I’ve been taking a personal development class for the past few months (GRAD611 at Virginia Commonwealth University, part of the nascent BEST program). The class had some broad objectives: to “develop leadership and professional development opportunities for professional, graduate and post-doctoral students that will enable them to thrive in today's professional environment and empower them to make meaningful contributions to society as they realize their potential as future leaders” and to “build a network of internal and external partnerships and identify resources to support and guide leadership and professional development initiatives for professional, graduate and post-doctoral students”. Those are the course goals as they’re written on the syllabus. They’re very ambitious. When the course started a few months ago, I was very skeptical as to whether I’d gain anything from it. I tend to take most personal development strategies with a sizable grain of salt. Too often, these concepts are rife with one-size-fits-all solutions and silver-bullet problem solving strategies.
In the end, I was pleasantly surprised! I suspect that it will be difficult to tell if any new opportunities are now available to me until I can apply what I’ve learned. The second goal listed above is even trickier to address. Have I been able to access a new network of “internal and external partnerships”? Will I know when I see such opportunities in the future?
More importantly, what have I learned about myself? Let’s list a few changes:
  •          I’ve noticed lately that I’m much more tolerant of how people portray themselves. I used to find it irritating that any individual would be so myopic as to define themselves in terms of an occupation or an interest. Everyone has a multifaceted personality – no exceptions. The trouble arises from trying to communicate that diverse set of personality traits to others. I can’t just introduce myself to someone and expect them to understand who I am, nor can I try to describe every aspect of my identity to them in a brief meeting. These things require time and solid relationships. It also isn’t fair for me to find others short-sighted when they try to put their identity on display. They’re human, they’re complex, and they have their own sets of strengths. These traits may be immediately obvious or they may require communication.

  •          I’m not sure if I’ve identified my authentic purpose. I’m not sure if “authentic purpose” is an authentic concept. It was frequently addressed on the periphery of the class materials but rarely discussed directly. It sounds questionable to me because I don’t believe in a discrete, guiding force. Everything happens for numerous reasons but these reasons may not conspire to guide me toward a purpose. They are natural forces as much as gravity is. That force doesn’t press me to the ground because it wants me to study geology. It has that effect because I’m conveniently made out of matter. That being said, perhaps “authentic purpose” is less of a force in itself and more of a general description of how I react to forces. I have many options in life but some options do feel more “authentic” than others.

  •         I’ve become more accepting of the strengths of others. It’s easy to dismiss ideas when they don’t fit into your perspective and it’s easy to dismiss others when they don’t approach problems the same way you do. I tend to approach the world in a broad but systematic way. There’s so much interesting material out there for me to absorb, but I also need to make logical sense of it all. That’s less of a priority for some people. They may be more focused on winning people over or placing information in historic context. I like to do those things as well but they’re certainly not my first impulses.

  •          I’ve also become more accepting of my own strengths. It’s quite easy to lose sight of personal strengths when there’s so much to lose from having weaknesses. Spending so much time in science and academia may contribute to that phenomenon: I tend to spend a lot of time each day worrying about what could go wrong with my plans (or, even worse, if anything has already gone wrong but I haven’t noticed). It’s a habit that extends to my own self-conception. Over the last few months, I’ve been increasingly able to see my own shortcomings as lesser strengths and my more obvious strengths as foundations to build upon.

  •          I’ve been attempting to use more filters when it comes to gathering sources of input. It’s quite difficult for me to separate signal from noise when I’m searching for interesting information, whether it’s research or just the daily news. The problem really comes down to how I tend to find everything interesting: even when the metaphorical signal-to-noise ratio isn’t so great, I can still get lost in the noise. Reducing the amount of input I attempt to tackle at any one point has helped with that issue.

There are changes that I’ll continue to work on:

  •          I'll try to meditate more regularly, though I don't think I'll set any numerical goal on the number of times to do so. I just know that I get more done when I'm aware of my own happiness. Being productive adds to the contentedness and completes the cycle. It’s not even a matter of sitting in once place for a while and focusing on one thing. I’m glad just to notice a momentary, beautiful detail in the world around me.

  •          I’ll think more critically about what I consider failure. In a world without failure, I would become very confused and suspicious as to why I wasn’t failing at anything. Failure is a natural part of life and an educational one. Much of what people refer to as failure may just be evidence of authentic challenge.

The GRAD611 course was genuinely one of the more unusual yet useful courses I’ve taken during my graduate career. It’s provided me with a wealth of material to think about. I've listed some fairly abstract observations, but the lessons about time management and conflict resolution have already proved valuable as well. I’ll have to see what kind of lasting effect all this material may have in six months or a year from now.