If It’s Not a ‘Hell Yes’, It’s a ‘No’. Refinding My Why for My PhD.

After a week of written comprehensive exams, you’d think I’d be sick of writing. Though I’m ready for a break, I feel compelled to reflect on how I arrived here. 

Rewind to high school. I was a largely self-taught, “home schooled” kid that found himself at Pima Community College. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing enrolling let alone suddenly sitting on campus when I had never been in a classroom. 

Looking back, I was pushing back. I was resisting being told that as a home-schooled student, and one without a whole lot of guidance, college wasn’t in my future. That felt very real to me. There was no reason that should have been wrong — other than I knew I wanted something different. I craved it, in fact. By the end of my first day, I was hooked. I loved the structure. The energy. Even the smell of campus. It felt like security. And in that moment, it was security in a life that largely felt unpredictable and one that I had little to no voice in. I won’t claim it was day one, but I will say that very early on, I knew that I wanted a graduate degree. And not just any graduate degree, I wanted the one where no one questioned how much education you had anymore.  The “you’ve reached the end of the line,” put on the silly costume, and have the OPTION to decide whether you’re going to be the ass that has his mail addressed to Dr. Wisner.

Though my course to get there took a few turns that in the moment felt like an identity crisis (now, I’d just say they were exploration), an associates, bachelors, masters, *hopefully* candidacy for a doctorate, and nearly 14 years later, here we are.

“They” tell you that if you’re going to get a PhD, you better know your why because you’re going to need it. At this point in my life, I appreciate that in a lot of what I do. I’m not perfect at being aligned with my why sometimes but it is an active effort. That’s not the point, really. Instead, what I wish people had told me was that it’s important to tend to your why — because it changes and that’s okay.

For me, it really changed. My infatuation of what a degree meant was far less important to me than how it felt doing the work I was doing. Being exposed to the not-so-pretty side of higher education, both as a **still very privileged** first generation student, later as an adjunct, and more recently as a consultant, I really shared little resonance with what drove me to the point of starting this journey to begin with. (And I sure as hell don’t care whether or not you think I have enough education or where I got my degrees from, and I don’t want to be Dr. Wisner).

A year ago, I almost quit. Yes, my why changed but also: Life was hard, my businesses, both the ones I own and the ones I run were growing exponentially. I wanted more time with my partner and infant. My grandparents had some health problems. I was overwhelmed and not doing anything well.

I took a pause.

The “why” didn’t make sense to me anymore. To say I was compelled or motivated was an understatement.

For the past 8 months, I’ve wrestled with why. Knowing that my why 14 years ago didn’t align with current day me. That experience took some grieving. Because even though I can want for not, it felt like giving up.

What’s so wrong with that, you might ask?

Giving up. Saying no. Setting boundaries. That’s the hard shit. Realizing when what was good for you a year ago might not be so great now…sometimes it isn’t as easy as you wish it were. Even considering it. That’s hard too.

I languished there for a bit. However, towards the end of last year, I finally decided I was either going to do it, or I wasn’t going to do it. The emotional labor of being in liminal space was no longer worth it. And in whatever became true, I would have the confidence of the kid who showed up clueless on a community college campus.

At that point, I came to a few realizations.

One was that moving forward, sinking my teeth into comps…it was a way to honor myself. Though the person a decade and a half ago had some different priorities, I still share values with that person.

The second was realizing how this was an opportunity to bring my authentic self into something that didn’t have the same strings attached as showing up to work every day. And to be honest, that felt very freeing.

And third. One day, when I was walking with Reagan, I knew that I wanted her to know it was okay to change her mind, say no, quit. And to do it with confidence. The heart of what I wanted her to see and hopefully for us to talk about someday, is what it means to honor a commitment to yourself. For me, it was getting the damn thing done. And if it had been setting the whole thing down, that would have been fine too.

Honor yourself. Know your why.

Midway through my exams, I took a break to play with Reagan at the park. Unintentionally, we were by Pima Community College – where it all started. On this rare day, she wanted to walk instead of spend time kicking her ball or swinging. “Walk, Dada. Walk.”

So, walk we did.

The campus, quiet on a Sunday afternoon still smelled the same. The same warm rush came over me walking onto campus as that first day. And at that point, I was reminded, that I would never regret finishing, but I could have regretted not finishing. I urge you to know your why but also to be in relationship with your why.

– Deven Wisner

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