Is Your Degree an Asset or an Anchor?

The memory of getting that call is like a snapshot … I had been accepted into the PhD program in psychology at Yale. All I had to do was get myself, my mate and one bouncy yellow Lab from Texas to Connecticut, and in four years or so, those three little letters, and all the prestige that goes with them, would be mine.

I had a sure sense that I had been accorded something extremely precious. I felt that I would soon be on the path to greatness — sky’s the limit, etc. The offer included a tuition waiver (which in my official letter was called “tuition remission,” a term I didn’t understand, but that sounded ominous, as if the massive cost of this fancy degree could stalk me over the course of my life, ready to demand repayment at some unforeseeable date in the future). But it soon became clear that I had been given a gift that had no strings attached. I am as deeply grateful for this opportunity today as I was then, almost three decades ago.

And yet…

Hindsight teaches us many things (if we bother to look back and consider the trajectory we’ve taken). What I couldn’t see in 1987 — and probably not until about 2009, in fact — was that I had taken all the notoriety of this hallowed place and cloaked myself in it until it was so heavy that it began to drag down my own sense of what I could and should become. I was much too invested in the (not always implicit) norms about one should do with an advanced degree from a “top-tier” university: I should go to work at some other top-tier university, and write lots of research publications and a book or two that would be esoteric enough to be read by no more than eight people.

I took the path I was supposed to take — at first. I went straight into an academic job at a state university (not top-tier, but good enough for a start), and set about trying to manage a full teaching load and research on a shoestring budget of money and time. Something odd happened, though: I learned that, contrary to complaints from some of my grad school professors about what a dismal chore it is to teach undergraduates, I actually kind of liked teaching. I especially liked being able to take esoteric knowledge and translate it into something that a novice could understand. And I was pretty good at it.

I started to feel differently about what I was “supposed” to do. I realized that I was living my life by someone else’s standards, not being the free-thinking, rational, insightful person I actually was.

I was trying to swim with a winter coat on.

This is the analogy that makes the most sense to me when I try to describe what it’s like to live under the weight of those expectations: Let’s say you love to swim, but it’s twenty below outside, and unless you’re a puffin or a narwhal, you’ll have to bundle up to get yourself from your house to the indoor swimming pool. You’re well prepared for this, so even though your goal is to swim, you don a heavy winter coat and some other bulky accoutrements, and head out. As you walk along in the frigid air, you feel fine. You’re bundled up in a way that’s just right for the environment. When you get to the pool, you no longer need your coat, your hat, your scarf, your boots, and all those other layers that served you well in the outdoors. You don’t throw these things away; you just know that their usefulness is limited to certain situations and times. If you make the mistake of jumping into the pool with that big bear coat still on, you will feel as if you’ve lost the ability to swim. You were a swimmer before you left your house, you were a swimmer as you walked to the pool, you’re a swimmer now; you just forgot that in order to swim, you have to take off your coat.

I don’t regret that I got that degree

— not for a second; I just wish I had known that once I had it, I was free to choose how to use its gifts. I thought someone was watching who would come and plaster a big VOID stamp on it if I were to “waste” it. So I took an academic job, then a research job, then an academic job again, bouncing off the walls of that narrow pinball machine that (in my mind) defined what people who are given this kind of opportunity are supposed to do with it.

What my degree had really taught me, I now know, was how to parlay everything I had learned into being the best, most self-actualized, positive force that I can be in the world. I had everything I needed to swim; the ridiculously simple thing I didn’t know how to do was to shed that heavy coat — to throw off what didn’t serve me — and navigate the waters of my own dream. I worried too much about what other people would think if I didn’t follow the path that all my training and experience had set me up for.

I should have listened to Howard

It might sound trite by now, but that much-quoted line from Howard Thurman rings so true: “Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that.” Once I started following that advice, it felt so much nicer inside my head. I started my own business, on my own terms. I still use many of the skills I learned in grad school, but now they serve my passion for doing good in a world where most people aren’t reading scholarly journals and don’t know or care about the difference between Cohen’s d and Glass’s g. I create courses and other resources to benefit people who want the best that research has to offer, but don’t have the time, interest, or expertise to dig through a stack of journals and books not written for them.

I divested myself of that ivy anchor, and I’ve never been happier or more professionally fulfilled.

So what’s anchoring YOU to one stagnant little ill-fitting pond?

Maybe it’s not a degree from a particular place. Maybe it’s a degree in a particular subject that you now realize you’re not so interested in. Maybe your anchor is a set of expectations you tasked yourself with (make a million before you turn 40? get a VP position in 5 years? take your family on a European vacation?). Maybe it’s a relationship that you feel committed to out of guilt, or just habit. Maybe it’s a debt you have to repay; maybe it’s a promise you made to yourself to lose weight, or learn Japanese, or jump out of an airplane.

If you want to cut yourself loose from your personal anchor, here’s a tip: right now, go to your calendar and make an appointment with yourself to sit down for a half hour and evaluate everything you’re doing in your personal and professional life, and to ask, “Does it make me come alive?” If the answer is no, recognize that you are swimming with your winter coat on, that you can’t do this forever without sinking, and that you are free to take it off. No one is coming with the “VOID” stamp, and you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to float through life’s challenges when you rid yourself of the false premise that what you thought you were going to do is your destiny. And if circumstances out of your control are keeping you from being able to completely lose the winter coat, you can at least recognize that this is a goal, and pursue it as you’re able. Once you’re free of it, the real you will rise to the surface and come alive.


My aim at DrBonnieLynch.com is to give you evidence-based strategies for becoming smarter, happier, and braver as you build a livelihood that makes you come alive. Get a free guide to overcoming procrastination when you sign up for my email list here.