The purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one. ~ Malcolm Forbes
Having recently experienced two major season-of-change moments in the last six weeks, I feel somewhat qualified to share my perspective with those who have recently walked across that prestigious commencement stage.
My partner successfully finished his law degree in May, while I completed my Masters degree at the end of June. Among the excitement of loud family dinners, countless congratulatory cards and obligatory photo ops, there exists, at least for me, a burdensome weight of fear surrounding something I cannot control.
It’s heaviest right before bed—my thoughts, consumed with just one pressing, dreadful question.
What comes next?
Education has consistently been a key component of my being. I have been trudging down the higher education path for the last seven years of my life, with undergrad classes followed closely by my graduate degree pursuits, praying for strength to get through weekends of research and writing while cramming in midweek discussion thread responses to fellow students in the precious moments between client meetings and conference calls.
Aside from my career, it defined who I was—who I had the potential to become.
There is a societal value placed on a degree, based heavily upon what we have the potential to gain financially on the back end. A promotion which leads to a higher salary which then leads to a greater, grander experience in this world. Right?
Some—I dare say most—define this as success. Our teachers, our parents, our mentors tell us a clear line can be drawn between that coveted degree and the grand(er) lifestyle we want. A direct correlation exists that justifies the long hours in class, sleepless nights before an exam and the outlandish cost of an education.
We will get what we want—money, status, a bigger and better whatever—once we’re done. This is how success in this life is defined by most.
What no one tells us, though, is that the direct line between degree and success as defined by stuff no longer exists, at least not in the same way it did decades ago. Jobs are scarce and money is tight. Loans quickly become a burden on the bank account and our dreams… our dreams drastically shrink to fit into the tiny boxes of opportunity that are in our direct line of sight.
Education is key to success, and then poof.
We walk across that stage and none of the things we are directed to want, tangible or intangible, materialize. Is it because the things we are told to desire are less and less available, despite how many hours and how many years we put in? Or, are they less and less relevant?
I’m starting to believe it is the latter.
What exactly is the purpose, then, when the financial gains that the mass majority strives for aren’t necessarily the end goal in becoming an ‘educated’ man or woman? We can forget the promotion, set aside the three percent bump in take-home pay, the corner office and accompanying status. Sure, it could equal that new car, the updated wardrobe, the down payment for a bigger, better place.
But wouldn’t it be more sustainable—and more fulfilling—if education was not simply a means to what society deems success, but instead an opportunity for each of us to create our own definition of ‘making it’?
Since starting my Masters I have been asked I don’t know how many times what my plans are—how I intend to use my education to my benefit. I struggled with the answer early on. I knew on a basic level that teaching community college or undergrad classes at a nearby university would be an option at some point—coupled with my entrepreneurial experience and desire to help others understand the complex world of small business ownership, my response quickly became rehearsed. Even cold at times. I couldn’t pinpoint why until graduation was a well documented memory.
Most people in my circle seemed overly focused on what I would gain from my accomplishment, and all I could think about was what I could give back. I don’t want a higher tax bracket—I want to impart the knowledge that I’ve struggled to gain through traditional educational sources and sometimes messy career development, in others.
These two ends of the spectrum seem so far removed from one another, the constant questioning created a tug of war of sorts—it didn’t take long for my mindset to shift more toward the masses, paying more and more attention to what I was going to get at the end than what I would have the privilege of giving up.
Status earned over my experience shared.
My education, broken down into unrecognizable pieces of material bull shit.
What I am attempting to say is this: the intangible items that don’t directly relate to success in its most known sense far outweigh the monetary gain or status bump that is expected to come after the completion of a degree. I was never eager to put letters behind my name or even walk for my commencement ceremony, because it was never the purpose of digging deeper into the vat of knowledge available to me through higher education.
It simply was never the purpose.
But I forgot that because society told me I should.
I had been so focused on what I understood to be the value of my degree to be that I failed to recognize its worth. In sharing this my intention is not to say one focus is greater than the other, but simply to remind those who have recently completed any educational chapter in life that success is what we determine it to be.
It is not simply an updated resume.
It is not simply a bigger paycheck.
And it is not simply letters behind a name.
We can make of this life all that we desire, but only if and when we are willing to put aside the predefined concepts of what our desire should be. Congratulations to my fellow graduates, no matter the degree, and cheers to a self-created and self-defined future of success.
For those of you who would deem this tl;dr, here’s a video that sums most of it up in a much more poetic way.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman