14 Things I Learned During my Leave of Absence

by - Tuesday, May 28, 2013

As devoted readers know, I came against the biggest obstacle yet in my life this March, and I took a quarter off from my dissertation to see if this is even really where I want to be and what I want to do with my life. I spent the time volunteering every day, writing lots of blogs, and going to Kenya, among lots of other things. I have no idea what happens next, but I feel grateful for this time (and a truly kickass and SUPPORTIVE husband), and I thought I would share what I learned. This weekend I start training for a summer job which will hopefully give me even more clarity on the issue.

For as crushed and broken as I felt 3 months ago, and as confused and conflicted as I feel now, it's still hard to deny the blessings that have come out of the whole thing already. Here is what i have learned, hopefully someone else can find it useful:

1.How much I let grad school define my identity (and how crappy an idea that is)- My whole life was basically grad school and a little bit my relationship, with small pauses for pretty much anything else. That is not healthy, and I don't think it is what i want my life to be. I think it can make people happy, especially people who are more invested in learning than people or basically anything else, but the thing I like learning about most is people, so I was letting some of my favorite things about myself wither away! If I go back to school, I will be doing it in a different way.

2.How to knit scarves… in bulk- Not only can I now knit, but I have knit like 9 of them in a few weeks because all of the kids in my Bayshore class wanted one. It has turned out perfect, because I got a ton of practice, really have sped up a lot, and don't have a bunch of scarves sitting around our apartment with no purpose.
3. That Steve Martin writes great books- Specifically, he writes awesome lines like these: "You want to know how I think art should be taught to children? Take them to a museum and say, 'This is art, and you can't do it." and "If you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don't. I have found that--just as in real life--imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience." 
4. How to biff (and eventually write) a cover letter- Write about what you do, not who you are. Foreground action, because just liking kids or caring about art means nearly nothing. I have not aced this mission yet, though I do give a good interview.
5. How to meet people again- I am really really bad at new people, and it generally takes me a while to open up, but now that I am working with kids and other volunteers, I need to meet new people at least a couple of times a week, and I don't have much time to warm up, so I just have to do it. This has been horrible and wonderful all at once.
6. That I could never be a person who doesn’t go to work- I need to get in the habit of leaving the house on someone else's terms, not my own. Being a graduate student seems to be incredibly similar to being a stay at home parent. You get to choose when you do what, but you are essentially working all of the time. It has been a challenge to conceptualize an adulthood where I forfeit that control over my schedule (I think The Boy's perfect scenario is that I make 100,000 dollars a year by working from home). It is clear to me I need to get in this program and to figure out what I want in terms of schedule as well as ambition.
7. That I am INJF, that my strengths are individualization, contextual, relational, thinker, and learner, and that I value community building, creative conceptualizing, and learning over pretty much every other type of labor.I really took advantage of Stanford's Career Development Center, which encouraged a lot of self-assessment. I wasn't exactly surprised about the things that I learned, but it gave me more precise language to describe who I am and what I am good at. This is pretty invaluable.
8. That I have chosen a good path for that personality, but that path could lead more places than I originally thought- I am a teacher or a counselor. I like helping individuals learn and I like learning about individuals. I love art. This is actually open to plenty of jobs, which is a comfort to know anyway.
9. About the social patterns of 5th grade girls- They are so funny. Also, loud.
10. How much I think I have stunted my own creativity over the past 5 years, and ideas for how to get that creativity back- I am now looking at the real possibility that one of the steps I need to move forward is to take studio classes, and I am both really excited and totally horrified. I have basically written off that side of myself, articulating it mostly in making photographs, holiday decorations, and a random craft here or there. I think I moved as far away from it as possible 1. Because I am studying the greatest artists of all time, so anything I can do will look pretty pathetic 2. Because lots of art historians are nerds who wish they were cool enough to just be artists, and I wanted to accept my nerdom and 3. Because I had NO TIME. So now that I might need it to get into an art education masters program, I have to sort of backtrack on this, and hope that I have enough aesthetic ability in me to get where I need to go. I used to say I was a better writer than artist. Turns out I am not that great a writer on the high academic level, so let's hope my art can at least prove me a little bit wrong!
11. It’s not who you are, it is what you do. This one is the most important. In prepping for my Just Read tutoring job, I read an article about praising a student's effort, never their intelligence. They saod that when a person is praised for something they intrinsically have, you set them up for failure when they reach the limit of their natural ability and need to work hard to develop that muscle. Even if it is a strength for the student, you need to encourage them to innovate and to work harder, to keep developing muscle. Since I read this, I can't help but think about how it is so true in my own life, that perhaps I was too complacent about the things I was good at, and I used my strengths to sidestep my shortcomings, rather than addressing them. Even more importantly, this focus on action seems so important to me now. You are only smart if you are using your intelligence. You are only creative if you are actively creating on a regular basis. This list could go on forever, and it seems like such a powerful message to me. Life is not about self-perception or the potential we see within ourselves. It is only how we put these things into actions and choices.

 12. That I can use a lessened flash as filler light-  Yay learning new things! Hopefully getting better with the photography thing.

13. That when you give your labor away, you can really recognize its value- Volunteering is the best thing in the world, if only because people are just happy and grateful you show up, so anything you do beyond that seems like a bonus. This is a tricky thing, because now I am very attached to my volunteering stuff, and I know I can't spend my whole life only giving it away for free, but everyone should volunteer. 3 months of volunteering at about 5 places with 5 different jobs was probably one of the best things I have ever done for myself ever.
14. That when people offer you help of any kind, you should take it-  This is so true. There are people all over who will help you if you ask them, they just might not be the person you expect. Don't be afraid to ask. When it is available, don't be afraid to accept. And when the shoe is on the other foot, be ready to help somebody else. This is what makes life so damn good. 

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