Regaining My Brain: A Journey Through My Education, Career and Beyond

10 years ago, I was halfway through my Masters in Business Administration program.  It was challenging, especially since I was in school full-time, working full-time as well as a part-time job and attempting to maintain somewhat of a social life as a young 20-something.

But I was brilliant, at least in my own mind.  I started school a year earlier than most, excelled in high school, with a 3.86 cumulative GPA, taken honors classes and even achieved the National Math Scholar Award, and this was with minimal effort as I had never really mastered the art of studying.  I didn’t fare such high grades in college, graduating with about a 3.4 GPA, but I was enrolled in the honors program, worked and had a social life.  I was anxious for what the world had for me and earned an internship at the Washington News Council through winning a mock trial I had participated in, in my media ethics course.

But the world wasn’t offering what I was expecting.  Growing up, we were always told that if we went to college and participated in extracurricular activities, we’d get a great job, but by the time I got out of college, I realized it wasn’t going to be that easy.

My internship was amazing, but it wasn’t enough to pay a living.  I had several interviews, but I was naive and unsure of what I wanted to do with my life so I failed at making a good impression.  My interests were working with animals and writing, but neither panned out much of a career for me.  I was ready to make it big time in some field, I just didn’t know where.  After several months, my internship ended and I ended up taking a job at a pet grooming salon.

It was hard work, physically, but not mentally stimulating for my fresh from college brain.  There were days when I would spend 8 or 9 hours just drying dogs, unable to talk to anyone over all the noise and not requiring much thought.  I felt like my brain was slowly dying.  The hours were long, the work was physically demanding and I ended up not having much energy to do anything once I got home and showered my day off.

That’s when I decided my degree wasn’t enough.  I had tried, working hard every day to land my dream job, whatever it happened to be.  I was a bit insecure, never having had worked anywhere for more than a few months, which had been my strategy through my early career.  While in college, I never kept a job longer than a semester so I could experience a variety of jobs.  It was a smart move in my opinion, because it gave me the variety of abilities I still hold to this day.  It got to the point where I’d just go to the job board, scout out the highest paying job and apply for it.

I spent my first year of college doing web design for different departments.  My second year was spent as a freelance writer, radio dee-jay and paid note-taker.  My third year working in the barns and at the vet school, and my senior year as a waitress.  During the summers, I would work at a local chain of pet stores, giving me retail experience.  In just 4 years, I’d had almost a dozen different jobs in a variety of fields.

I felt well-rounded as an employee, ready to tackle whatever a job brought my way.  I just needed a job.  Or something.  Anything.

While working at the grooming salon, I decided I needed additional education so I could finally land a really good real job.  I started looking into getting certified to teach and one night, my dad suggested I look into the University of Phoenix program one of his coworkers had told him about.  I looked up the Masters in Business Administration program and it seemed right up my alley.  I wanted to work in a business, right?  And having a Masters degree would definitely earn me even more money than a Bachelors, right?

I started the MBA program in January of 2003, having taken a semester off  college.  I was actually too young for the program, but had enough work experience; I just had to have a note from my employer.

I came in to the program thinking I was hot stuff.  I’d just come out of college less than a year ago, was very familiar with current software and the internet.  Most of my classmates were a minimum of 10 years older than me and some old enough to be my parents.  They came with decades of experience, yet somehow I thought I was going to school them in how things are done since I was so freshly educated.

They were very respectful of me, more so than I had expected.  I came into the program defensive, thinking they were going to take one look at my youthful face and wonder what on earth I was doing in the program.  They took time to listen to me and were thankful that I could teach them how to use the software that didn’t exist when they had been in college.  Many had been limited to typewriters and a library versus my computer and world wide web of resources, albeit even I didn’t have nearly what is available now.

The beginning was rough.  I couldn’t handle criticism well and hated to be bossed around by anyone.  I was smart and I was right.  Wrong.

We worked in teams and mine had a great mix of members that evolved throughout the course—a couple 30-somethings, a couple 40-somethings, one of the oldest people in our program and me, the youngest.  I remember specifically during one of my early courses how one team’s presentation was being criticized by our instructor and the team members were feverishly taking notes on what was being said.  Feverishly!  I couldn’t believe the weakness they were showing.  They did a great job, why should they be criticized?

That’s when I started to truly learn constructive criticism and the power it has in making us better people.  They took notes so they wouldn’t make the same mistakes again in the future.  It’s important to use every chance we get as a learning experience to continually learn and improve ourselves.  A successful person will never be done learning.

As the courses went by, I also started taking notes about what I could improve and our team grew and improved substantially.  I’ll never forget the look on our Marketing instructor’s face when we blew him away with one of the most exceptional presentations I’ve ever been a part of.  That was why it was important to learn and continually strive for improvement.

