love baking and crafts. Darn! Why didn’t I think of that?!

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Beginning Well…and Ending Well

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The Sandwich Generation — Somehow saying I’m part of this group when making social chatter at a business event makes me feel at that moment like I belong to some kind of modern, exclusive club. Others in my age bracket can identify; it gives us something in common. By all means, at a social event you want to keep it light, and so you laugh with each other about your crazy life that pulls you in so many directions. You talk about how you always pictured this phase of your life being a time when you slow down and have lots of time for “me”, but instead you’re busier than ever. Good ice breaker, but what you have shared is about as much of the whole story as a situation you share on Facebook — you clean it up, make it funny, make yourself perhaps even enviable to have so many people in your life who want/need your attention. 

But those of us who are blessed to still have our aging parents know the rest of the story; a story that soars from wonderful to heartbreaking to funny to stressful — and that just describes one day!

Recently, I had one of those days that defines the Sandwich Generation as it really is, not the cleaned up version you tell at a party. It was our grandson’s christening weekend and we were all looking forward to that big day and a celebration afterwards. My parents, aged 85 and 90, were driving in for the event. Knowing they are on the road makes me nervous, but my mother is a good driver and still enjoys a trip. And then I got a phone call early in the morning: My mother had been up sick all night, bad headache, vomiting, leg cramps, aching… She was too sick to even get out of bed to go see a doctor, and of course that would have been a long ordeal since it was a weekend.

So here is what is going through my mind: It’s probably a stomach virus or a little touch of food poisoning, and she will probably be okay staying in the bed, trying to sleep it off. My mother, though elderly, is in good health, and this stuff is going around…But what if she’s having a stroke?! Time is of the essence; every minute counts! Should we call 911? Or, if we don’t think it’s quite that much of an emergency, do I need to jump in the car and get there as quick as I can (a three hour drive)? But, it’s our grandson’s christening back here at home. I can’t miss that! Or can I? How do I decide? Do I go with the great probability that my mother has a virus and will get better in a few hours? My grandson only gets christened once! Or do I think the unthinkable — that she is going to get worse, not better, if she doesn’t get some medical attention?

This story ended well. We checked in every few hours, and there was a definite pattern of the worst of the symptoms easing off. I made it to our grandson’s christening, and it was a beautiful event, though my parents had to miss it. My mother is feeling better today, and life goes on. Until the next time.

Since then, I’ve thought so much about what a beautiful day it was for our precious grandson, his parents, and the whole family. The service was so meaningful, the baby was well behaved, and the weather was sunny and custom made for an afternoon of visiting on the deck. A perfect beginning for our grandson’s life of faith. And yet, this was juxtaposed against my concerns for my parents as they strive to live out the rest of their lives in a quality manner. I want that for them so much — to truly enjoy all of their days, living as pain free as possible, and living as independently as possible. 

What I’ve realized is that most of us are able to make a plan for a transition to a different living situation as long as it is “someday”. But “someday” doesn’t get closer in our minds — it’s always a year off. How do you face the fact that “someday” is here? How do you know that “someday” has arrived? As a daughter bordering on senior citizen status myself, how much can I reasonably do to ensure my parents continue to live in their home, when their home is several hours away, and all of the rest of my family is here? If my parents feel they are not ready to move, but my sibling and I feel that it is time, how hard do we push? I know that when I get that age, I want my children to allow me to take risks if it means I can maintain my independence and does not jeopardize others; most of us would rather “end well” where we want to be, even if our lives end up being shortened from an accident because of it. I know I would. Quantity of life is not everything.

Yes, life as part of the Sandwich Generation is a challenge to me, not so much because my daily schedule is actually so much busier, but because my MIND is busier as I go through the what if’s and the evaluation of my parents’ situation more and more frequently. At the same time, my mind ponders these beautiful little grandchildren and the part we want to play in their lives. And of course we still enjoy our involvement in the lives of our three adult children. It’s true that the more people you love, the greater your heart expands to love. When those grandchildren are born, your heart grows huge with new love to share, while the love you have had for your children, spouse and family doesn’t diminish one iota. The challenging part of that is that, the more individuals in your life you love, the more your mind wants to wander into the “worry forest” for each of them, and that forest can grow just like your heart, if you’re not careful.

