I’ve been following Catherine Ryan Howard’s blog Catherine, Caffeinated for a few years now, and freely admit that I share her love for all things caffeine. Catherine posted an article about how the hardest thing about a decision is making it. In her post, Catherine talks about her long-time desire to attend Trinity College in Dublin, and how, finally, at the last minute she applied, and how, finally, she’s attending the university she dreamed about. I nodded as I read Catherine’s post because I had the same realization—that the hardest part about a decision is making it.
Like Catherine, I had university dreams for years. I knew from the time I was working on my BA in English that I wanted to pursue my PhD so I could teach at the university level, but you know that great saying about how life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. As soon as I finished my BA, I dutifully went into an MA program, also in English, with the intention of following up with a doctoral program. I finished my Master’s degree, but I was sidetracked when I worked in “The Industry” (television and film) in Hollywood for a couple of years as a script analyst. The Hollywood work was exciting at first, though it lost its luster soon enough for me. On a whim I took a job teaching kindergarten at a small private school in Southern California, and I felt like I had come home. I loved teaching. I loved the children. I loved that the world is new for five year-olds and everything is fascinating to them. I decided to go back to school to get my teaching license, and since then I’ve spent 20 years teaching everything from Pre-K to elementary school to middle school to high school to writing workshops for adults. At the same time I was writing short stories, articles, and novels, and in 2011 I joined the indie author revolution.
About two years ago I started getting antsy. I had been in education 18 years by then, and I realized I needed something new, some new challenge. I think that’s what happens to some people when they’ve been doing the same thing for a while. It could just be me since I know teachers who have taught at the same school for years and love it. At my first job in Las Vegas, as a learning strategist at a middle school, I met a teacher who taught the same subject in the same school in the same classroom for over 30 years. She taught there so long that she was teaching the children of her original students. She would have stayed even longer than she did but her mother’s health began to fail so she retired to stay home to take care of her mother. I’ve always envied people like that, people who know where they belong, but I have too much of a restless spirit to keep still in that way. The way I kept teaching interesting for me was to keep moving—from grade level to grade level, from school to school, sometimes even from state to state, moving first from California to Idaho and then from Idaho to Nevada. Once I started teaching high school, I realized there was nowhere else to teach except university, which is where I wanted to go in the first place.
Excuses are funny things, aren’t they? They love to multiply and make you question yourself, leaving you nervous about decisions that should be easy peasy. Over the years my desire to get my PhD would rise to the surface, but the excuses would come, like ants marching one by one: What if I don’t get accepted anywhere? What if I do get accepted somewhere? I can’t decide what to study—English or Education? What if I choose the wrong one? And whatever I choose I’ll have to go back to school for four years. I’ve been out of school too long to be able to go back for four years. I’ll have to leave my job but my job is comfortable and safe. What will I do without my salary? And what about my writing? I’m a writer. I need to write. When will I find time to write my fiction if I’m back in school? I’m too old. I’m too set in my ways. And so on. You know the drill. We all have a list of excuses that scream into our brains whenever we want to do something different.
For me, I make changes when the pain from not making them is stronger than my fear of the change. I had been feeling like I needed a career change for a while, but at first it was just a mild hum in the background that I could ignore or explain away.Then the mild hum became a pointed stick that wouldn’t stop poking me. I understood on a visceral level that I needed to move on since being comfortable wasn’t enough anymore. I finally made the decision to apply to PhD programs. I took the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) because that’s a requirement for graduate school here in the U.S. and I hadn’t taken it since I applied for my Master’s program 24 years ago. I researched different programs at universities in Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington State. After some soul searching and several discussions with a friend and co-worker who has been my cheerleader (thanks Judy!) I realized that I had something to offer when it comes to the teaching of writing so I decided to pursue a PhD in Education.
The funny thing is that now, taking my classes and planning out my program for the long haul, I don’t know what took me so long. Yes, the classes are challenging, but it’s a PhD and you have to work for it. The truth is, I love it. Even when it’s hard and I’m exhausted and I’m ready to pull my hair out I love it. That’s what happens when you end up where you’re supposed to be—something clicks and it just feels right. In Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, there’s this great saying about how when you follow your dreams the universe conspires to help you. That’s how I feel now. Once I made the decision that this is what I wanted to do, everything else was easy. And you know what? The other stuff gets done. My own writing, as in for my new novel, is getting done, maybe not as quickly as before, but I can see I’m making progress and that’s enough right now.
Once, when Oprah Winfrey still had her talk show, she had a guest who talked about how it’s not the things people do that cause them pain but the things they don’t do. I’ve always held that idea close. Whenever I have a decision to make—yes or no?—I always ask myself if I would regret it if I didn’t try. I hope that whatever decisions you have to make—yes or no?—you’re able to follow your dreams, and, as Confucius said, wherever you go, go with all your heart.