As my brain grew to be more mature and educated, my desire to move on professionally did as well.  In May of 2003, I took a job as an Administrative Assistant in the office of a cold storage warehouse.  It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was a step in the right direction.  I didn’t enjoy the job all that much, especially when I was cut to part time the day after I signed my very first lease on my own apartment in an expensive county.  After paying all my bills, I was left with about $20 a month to live off.  I took on a part time job, but it was difficult to get many hours in while working and going to school full-time.  It was rough, but thankfully I had student loan money to live off (and get to pay back after I graduated).  But it got me through for the time being.

In December of 2004, I had completed my Masters program.  I wasn’t instantly promoted as I thought might happen.  Just slightly acknowledged that I had completed a huge feat in addition to working full-time and how proud I must be.  The reality was, the company expected me to quit when I got my MBA so they didn’t bother considering a future for me there.

I worked that job for exactly one year before starting a sales job at a Uniform Company.  It was a great place to work and I have so many fond memories working there.  It was a smart company, starting all employees in operations, shipping & receiving inventory to learn the back end work that was done.  We had a great team, great customers and it was an enjoyable place to work.  I was excelling and making a name for myself, even having a position created to use my knowledge of sales and operations to make things run smoothly for our 5 locations.

Unfortunately, several devastating things happened in my personal life while I worked there and I got to a point where I couldn’t handle things as well as normal.  I was stressed out and difficult to be around.  Working in my position was great for me at the time because I got to do my own thing, but I didn’t like who I had become and I needed to get out of my funk.  A position in purchasing at the main office in Seattle opened up, so I applied and got it.  I missed my team and my amazing manager, but I wanted to move up, and felt this was the perfect opportunity.

I quickly found out that I hated commuting 60 miles a day, especially when it often took longer than an hour to go just one way, and sometimes up to 3 hours to travel 30 miles.  I also found out that I was not cut out to work in an accounting position, even though the math and analysis sparked my brain cells, it just wasn’t a good fit for me.

I ended up finding a job just 2 miles from my apartment and accepted it.  The day I gave my notice, the entire region froze over and I spent 7 hours driving the 30 miles home.  I was fried and ready to move on.  I finished my two weeks and started at my new company as a sales assistant.

The company I moved to was a sports ball manufacturer.  It was a fun environment, although fairly stressful at times.  After just a few months there, I moved into operations working with an amazing manager.  He was such an optimist and our brains worked similarly.  We took on implementing lean manufacturing practices into the entire company.  I was tasked with writing procedures for multiple departments, analyzing the processes and cutting out any unnecessary steps to make our processes flow together as smoothly and logically as possible.  It was great, like a huge puzzle.

With any change comes resistance and I was met with plenty.  I was involved in training seminars and enforcing proper flow at times.  In dealing with resistance from those who felt there was nothing wrong with the way things had been done in the past, I learned how to work better with people and get them excited and accepting of the changes.  It was challenging and a great learning experience as well as a position that reinforced my habit of documenting all the procedures involved in my jobs.

A position in the nearly non-existent marketing department opened and I jumped at the chance.  With lean processes implemented, there wasn’t much left of my job and I wanted to move in the direction of my BA.  I wasn’t too sure of the person leading the department, as he was my age and newer to the company than myself, but even if I only held the position for a year, it would give me the experience I needed to move on.

The department grew immensely during the 5 years I was in it.  I learned new things every day and was forced to find solutions on a small or non-existent budget.  I’ve always been resourceful, so I took it as a challenge.  It was an overwhelming position to be in, as I retained several responsibilities from my previous positions in addition to my new responsibilities.  It was oftentimes difficult to get help because the person in the company who would be best to help me was myself.

I was proud of how well I knew the company and its functions.  I could assist in nearly every department and did my best to serve as a resource to anyone who needed help.  When things got stressful, I’d stop and take a breather.  It got to the point where I’d even spend my lunches at the gym to take a break from the mental challenges and work on physical challenges.

After 5 years there, word started to spread that a move may be in the future.  The current location was almost 20 miles from me, but not too terrible of a commute, but a move to the north would make my commute a nightmare again.  Finally, a location to the north had been chosen for the relocation and there was no feasible way for me to get there without dealing with daily traffic jams.  It wasn’t going to work for me and I would not be compensated for the additional mileage and travel time incurred.  It was time to take what I had learned and move on.

In the fall of 2012, I found a position at a dealership where I had purchased a vehicle earlier that year after my husband had totaled mine in a bad accident.  Although I had been under a lot of stress while buying my vehicle due to my husband being off work and badly injured, the experience had been quick and pleasant.  The staff was friendly and the dealership had been around as long as I could remember, a place with a good reputation and potential for professional growth.