I don’t have the answers, except that I’m getting a lot of practice these days in letting the “worries of today be sufficient for the day”, in learning to trust the future when I don’t know what the future looks like. I don’t want worry to steal the joy from my enjoyment of my parents, and enjoyment of my adult children and my grandchildren. I want to create as many moments as possible that bring the generations together, offering opportunities for wrinkled lips to kiss brand new skin on tiny foreheads, and age-spotted arms to hold wiggly, giggling toddlers. I want to see my adult children laughing with and listening to the stories of their grandparents. I want them to see me carrying out the commandment the best I can to “honor your father and your mother that your days may be long on this earth”, even on days when it’s hard. It’s important to me to be that example in their lives. 

And so, maybe on those days when being part of the Sandwich Generation is a challenge, I’ll remember what a huge BLESSING it is to have the incredible honor of being a part of the lives of both my young grandchildren and my elderly parents. That sandwich actually tastes pretty good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Key

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Any woman who has walked that delicate tightrope of balancing family and work knows the stress of trying to lean in both directions at once to keep one’s balance. Of course, it’s physically impossible to lean in two opposite directions at once, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

About a year into my entrepreneurial venture, I was trying to overcome physics and lean in two directions simultaneously. Our company had finally secured a large contract and knew we now had to capitalize on the opportunity by producing with excellence. It was also fall baseball season, meaning that we were spending lots of time at the baseball field watching our son’s team. My husband and I were less than pleased with our son’s coach, who appeared to have a real temper problem that might have been appropriate for boot camp but not for a team of eleven year old boys. We made sure we were always there to keep an eye on how his poor leadership style was impacting our son, ready to make a change if the unhealthy aspects of this activity began to outweigh the healthy ones.

The day before one of the games, I had had to go back over to the office after going home to meet the kids’ bus, so they entertained themselves while I finished up some work. Little did I know that the way they had found to kill time was to retrieve the key from the lock in our file cabinet and play a “keep away” game with it on the carpeted floor of the workroom! That would have been fine, except that upon leaving they neglected to replace the key in the lock.

During the game the next day, I received a frantic call from my staff, there in the office working on a Saturday morning to meet our deadline. They could not find the key to the file cabinet, which held critical information needed to complete their task.  As I listened, I remembered that David and Allison had been playing in that room, and so I turned to our seven-year old daughter and asked, “Do you know anything about a key to a filing cabinet at the office?”

She replied, “David and I were playing with a key yesterday.”

“Where did you get that key?”

“Out of the front of the file cabinet, in the lock that is in the top drawer.”

“What did you do with it when you got through playing with it?”

“I don’t know.”

While I typically have unusually low blood pressure, it was probably at stroke level for the remainder of that game until David came off the field and I could ask him about the key. All I could think about was my staff there at the office, giving up their Saturday to meet a deadline, and because of my children they could do nothing.

When I finally was able to ask David about the key, he nonchalantly replied, “I don’t know. I guess it’s somewhere on the floor.”

As I seethed, I pushed the kids into the car and immediately drove over to the office, where everyone had left since there was no more work that they could do. Thank goodness they had left, as when I took my son and daughter into that room with the file cabinet, I just lost it. I had what we southerners refer to as an all out hissy fit.

“I cannot believe you lost that key! Couldn’t you have found something else to play with, or at least been responsible enough to put it back where you found it?! Do you know what you have done?! What you have cost the company?! Do you know how many people had their Saturday disrupted for nothing because of your carelessness?! Do you ever think of anyone but yourselves?! Are you trying to destroy my company??!!”

It continued to go downhill from there, making that hot-headed baseball coach look like Mother Teresa. My voice got louder and shriller as my kids just looked at me like I had lost my mind. I was yelling and crying and basically using this as an outlet for my weeks and months of overload and trying to do the impossible. The kids most certainly deserved to be reprimanded for their deed, but what was happening here was that I was feeling the need to reprimand myself for my inability to be perfect, and it was being directed toward them.

My guilt was almost unbearable. First, I had the guilt of employees working on Saturday when I, as owner of the company, was not. Secondly, I had the guilt of failing as a mother to teach my children responsibility. Thirdly, I had the guilt of being an imperfect individual. Just because only God can lean in two directions at once did not relieve me of the expectation that I should be able to as well.

For better or worse, my children have always had a very strong security in the bonds of family and their own value, so they did not take my behavior too personally. If my mother had done that to me I would have taken that guilt right off her shoulders and carried it around for years! In fact, I think I might have preferred that it have impacted them JUST A LITTLE more than it did, instead of their correct assumption that mom had gone insane for a few minutes and would get over it in time.

