Reflection

‘Upside-Down’ on Credentials

My stepfather said his friend’s son is “upside-down on a truck.” Meaning, he owes more than what it’s worth. The remainder of the vehicle loan is more than the value of its use. I said to my mother, “I’m upside down on my education,” and laughed painfully.

I’m in a tentative embrace with a smiling nihilism. My reason for staying in my factory job, now, is the same as why I will leave it soon: the overtime. OT is more money but less time, so I’m creeping toward an inflection point where I reclaim my time and bet on myself to make better money as a freelance writer. That will be my “big news” in January.

While at work, I recalled my course since finishing a Master’s degree in International Education. Socket-wrench in hand, I surmised grad-school could be my greatest mistake. Starting a graduate program made sense six years ago. I made a wise compromise between prudence and passion. I did well and connected with classmates but it all seems pyrrhic now. On the cusp of slaying my lingering credit card debt, my student loans loom large. My prospects for a job in tertiary education are not great– I picked a good truck but rolled it in a storm: I’m upside-down.

Our faith in tertiary education has cultural roots but I’m going to leave them in the ground; the field is in bad-shape due to pandemic and politics. I stalled other aspirations to choose a ‘secure’ path that could be meaningful to me: I hoped to help students discover their value– and discover my own, too.

My education seems ‘totaled’ but I cannot determine fault. The math of chaos cannot always be overcome– guarantees do not exist and reckonings are scarce. Long, unwritten speculations fog my brain but the cold truth is unchanged. The force of small decisions and other minutia combine like billions of beating butterfly wings. Like ‘death by tiny cuts’, I was blown off-course by a gale made from thousands of tiny puffs. I just barely missed an excellent job-match in Northern California– I saw the Pacific… returned by plane to Maryland where I was living… then, by U-haul to Michigan from whence I’d come eight years before: busted.

This single stick next to the Pacific Ocean stands for my feelings about not getting that job.

Author Scott Sonenshein told Brene Brown (on her podcast) that each person is a mixture of ‘chaser’ and ‘stretcher’. We show our stretching abilities when we use whatever is available to us in creative ways. The chasing mentality stems from a belief that we don’t have or are not “enough.” When we chase, we want to achieve, procure, and add to ourselves as much as possible. A friend once said I was a “maximizer” — I’m still digesting that. I not only wanted to use the best of what I had but I assumed there was a great deal of ‘better’ that I was failing to spin-out. My fears led me to chase a credential– something to show I knew how to chase. Our culture emphasizes the chase, for us, and romanticizes the stretch for our ancestors: “look how good you have it– look how far you can go!” But they didn’t stretch so we could chase the wind. They stretched so we could stretch better, right?

I want to be a stretcher. That requires better understanding what I have and who I am; I’ve been working on that. I shouldn’t need a maximal trajectory to achieve a median quality of life. The highest arc may not put me where I really belong– the top of the mountain isn’t always the best real-estate.

An important kernel of wisdom I’ve found is that asking for help as a ‘stretcher’ is fundamentally different than asking as a ‘chaser’. As a chaser, I feel shame: if I’m smaller than my challenges, how will I be accepted and loved? A stretcher should be able to share challenges. We can work on them together, share strategies, collaborate. I would be ecstatic to start a group project, successful or not, just to be working together instead of social-distancing.

The egg-carton taped to the wall represents the stretching mentality– it’s there to dampen negativity.”

— Me, reassuring myself that I’m not crazy

My sense of humor is intact. On a wall in my storage closet is the inside of an egg-carton… in lieu of a legitimate sound panel. One isn’t enough to affect the reverb. Maybe I’ll cover the walls in egg-cartons and the storage closet will still be a crappy place to play. That’s okay; I can see that my mental juices are flowing whenever I look at this egg-carton as hangs from a wall, pretending to be a sound-panel. I’ve hung a second egg-carton in the time I took to revise this. I’m still practicing music, even if there seems to be no goal to chase that isn’t incredibly distant.

To conclude, I need to conclude this entry. Plain and simple, I need to post something. Here are some of my thoughts, in all their imperfection, just as I can only show readers pieces of myself but cannot perfectly curate ‘me’. I’m thankful you read this.

We can stretch.

I love this funky lighting.

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