A couple months ago, my husband Josh and I went to an informational meeting for UT Knoxville’s Professional MBA program. After running a nonprofit and working at a few businesses, Josh has been looking for ways to learn more of the ideas, strategies, and skills that can help him level up his career. We sat around tables with other prospective students, introduced ourselves, and heard from the faculty and alumni. It was hard not to catch their enthusiasm, not to desire the positive outcomes they’ve all experienced from the program. They stressed that this was a program for entrepreneurs, for business owners, for professionals. For people like me.
By the end of the night, Josh was decided. It was everything he had been hoping for. He scheduled follow-up meetings with the admissions counselors and started the application process.
“Are you interested?” he asked me.
I laughed it off. “No way! I’ve already dropped out of grad school twice. I’m not doing that again.” True story.
The next day, I took a deep breath and went back to writing my book. Head down. Carry on.
The truth is, I was tempted. I felt a sharp stab of FOMO. I started counting, and I realized that most of the friends that I regularly hang out with have advanced degrees—at least masters, if not doctorates. Except me.
The first time I applied to grad school, I was a senior in college. I truly had no idea what I was going to do with my English degree, so I thought I would just delay the decision by getting a Masters in English Literature. Then I went to England for a publishing internship and my life was changed. I knew immediately that I wanted to work in publishing, that I had found my calling—but I had already received acceptance letters to three masters programs. One of the schools, Portland State, just happened to have a Masters in Publishing degree as well. I asked the school if I could shift my admission to that program instead, and they agreed.
Once I got there, though, I quickly realized I was way less interested in the academics of publishing. I had already been doing the real work of it. I quickly landed another internship, and then another one, and the degree seemed to make less and less sense. Why was I paying thousands of dollars to learn how to do something I was already doing? I was being mentored by incredible editors in the industry. I even asked their opinion: Would it be worth staying in my program? Honestly, they told me, you can learn everything you need to on the job. Don’t go into debt.
The decision was made. I dropped out after one semester.
Fast forward four years, and I was deep into my work as an acquisitions editor, looking for ways to continue to level up my career and grow with the company. The leaders of the company made it clear that they saw a long future for me there. I was already an ambitious, fast-rising editor; they suggested the possibility of future executive roles. Our editorial director, who had herself recently finished a graduate program, highly recommended an MBA program so that I could learn more of the business and operations side of the company. Taking her advice, I applied and was accepted.
Josh was in the military at the time. We got married and he went on deployment while I started my program. And things at the company started to… shift. I wasn’t as happy there. As I attained more leadership and more insight into the inner workings of the company, I realized I didn’t want to be one of the people calling the shots. I saw systemic problems that I didn’t want to be part of. I had already completed three classes when Josh got home from deployment and we decided to move to Tennessee.
“What about your MBA? You’ll have to continue your program online,” he said.
It took me all of two seconds to debate the matter. “No, I’m done. I’m not continuing.”
I’ve thought a lot about this experience, and sometimes I still have to fight hard against the demons of shame and imposter syndrome that haunt me. Dropping out once is one thing. Twice?? Yikes.
Obviously, there are a lot of lessons that I can and do take away from all of this, but what’s relevant right now is this. I had just signed a book contract—one of my top three life dreams. Yet just a few weeks later, I was again battling this old shame, making me feel like what I had just accomplished wasn’t actually all that cool and anybody can be an author, but only truly dedicated people have the grit and determination and strength of character to finish advanced degrees.
All untrue, of course—but such were the voices in my head.
I’ve had to work hard to remind myself that my goal in life has been to be an author, not to have a bunch of degrees. If I genuinely liked school and wanted to grow my career that way, that would be one thing. But I don’t. I don’t like curriculums decided for me by other people who don’t know me. I don’t like being held to arbitrary grading practices that I disagree with. I wanted the recognition and credibility that I thought having those degrees would give me; when I realized I didn’t need those degrees to get what I wanted, I ditched them, quite happily.
While I don’t believe that any spiritual force outside of myself was trying to bring me down and stealing my joy after finally accomplishing a major life goal, I do believe that there’s a spiritual force inside me that does that quite well on its own. Steven Pressfield calls it Resistance. Here’s a bit from the forthcoming Hungry Authors book Liz and I are writing about Resistance:
Resistance is whatever stops you from doing your work. It’s a master shape-shifter. Sometimes it comes in the form of productive procrastination—telling you that you can sit down to write, but it’ll be so much better after you do the dishes and fold the laundry and, ohmygod, how could you possibly forget that today is Someone’s birthday and you need to get them a gift?!
Resistance may also reveal itself as imposter syndrome or doubts about your ability. You’ll have a nightmare in which you hold your book up proudly at your favorite bookstore in front of an audience of people you admire, only to look down and realize you’re naked. (Not that one of us knows from personal experience…) You’ll suddenly recall a repressed (probably manufactured) memory of your second grade teacher telling you you can’t write well, or receiving a bad grade on a writing assignment. You’ll think, “What the hell am I doing writing a book? No one’s going to read this!”
When you finally do start writing, Resistance will often come in the form of perfectionism, telling you that yes, this project is good, but it could be even better if you just work on it a little more, if you just make these tweaks. Resistance will try to use your own Creativity against you and encourage you to let her go haywire in the name of making the work “better.” It’s all fun and games until you realize you broke it.
Resistance also shows up in our pursuit of publishing, in the form of rejection letters and industry “experts” who propagate the myth that only those with a massive platform are worthy of being published, or that traditional publishing is the best way to put your work into the world.
What really sucks is that the more we care about a project, the more Resistance we can expect to meet. Pressfield says, “the more Resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you—and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it.”
So here I was face to face with Resistance. Wouldn't it be fun to do grad school with Josh? Carpool to classes together and engage in thoughtful discussions? Do I really want him commuting up to Knoxville alone on weekends for the next year and a half? This could be how I redeem my previous grad school failures!
Thankfully, I’ve had enough practice doing this by now, and I’ve learned from my previous brushes with grad school, that I’ve been able to push those thoughts aside when they come up. I acknowledge the wince of pain I get when they arise, and then I open the document for the next chapter of our book and I keep writing.
This is what I’m supposed to be doing. Carry on. And I know in my heart that I’m doing the right thing.
What about you? Have you ever been distracted from the work you knew you were supposed to be doing? How does Resistance appear for you? And how do you push aside those thoughts to stay focused on your goals?