They still remember that day and we laugh about it. They give me credit for becoming temporarily insane and managing to dole out abuse only by words! I laugh along with them when they begin with, “Remember when we lost that key?”, but really, it hurts a place deep in my heart because it reminds me of the tremendous pressure I was placing myself under during those years. My intentions were good – to be the mother I wanted my children to have and to be the boss I wanted my employees to have – but I took my personal expectations to the extreme.

Over time, I did learn better balance. I most certainly never got it right. I remember one time a management consultant showing me a graphic of three interlinked circles, equal in size, and telling me that this is the way my life should look – three equal spheres representing work, family, and personal life. He asked if the circles in my life were equal, and I said, “Yes, but there are only two of them.” Ladies, you know without my telling you which circle was missing.

I’ve learned so much since then, and often I wonder if I would do things differently if I had it to do all over again. My answer is yes, but still I wonder if eventually in life we have to get things wrong before we are able to get them right. Maybe that’s why we correctly associate wisdom with age as we stumble our way through the road of life, ping ponging left and right off of the edges but moving forward nonetheless.

P.S. Yes, we found the key. Yes, we met our project schedule. Yes, my employees forgave me.

THINGS I WISH I HAD TOLD MY CHILDREN ABOUT COLLEGE THAT I LEARNED FROM WORKING – PART 4 OF 4

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been focusing on kids and college. There’s so much that I’ve learned  that seems like wisdom to me for parents of teens and young adults themselves relative to post-secondary education and careers. As they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and there are things I would share with my children if I could go back to that time when they were preparing for what’s next after high school graduation. So rest assured that my advice does not come from the fact that I did it all right!

So, to wrap up this series on education (both academic and life in general) after high school, I offer the following three points to make it an even dozen:

10. If you’re passionate about a specific career, follow it regardless. If you’re not, then take time to weigh your options.

When I was approaching graduation from high school, it seemed to me that everyone knew just what they wanted to do, except me. My best friend wanted to be a history teacher. She proceeded to apply to a school known for its program of preparing teachers, went on the fast track to get her degree in three years, graduated, became a history teacher, and is still working in the public school system to this day. As for me, I just couldn’t identify with having that kind of self-knowledge. I knew I wanted to work in something math-related, but other than that, I didn’t have a clue. It wasn’t that nothing seemed interesting to me, but rather that EVERYTHING seemed interesting! I had always been a good student, so within reason, I could probably manage to succeed academically in whatever program I chose. My heart was not attached to any one vision of what I wanted my life and career to look like, other than that I knew I needed to prepare myself to support myself financially. Today, I see young people all the time who feel similar to the way I felt. What I like to share with them is that, while it can make life simpler to know exactly what you want your career to look like, there are many opportunities for those who are open to a number of different scenarios. One of the challenges of having our heart tied to one career is that you’ll probably never be happy doing anything else. So, if the job that pulls at your heart happens to not pay much, then you’re probably not going to be happy ignoring that pull and choosing something with higher pay. Instead, it’s most likely the best idea for you to learn to adjust your lifestyle and material needs to your income, whatever that is. What good is it to make more money when you’ve cut off the very thing that brings passion to your life? If you’re one of those people who was just plain born to be a teacher, or an artist, or a pilot, then nothing else will replace that for you. On the other end, I see a whole lot of students who fit more into the category I found myself in, and a large majority of them choose a business major. For some reason, within this category, a lot of them choose marketing, but I’m not exactly sure why. I’m certainly not criticizing a decision to get a business degree! I’m just saying that there are other options that may yield more benefits, and it’s worth considering these other options. One of the challenges of getting a general degree like business, or marketing, is that once you get out of school, you now have general skills; but, you don’t actually have any expertise in a specific area to which you can apply your business or marketing skills. And so you go out into the work world looking for a job that will be willing to invest in teaching you what they do so that you can apply your business skills to it. Individuals have successfully followed this path for years, and it is a legitimate path. However, another alternative would be to take time during your college years to become knowledgeable about a specific industry. For example, while you are working on your business degree, perhaps you decide to work on your private pilot’s license. When you graduate, you can focus on applying to businesses in the aviation industry. Those hiring you will give you stronger consideration for a position, knowing that you were interested enough in their industry to pursue expertise in it. Your combination of aviation experience AND your business degree will be more lucrative to them. As another example, perhaps you get a degree in engineering and a minor in business. So you say that you don’t know if you like engineering? Well, so what? I’m speaking to those of you who don’t really know what you want to do. Having a degree in something like engineering, with courses in business as well, will offer you a specific industry to pursue — engineering! I can’t stress enough that one of the best areas to consider for a degree is anything in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) disciplines, as this continues to be the economic emphasis. If you’re rolling the dice about what you want to do, then roll it for STEM. Once you have that degree, if you find, as I did, that you really like business development, marketing, leadership and communication better than designing bridges, you can move into those areas within the engineering industry. Keep in mind that EVERY industry needs business skills, marketing skills, personnel skills, financial skills, etc.