I started in October of 2012.  It was a fun environment to work in, always something new going on and really great staff.  My work was a bit different than I had expected—while at my previous company, I was used to doing everything myself, the design, planning, everything—and here we actually had a marketing budget so we could outsource at times.

It took a few months to learn how things worked and I slowly gained more responsibilities as I learned.  After a year, I was doing things easily that had been a big challenge to take on initially.  I felt confident and optimistic.

The only problem is after changing companies multiple times through my career and not necessarily moving up any ladders, I felt my degrees hadn’t been as beneficial as I once thought.  They hadn’t earned me any special privileges or massive pay, they were just a few years of my life and some black text on my resume.

I realized I hadn’t really been using much of what I had learned in grad school, and all these years, I had talked about what a great education it was and how I would recommend it to anyone wanting to better themselves.  I wasn’t so sure I would say that after all these years.

The thing is, I’m still paying every month for my Masters degree.  Each month, Sallie Mae sends me a reminder of the time I spend trying to improve myself for an exciting future that I thought would make earning the degree easier to afford.  And every month, I realize I’ve fallen into a pattern of learning just what I need to know to complete my work each day and maybe a few new things to keep on top of my profession.

Right after Christmas in 2013, I started feeling very ill.  I felt really bloated, although I hadn’t eaten much and I was nauseated.  I started getting a high fever and couldn’t keep anything in.  I ended up spending New Year’s Eve day in the ER, getting fluids and trying to stay alive.  I felt awful.  I spent almost a whole week dealing with a terrible stomach virus and focusing only on getting healthy.  Nothing else mattered to me at the time.

While I was couch-bound during that week, I had a lot of time to think about where I was going and what I was doing with myself.  When you’re that sick, everything gets put into perspective.  I was no longer going to make unhealthy choices and waste my time being average, I was going to do everything I could to make the most of my life.  Because you never know how long your life is going to last.

I started planning out my goals for 2014.  Not just the generic goals most of us come up with, but specific goals.  My first goal came about from staring at the same book for over 6 months, knowing I needed to read it.  My boss wanted everyone in our department to read it and I had been chosen to start.  While I read daily, it was more articles and fun stuff like on cracked.com, not books.  I enjoyed reading books when I did, I just didn’t read them often.  So that was the first thing I was going to change.

When I finally started feeling better, I sat down with the book and started to read it.  It wasn’t one I would have chosen for myself, but I didn’t have a choice, I needed to read it. (Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead)

Part of my problem with reading is my tendency to not retain what I read because my mind wanders off.  As part of the new me, I decided that I was not going to let that happen to me anymore.  So I grabbed a notepad and started taking notes on everything I read.  I finished the book in one night with pages of notes to refresh my memory.

Reading that first book set me on fire with a passion to learn more.  I was on a mission to get smart again.

I went through our book shelves to find my next book.  I went on Amazon and loaded up my Kindle account with every inspiring book I could find.  I gathered notebooks and created my own reading areas where I could just sit, drink tea and take notes.  I felt my brain growing and my intelligence increasing.

My vocabulary started opening up.  The appropriate words came to my mind much quicker, I started speaking more eloquently.

I decided to make additional changes in my life to continue along this path.  I stopped listening to brainless, garbage radio programs in the morning and instead listen to NPR or instrumental music.  I opt to read my books and take notes rather than rot in front of the TV watching Dexter marathons.  I started talking to others about the improvements I was making and started acting more professionally to match my self-improvements.  I finally subscribed to Fast Company magazine.

As part of my goal setting, I decided vague goals weren’t going to cut it for the new me.  Read more books is a nice idea, but read 1 book a week is a goal that can be measured and achieved.  Write in my blog more is vague, but publish a post once a week is measurable and achievable.

It’s hard to reach goals if you don’t make them reachable.  By putting a number and a time frame to your goals, you will be much more likely to achieve them.

While we’ve just started the third week of the year, already, I am starting to feel the fire that pushed me so many years ago.  My brain is recharging and I’m eager to continue learning and improving myself.  I’m making reachable goals and feel rewarded each time I accomplish one.

I’m honestly not sure where I’m going and I haven’t quite figured out what it is I want to do when I grow up.  I don’t have a career path planned out just yet and I’m not sure what the future holds for me.

I do know that with these changes I’m making, I’m actively taking control of my life and my learning to become the best person I can be.  I’m keeping it fun and exciting so reaching my goals will be that much more rewarding as I reach them.  I’m also doing my best to inspire others to challenge themselves to make improvements and live fulfilling lives so they can feel the passion for life I’m experiencing.

Never stop learning.  Never stop growing.  There is always something new and exciting to achieve if you make self-improvement part of your daily ritual.

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