Everything I know I learned in grad school

Twice in the past year, an acquaintance that I admire and respect asked me perhaps the toughest question I’ve been handed in my graduate career.

“So, what did you learn?”

He was referring to grad school, and asked this question at different points in the school year.

Both times, I fumbled. If this was football, I’d be, well…someone who fumbled (I don’t know a lot about football).

It was a question I should be able to answer on the spot. I have learned a ton. But what came out of my mouth both times felt like Organizational Psychology jargon. I remember saying words like “systems approach”.

I did learn that. But that isn’t why I came to grad school.

And helping organizations take a “systems approach” to their challenges is interesting and relevant, but not why this work really matters to me.

I thought about the question again and again in the days that followed.

It turns out, I knew what the most valuable lessons were — but these learnings were quite personal, somewhat scary to admit to someone I admired and hoped to work with some day.

But here’s the truth…and I hope it resonates with others in some way as you encounter transitional experiences of your own, and/or help facilitate change for others.

When faced with change, uncertainty, and threat we often cling most tightly to what we already know and believe.

What I received in the last four-semesters was a good old-fashioned mind whooping – one I thought I had prepared for.

Before I left for school, two wildly wonderful mentors of mine both gave me this advice:  “take out the trash”, and “have a beginners mind”.

The advice boiled down to, “know what you need” and “clear everything you thought you knew”. Easy, right??

And so, in a fangled attempt to not heed this advice very well – I came to grad school searching for confirmation for my pre-established point of view, and to convince others of it.

I struggled with classes that didn’t fit this point of view, I pushed for the “right answer” to my questions, and for certainty in a pretty “un-certain” field. The first semester was especially rough.

But as school continued, I noticed the opportunities that came my way were chances to test assumptions and to break this dualistic thinking.

I spent a week in January at a train-the-trainer for a well-respected training and management consulting firm. It didn’t entirely match my point of view and so I couldn’t fully engage.

I spent my summer purposefully testing assumptions at a management consulting firm that was in many ways a complete 180 from my previous professional experience. Here I struggled to shed the notion of “right versus wrong” or “good versus bad” when there was really no need to have to choose sides. I learned that as much as I eschewed the “expert” culture, I wanted to be one.

In a field where the “right answer” is often ‘it depends’, I had not entered grad school with a beginners mind willing to accept this ambiguity.

Over and over in the past sixteen months this lesson has reared its head, always checking in on my progress and keeping me in check. In addition to the jargon and theory, I learned lessons like these (that while not always easy to communicate), will help me facilitate meaningful change for companies and their people.

And although I thought I had taken out the trash enough to realize what I needed from grad school, I may have gotten it wrong. For, I ended up receiving (and hopefully being open to) the lessons I believe I needed to learn most.

Now, just three weeks shy of graduation I think I finally know what it feels like to have a beginners mind. I just hope I still have it when it comes time to start that eventual PhD.

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