11. Realize that those people you’re sitting in classes with, going to football games with, sharing living spaces with, and partying with, will someday comprise part of your business network.

That probably sounds bizarre to you from your vantage point, but it’s true. As those students around you graduate and get on their career paths, there will be some who become VERY successful. Which ones are they? You don’t know! You can make some educated guesses — the student body president has a higher likelihood of being successful because the or she has already demonstrated a desire for leadership and the charisma or personality needed to get elected. But don’t assume that the straight-A students have the greatest likelihood of high success; actually, there are many more successful leaders in business who had average or above average GPA’s. Don’t even assume that the big partier will necessarily be a business failure. One thing you can bank on is that the person who, regardless of some immaturity, knows how to be a good friend and lives by a set of personal values, is one who you may someday be very glad is in your business network. Does it sound like I’m suggesting that you be nice to people and encourage their friendship because of what they may be able to do for you  in the future? If it does, let me assure you that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that you, and everyone around you, is building a reputation of some kind, even in college. Also, your basic character is showing even if, as I said before, it is clouded by the immaturity that most still carry in college. Don’t you want to make friends in college with people who you can trust, who have a basic sense of character? Well, those are the same people you’ll want in your network ten years down the road. Start building your network with the right people now. It’ll benefit you today…and tomorrow. 

12. You are blessed beyond measure to have the opportunity to get a college education.

Yes, I had to end with something very, very “parent-y”. But this is true. I took so much for granted as a college student. In undergrad school, I was fortunate to have parents who could pay my tuition and fees and living expenses. I worked and felt I was doing my part by paying for all of my “extras”. Several years later, I was married, had a house payment to meet each month, and had just found out I was pregnant with our first child when I found out I had been selected for a fellowship to return to graduate school. The fellowship made furthering my education possible, but it also meant financial sacrifice on my husband’s and my part for me to go back to school for two years. I can tell you that I was MUCH more serious about why I was there than I was those first four years! And that doesn’t even begin to touch the challenges many of my fellow students faced. NC State University is a land grant institution, and even today in year 2014, there are a surprising number of students at State who are the first in their families to ever attend college! Many of those live from semester to semester, hoping and praying that the funds will be there for them to return. It makes me realize how little I understood about sacrifice when I was in school. But let me go even further — those of us born in America, still the Land of the Free even with all of our problems and threats to our democratic culture, have been given a gift that many throughout the world have not been given. We have the freedom to pursue any career we wish, without our government dictating what that career is going to be for us. We have the freedom to pursue an education in order to achieve that career. If you are female as I am, you have the freedom to pursue your education and career in the same way that your male counterparts do — unlike too many other countless females who were not born in America and other such countries. Why were all of us given this particular blessing; I mean, why me?? I don’t know, but I think it’s important for us to remember to be grateful for the freedom we have to pursue the education and career of our choice without intervention from the government or fear of our fellow man. It’s the right attitude to have, sure, but I can promise you that living a life of gratitude, focusing on the positives and blessings in your life more than the issues that make you see yourself as a victim, will lead to a much happier life.

So those are my “lessons learned”, my Dirty Dozen suggestions and observations that I wish I’d been wise enough to understand so much sooner. But life is like that — just as we’re getting the hang of something, it’s time to move on to something else. 

Now that I’ve taken up so much writing space focusing on education, I promise to move to another topic the next time I write!

 

THINGS I WISH I HAD TOLD MY CHILDREN ABOUT COLLEGE THAT I LEARNED FROM WORKING – PART 3 OF 4

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This is the third of four parts about things I have learned through my experiences of being an entrepreneur and business leader, and as a result of being very involved in post-secondary education through volunteering with universities and community colleges. My volunteer duties have ranged from mentoring individual students to serving on the primary leadership boards for the schools.  In Part 1 and Part 2, I listed a total of six points that I believe are worthy of consideration by students nearing high school graduation as well as students in their college career. Following are three additional points:

7. Realize that if you don’t get into your first choice school as a Freshman, it is likely that you can still graduate from that school.

