As I recently wrote in response to Penelope’s post on what you do with your time after work, it’s important to continually challenge yourself in new ways. I recall a time in my life when it consisted of little more than the go to work, come home and plop on the couch and watch a few shows, perhaps hang out with my boyfriend, procrastinate on researching for my thesis, and fight the jealousy that he had more friends than me and thus didn’t spend every spare second in my company. It was a tough time. I was pretty miserable, even though I probably looked pretty successful. At 24, I’d purchased  my own home, had a growing career at a respected company, and was about to finish my master’s degree. You know, things could have looked a lot worse on the outside. But on the inside, it was pretty much an all-time low.

 And then we – my boyfriend and I – did something that expanded our horizons, challenged us, and gave us the opportunity to grow in totally unexpected ways. We joined a new church. We went a few times, and we didn’t like the music, so we wrote it off. Too rock show for us. But we ended up going back. And we kept going, because the community of people there made the effort to connect to us. We even actually started enjoying the music.  Then, we volunteered to help with the teenagers. And let me tell you that even though I had worked with youth throughout college, it was a totally different and interesting challenge as a professional. Because, the thing was, these kids pretty much will look up to you no matter what. So it makes you really examine your time. You don’t want to have to tell kids who think you are pretty stinking cool that your hobbies include watching TV, examining your yard each night to see if the new grass is growing, and occasionally tossing in a load of laundry. Too lame, and nothing worth looking up to, which you very much want to be.  

So it really made me re-examine my priorities and realize that there were a lot more cool things I should be doing with my time. So I started reading children’s literature again. I also gave up yard work and started this blog. Joined a photography club. Chose only to allow myself to turn on the TV if I had either the jewelry tools in my hands, my laptop on my lap, or my butt on the elliptical.  Then, a month or later, I did something even more drastic. I said “yes” when they asked me to take over the band. Now, I have to tell you that music was my life growing up. Then, I arrived a college prepared to major in music and quickly abandoned the idea because I didn’t want to compete with my friends who were musical, so I considered myself over it. A good choice not to major in music, a bad choice to abandon it. But that’s another post for another time. Seven years later, I picked up a microphone for the first time since freshman year to sing for a crowd of 12-17 year olds. Let me just say, that was a major challenge. So is leading a band, which I’d never really done before. But now Wednesday nights are among my favorite. And I find myself saying things like, “we need to pick that up a little,” or “let’s take that one from the top.” And I love it.  

Trading my butt-on-couch time for jumping up and down on a stage in front of an energetic, tuned-in crowd of teenagers one night a week may sound like a crazy leap. But it’s one of the best things I’ve done in a long time. Because every week, it stretches me, takes me out of my comfort zone, and reminds me that ultimately, if I’m going to be satisfied, I need to be doing something that’s not just challenging, but that adds value to people. Because as much cool stuff as we do, I don’t think we will ever be fully satisfied until we learn to invest time outside of ourselves and our own interests. It could be mentoring someone at work or an at-risk youth. Maybe it’s joining a volunteer organization or just getting to know a neighbor. Whatever works for you.

 

Because an amazing thing happens when you start putting yourself in a place that lets you pour into other people’s buckets. Your own gets just a little more full, and you find that you really don’t miss whatever show it was you used to watch, and you fall asleep much faster when you don’t take time to “wind down” for four hours after work, because you’ve lived a really full day.

 Challenge yourself, give more, sleep better. Repeat.

Now that I’ve uncovered some of the great grad school myths, I have a confession to make. I once bought into many of these myths myself when I applied to grad school myself. Let me tell you a little about my story. I applied to grad school during my job search after college, with the 10-year plan of continuing on to my doctoral degree and teaching as a professor one day. I got in and accepted a post-college internship at a Fortune 500 company in my field.

I wanted to have the option of a flexible career future, so grad school seemed like the perfect thing at the time. I had lots of great experience, but was still in the middle of a pretty intense job hunt in a very competitive market and field. The short version of my job hunt struggle is as follows: I had no professional network, tons of experience, and frustrations more than a mile high. So, I learned the value of a professional network quickly and very definitively in the first year I was out of college.

There I was, in the middle of a graduate program, with my internship coming to a close and no full-time job in sight, ready to get through the next couple of years of grad school so I could guarantee a high paying job, a quick promotion, and a golden ticket to the top. So you see, that naïve, unthinking grad student I was talking about in the last post was basically 100% me.

One day, someone made a phone call that changed my life. In my last few weeks before my internship ended, a mentor at the company I worked at recommended me for an interview for a position at the company I work for today. I am thankful to this day that I’d had the foresight to tell the people in my office that I was looking for full time jobs if they heard of anything. The professional network paid off in a big way. See, what ended up transforming me from the type of grad student I wrote about previously was getting a full time job. It also saved me from even further career frustration and opened more doors than grad school alone ever would have.

I was nervous about doing work full time and school full time and commuting more than two hours a day, but I took on the challenge. It turned out, my new boss had a master’s degree from my university and my new job would reimburse me half the cost of tuition. Not to mention, my boss allowed me to arrange my schedule so I could leave for class early and make up the time on mornings and off days.

For me, professional experience has made a world of difference in my graduate program. Yes, it is time-consuming to work and study at the same time, but it’s doable. I comprehend things on a deeper level than I would otherwise, I can directly use my new knowledge in my job and my writing, and I’m able to challenge myself with theories, ideas and projects that have lots of real-world application. It challenges me to be a more thoughtful, strategic, reasoned professional. More importantly, it’s changed what I want out of my degree and the whole grad school experience.

I know everyone’s story will differ, as will their paths, their motivations and their outcomes – in general and regarding grad school. That’s fine. But from where I am, a little experience makes all the difference in the world.

So, now that you know a little more about my entrance into the world of grad school, stay tuned for my top reasons you should consider applying.

For Grad School 101, Check Out These Posts
Part 1: An Inside Take on the Great Grad School Debate
Part 2: The Truth about the Top Six Grad School Myths

Penelope Trunk wrote today at Brazen Careerist and Yahoo Finance that a great thing for professionals to do this summer is mentor summer interns. I couldn’t agree more. Some of the best learning experiences of my life have come from people who have chosen to invest in me, show me the ropes, have conversations with me about my career dreams and help me believe in my ability to succeed. Many of those people were employers or bosses during internships.

 

Young workers today can learn a lot from mentors – about careers, industries, advancement, you  name it. Having a mentor can also help young workers launch their own careers. If I had not developed a mentoring relationship with a supervisor at my post-college internship, chances are, she wouldn’t have known me well enough to have recommended me for the job I have today.

 

But, not every supervisor is going to come to you and ask if they can mentor you. Many Gen X, Boomer and Traditionalist bosses don’t feel comfortable imposing themselves on members of our young, aspiring, somewhat mysterious – perhaps because we’re overall so technologically savvy – generation.

 

So this summer, or any time, for that matter, whether you’re an intern or an entry-level worker, I encourage you to seek out a mentor. You might be surprised at what happens. Taking the initiative to seek someone out and then asking them to mentor you shows that you see them as an expert and someone worth learning from. It might just be the start of a relationship that will change the course of your life forever.