I talk with students on a regular basis who desperately want to get into a particular college. In some cases, their desire to go to that school is wise; perhaps it has a strong program in the area they want to major in, or maybe it offers a large range of opportunities for them to explore as they decide their future. In more cases, however, the student wants to go to a particular college for more short term reasons: They follow the sports team, their best friend is going and they want to room together, or they feel that they will be judged by others based on the quality of school they get accepted into. We parents can be just a shortsighted as our child, wanting them to attend our alma mater just because WE loved the school, or wanting the bragging rights with our peers of sharing the news that our child got accepted into a prestige school. But what happens when your child does NOT get into the school of choice? I’ve seen this really devastate not only the child but their family, as well. While it’s natural to be disappointed, this is a great opportunity to work on looking at a more long term perspective. Granted, it’s not what you would have chosen, but much good can come from it, and you’ll probably look back and realize it benefitted the student’s education, not detracted from it. So I’ll start by saying something very important to remember: If you REALLY want to go to a particular school and don’t get accepted your freshman year, there is a strong likelihood that you can still graduate from there. The hardest time to get accepted into a college is fall of one’s freshman year, because there’s so much competition. As an alternative, I recommend that you begin at another college and get some of your general courses out of the way. If you live in a state where the college you desire is part of a system of colleges, it would be to your benefit to attend a school within that system, making it more likely that you will be accepted as a transfer student to your desired school. Some thing that you need to wait for two years before transferring, but that’s not the case. Usually a year is good, where you can transfer as a sophomore, but I have actually seen students successfully transfer after one semester. There are advantages to starting out at a different school — I say this from personal experience. I began my college career at a much smaller university before transferring as a Junior to NC State University to pursue my engineering degree. Looking back, I cherish those two years at Appalachian State University! Classes were smaller, I loved the experience of living in a mountain town, I got a couple of difficult courses under my belt that may have been a little tougher at State to get through (i.e., Physics), and I got the chance to know what it’s like to go to more than one school. Another advantage if finances are an issue (and they should always be an issue — you always need to consider the value you are getting for your investment) would be that you could begin your school career at a community college, which has strong government financial support and thus is very inexpensive to attend, comparatively. I know I’ve mentioned this in my previous posts, but I think it’s worth mentioning here again: While it’s natural to care what people think, especially as a young person, it’s really not something you want to let rule your life. This is a good time to “practice” doing what may be best for you in your situation and not caring what other people think. So what if they think that community college is all you could get into? Their opinions are fleeting, and most of those people will not be in your life five years down the road, so why let their opinions cause you to choose less than what is best for you? If you do choose to first attend community college with a plan to transfer, do your homework and make sure that the school has some type of transfer agreement with your school of choice so that you don’t get blindsided when you go to transfer by finding out that they won’t give you credit for the courses you’ve already taken.

8. Your professors are not robots, they are human beings. Practice being likable with them – it can make a difference in the outcome.

I know that we all want to pretend that our grades and our success in a course are all about what we have learned; i.e., our academic performance. Thankfully, that’s mainly true, but it’s not all true. You need to take time to get to know your professors, and show them that you’re serious about your studies. Hopefully, that’s the truth, but even if it’s not, you need to remember that this individual holds a piece of your future in his or her hands, and they have a lot of leeway. This is a good time to practice your people skills and to grow up enough to realize that all people may be created equal, but they hold different positions of importance. If you fail, or make a letter grade lower, this has very little long term impact on your professor. They really don’t need for you to like them, so this is not an equal relationship. It really is to your benefit for them to like you. In my six years of college working on a B.S. and Masters in engineering, I can tell you that there have been at least three times that my professors gave me the benefit of the doubt when I was on the line between grades that made a lasting impact on my final results. Again, it’s YOU or your parents who will have to pay to retake that course if you fail, not your professor. It’s YOU who will be competing when you graduate for the job of your dreams against others who did know how to practice those people skills. This in itself is a valuable lesson to learn while you are still in college, because it carries over into work, and into life: Being a person who is respectful and likable to be around COUNTS with those who hold your future in their hands! Even if you have to fake it, learn to act pleasant, humble and respectful, and save your grumbling and bad attitude for later when you’re venting with your friends.

9. Take time to learn about yourself – your personality and behavior type.

There are so many tools out there today that you can use to learn more about yourself, and many of them are free. Certainly, all colleges, and many high schools, offer these tools through their guidance office. In the business industry, the best known of these tools is Myers Briggs, but there are many others that require less time and investment. I encourage students to take every opportunity they have to use these tools. It may keep you from making a major mistake in your career choice. At its simplest, a behavioral tool will tell you how introverted or extroverted you are, and this is a major consideration in choosing a career. You don’t want to find yourself holded up in a cubical in front of a computer for eight hours a day if you get energized from being around people. First of all, you won’t be happy, and secondly, you probably won’t continue to be good at your job after a period of time. You want to choose work that uses your strengths, because when you have to do a task that challenges you where you are weakest, you end up exhausted. You want to be energized by your tasks, not exhausted! That is possible by choosing work that plays to not only your academic strengths but your behavioral ones, as well. Knowing about yourself goes beyond figuring out if you are an extrovert or an introvert, however. You need to know your communication style, your level of patience, and what situations intimidate you or give you confidence, just to name a few. Then, once you understand something about yourself, you need to focus on learning to observe behavioral characteristics of others you need to work with. Understanding their traits will help you connect better and accomplish goals together better, and believe me, that’s what the business world is all about. One note of caution: Never think that there is one behavioral style that is “better” than another. Each style is necessary in our world! And if you are one of those who find you are an introvert, don’t be discouraged because the world seems to applaud the extroverts these days (keep in mind that those out there applauding extroverts are in all likelihood extroverts themselves!). A recent study indicated that some of the greatest, most successful leaders turn out to be introverts. An interesting book to read about this is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

If you’re still reading, then be on the lookout for my final three points in Part 4, coming soon!

 

Things I Wish I Had Told My Children About College That I Learned from Working – Part 2 of 4

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I promised a continuation on this topic. In Part 1, I listed three points that I believe are worthy of consideration by students nearing high school graduation as well as students in their college career. Following are three additional points:

4. WORK while you go to school!

Of course I mean that you should work diligently in your courses, but my point here is to use the time you are in college to build a resume. There are so many benefits to this, but I’m going to name a few that I’ve observed as an employer as well as once being a new graduate myself. First of all, there is no way I can adequately describe to you the difference in graduating debt-free, or nearly debt-free, versus being burdened with large student loans. This is such a major deal in my mind that I would recommend choosing a less exclusive college to attend if it means the difference in large debt upon graduation. We as parents have not always been great examples to our kids, since we’ve grown up in the age of credit cards and “have it now”. Hopefully, the past six years of a serious recession have taught our generation something, and we need to teach that to our children. Even if it means stretching out college to five, six or seven years, it’s better to graduate late with no debt than to graduate in four years with that financial burden. There are also other viable options to reduce education expenses. Examples include choosing to go to community college for the first year or two before transferring, or entering a co-op program. I hate to say it, but we parents probably like that second idea better than the first. I think that’s because we also have some “education snobbery” in us that makes us look down on a community college education (see Point 3). It’s time for us to get over that and consider what is truly best long term for our child, not what will create the most envy among his or her friends, or among YOUR friends, for that matter. Then, we need to advise accordingly. Now, for my second reason for working during college: You need to graduate with something on your resume that goes beyond your college classes and college experiences. Your professors may tell you that they are giving you real world experience in the classroom, and perhaps they are. But I will tell you from an employer’s perspective that listing projects you have completed in a college course does not carry nearly the weight as an actual job. In the industry I am in, which is engineering, I have even considered menial jobs with an engineering company to have some value on a new graduate’s resume. For example, let’s say you’re a “runner” whose job is to deliver plans to clients, or make copies of documents. While this job doesn’t involve any actual engineering work, it does expose the you to an engineering environment and to what a set of plans actually looks like. You have the chance to absorb more than you may realize.

5. As much as they try to make it that way, college is not the real world — get out of school before you make major life decisions.

When I was in college in the 1970’s (I know, it was a long time ago), it was typical for many couples to get married as soon as they graduated from college. In my case, my parents worried that I might fall in love and want to get married before I got my degree — that is, they worried about that until I actually graduated. After that, I sometimes suspect they started worrying that I might NOT get married! It’s amazing to me to think back about it, but I was the last of my group of girlfriends to get married, and I was only 24 when I tied the knot! I’ll always be glad that I had those two years out of school on my own to adapt to who I was as a person in the real world, not a person in a school environment. What may seem to be the perfect mate for you in college, one who shares all of your interests, may not be so perfect once you’re out of school. For example, maybe you both love to party, or stay up late watching TV all night. That works great if you’ve managed to avoid 8:00 classes, part time jobs, lengthy labs, etc. But in the real world, even night owls tend to have to get up and be at work early. That really does change your perspective. It’s tough when one of you finds that you want a different lifestyle due to your changing circumstances, and the other one finds the college lifestyle just fine to continue. Another example is what you find that you want with your career. In college, you and all your friends pretty much reside in the same location — the school you attend. Once you graduate, you may be offered opportunities in different geographic locations, and perhaps you have to choose between living exactly where you want to and getting that dream job that’s perfect for you. All of us feel like we are so smart when we graduate, or at least I know I did. I thought I was pretty savvy financially, too, because I had had to work to provide my spending money and was born to fiscally conservative parents. Yet, when I graduated and got a job, I went out and rented an apartment I couldn’t afford, added a car payment I couldn’t afford, and topped it all off with a brand new color TV (bought with my first credit card). It took me several years to get out from under those bad decisions, and I never forgot it. But it happened because I was making decisions based on my college smarts rather than waiting to get a little real world smarts before making commitments.

6. Make an effort to be an interesting person.

Now, why would this be important? Well, life is not always fair, or at least not fair by your definition of fairness. By your definition, the person who realizes the greatest career success should be the one who best knows their subject matter. Maybe by your definition, that’s the person who made the highest GPA in college, or perhaps it’s the person who didn’t make the highest grades but was literally brilliant in their subject matter. Life doesn’t always turn out that way; why is that? My observation is that there is a whole lot more to success than being brilliant in your subject area. As an engineer, I most certainly needed to be credible in my subject area. Did I need to be brilliant? Well, perhaps if I’d chosen groundbreaking research or some such area that would have been critical. However, the fact is that the majority of engineering projects, just like the majority of work tasks in ANY career area, do not require brilliance to complete. They require intelligence, knowledge, dependability and fortitude, yes, but not brilliance. I’ve found that my skills in communication and my enjoyment of people have been every bit as important to my successful career as my degree and engineering work experience. When I go to a business function where I may have an opportunity to meet potential clients or business colleagues who may be important to my future, I have to have the ability to connect with those individuals. If all I know how to talk about is engineering, I am going to be a real bore to everyone except maybe another engineer. And most of my clients are NOT engineers. In fact, most of the individuals who have the potential to have the greatest potential to positively impact my business are not engineers. They are business people, bankers, educators, politicians, and more. How can I have the opportunity to convince someone of my skills as an engineer, or of the validity of one of my ideas, if no one finds me interesting enough to get to know? In the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) professions, this is particularly important, since we work in areas that the average person may not understand or care about. We need to take time to develop our knowledge of areas that ARE of interest to the average person. We can do that by reading about different subjects, developing hobbies, or volunteering in a service area that is different from our career area. If you’re still in college, you can do it by taking some courses outside of your major. Personally, I think that any course that teaches some form of storytelling is valuable. Even in engineering, we must sell ourselves to our clients. Sometimes the facts are not enough alone to set ourselves apart from our competition. But if we’re able to connect emotionally with our client, and connect their hearts in some way to the subject matter, we gain the advantage. With that in mind, the idea of an engineer taking a storytelling course may not sound so crazy! Lastly, let me point out that there were several brilliant scientists in Einstein’s day. Were they as brilliant as Einstein himself? Many were working on similar topics in their research. I’m not downplaying the significance of Einstein’s discoveries, but I will say that Einstein himself was quite a colorful character, in addition to being a brilliant scientist. He had interesting hobbies, could talk about many subjects, was humorous, and people loved to be around him. That could not have hurt as he competed for funding of his research and attention to his ideas.

Hopefully you’re finding my points of some value as you think about advice for the student in your life. If so, stay tuned for Part 3, coming soon!

Things I Wish I Had Told My Children about College That I Learned from Working – Part 1 of 4

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Education is a passion of mine. My parents were high school teachers. Personally, I never had a desire to teach, but I do love learning. If I had had my way, I would have taken a sabbatical from work every five years to go back to school. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as sabbaticals in my world.

I founded a civil engineering consulting firm 21 years ago, and that has been the learning experience of a lifetime; an education that no school college course could have taught me. Meanwhile, I have been very involved with my alma mater, NC State University, serving in a variety of ways from personal mentor of engineering students to chairing the Board of Trustees.

I have raised two children who went through the college experience, employed college students, interviewed college students, spoken with the parents of college students, and immersed myself into learning all I can about how university systems operate. Of course, based on my corporate experience, I certainly know how the corporate world operates.

Based on my experiences, I want to offer some input to the parents of students anticipating their next step after high school. I would say that I’m offering this advice to the students themselves, but honestly, what young person is reading a blog called “Yes Ma’am! Yes Mom!”??

So here goes:

1.Just because you like a particular professor, course or class does not mean that you will like the career it leads to.

I will use myself as an example. As a student, I loved math; it was not easy to me but I loved the challenge of problem-solving. Once I experienced a few engineering courses, I felt that I had found the perfect career because I liked the classes. Once I graduated and found myself in an actual engineering job, however, I started getting antsy. I still loved the challenge of doing all of the initial design work. What I hated was going back and making corrections, sitting at my desk looking at graph paper (and later computer screens) all day, and having very little reason for extended conversations with others. I am very much of a Type A personality, an extrovert, and I needed to communicate! I needed to be around people! The happy ending to my story is that I found a niche in my profession where I could use my technical knowledge and degree but apply it to the business side of engineering. I took on roles in business development and management, and found I was much happier at work. While it worked out for me, I would recommend that as one considers a career, one ponder the following question: “What do I want a typical day in the life of my job to look like?” Think about things such as your ability for sit for long periods of time, or your desire to be around people, or your willingness to travel or relocate. There are many tools available to help you sort these questions out and learn something about yourself. I highly recommend use of those tools.

2. Just because you make your best grades in one particular subject does not mean that is the area you need to pursue as a career.

Honestly, I found that English came much easier to me than math and science. But, I was a good student overall, just like many students today. There are many students who know how to make good grades and are able to achieve success in pretty much any course they take. Students who are very good in liberal arts and communication, for example, may want to consider getting a degree in a STEM discipline (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Once they graduate with this type of degree and combine it with great communication skills, they may find that they have a much better outlook for getting a job. You see, there are not so many people with STEM degrees who are extroverts, great communicators, love to be around people, etc. Therefore, you will be one of the few interested in positions within that industry who would actually want to work in marketing and public relations, business development, client interaction, etc. If on the other hand you choose to get a marketing degree, then guess what? Everyone you are competing with for a job has similar skills as you, and a similar degree. Be shrewd in considering what you get a degree in!

3.If you’re going to college so you can make more money in your career, look at some other alternatives, as well.

There are benefits to the “college experience”, and all of us who have been to college know that we learned a lot more than just what was taught in our classes. We began the process of learning about life on our own. So, I’m not suggesting that this is not valuable to many, but what I am saying is that it may not be the answer for all. We parents are really the first ones who need to be convinced of this. We feel like our child needs to get that four-year degree, preferably from a very favorable university, and perhaps be planning to get a Masters degree following that. But I go back to my original statement: If the reason you are going to college is to MAKE MORE MONEY IN YOUR CAREER, then just know that there are other options out there that may take less time, cost a lot less money, and yield greater returns. In my company, there are positions called Civil Engineering Technicians. Some of our Technicians have a one or two-year associates degree from a community college. I can tell you that their starting salary is by far higher than the starting salary of a public school teacher, even one with a Master’s degree. So, they went to school a lot less, paid a whole lot less for their education, probably do not have student loans to repay, and are making a higher salary. It is really something that we as parents have not accepted ourselves as a viable alternative for our children, and so we have created in our children a snobbery toward education — they feel that it is somehow a lower choice to choose a course of study that is not a four-year degree program at a well known university. And if you are still wondering about the wisdom of making this at least an alternative for discussion for your child, consider this: During the past six years of the recession, when my company shrank by over 30% due to the need for layoffs of our employees, I have an acquaintance who owns a small manufacturing facility that makes precision instruments for the medical and aeronautical industries. He hires people with degrees in machine shop (today’s machine shop is not callouses and grease like in the old days — it’s computer and CADD technology like everything else). Anyway, throughout the recession, he continued to look for people, because…he could not find enough people out there who had chosen that line of work! All I can think about is for six years all the “white collar” employees sitting home after being laid off from their jobs, and here was an industry all that time looking for people who had machine shop training and could not find them.

Okay, that’s three suggestions, and that’s enough for today. Look for Part 2 of my list, coming soon!