I often talk about the importance of life learning and am a big proponent of adopting a student’s mindset. But it’s one thing to think like a student and another when you become the real thing.
Earlier this month I found myself siting on the flip side of the lectern in a classroom at McMaster University in Hamilton, having begun a Master of Communications Management.
It’s funny that after all these years, I had first day of school jitters when I walked in the door and realized I was embarking on a two-year professional program with six week-long residencies, online webinars, assignments, essays, and…exams. Oh and did I mention I have to write academically, use proper citations, and return to the Oxford comma, something I’d given up a long time ago?
So why did I do it?
Two Reasons I Returned to the Academy
The first is that getting a post-grad degree is something I’ve thought about for at least five years – but always in September, which meant I was too late to apply. This year, I began looking into it earlier. As my career moved from running a PR agency to digital consulting, training, and teaching, this seemed like natural path.
Second, I’m always up for another personal challenge and the goal of a professional credential that could lead to new doors opening appealed to me. I stumbled into PR and believe I can benefit from grounding in the theory that underpins the profession.
So now that I’ve completed the first residency, made some new friends and am fretting over due dates and exams, here are three things I learned from being a student that can be applied to work.
- You don’t need the answers up-front. It’s more important to discover the questions. When we have a challenge in the agency and consulting world, we’re conditioned (and paid) to come up with a creative and effective answer. Fast. Sometimes the response is almost instantaneous, like Malcolm Gladwell’s thin-slicing on steroids. And then we have to slow down and provide a rationale when many of us feel we know exactly what should be done. Of course, that’s based on the science of gut and there’s evidence to back this approach. But in a world of big data, a more sophisticated skill is keeping that initial spark off to one side and then looking deeper into the data, posing more questions, researching, interpreting and not simply jumping to solutions.
- Solving problems is easier when you discover a fresh perspective. We had a lecture from a math prof who was trying to prepare a group of math-phobic communicators for the basics of accounting. He advised us not to begin by simply applying a formula, but rather to take a step back, look for patterns and then visualize those patterns in human terms. For example, he suggested a ratio could be thought of as one or more slices of a pie. Hungry for both food and answers, you now have a story that can help you see a new way to solve a complex problem.
- You’re not in it alone. Looking around the room during lectures, I noticed there were many accomplished individuals who were all struggling with the same concepts I was. We were all vulnerable and out of our comfort zones. It didn’t take long to realize that none of us had all the answers but when we put our collective intelligence to the task, we could stumble our way to the first stages of understanding and that was a comforting thought.
This is a brief sampling of what I tried to absorb during my first week at McMaster’s MCM. The experience made me realize the importance of sitting in the passenger seat some of the time and paying attention to the ride from a very different POV. Like school, this is a place where you feel a combination of exhilaration and terror. And that’s a hard spot for a lot of agency types to sit in.
Have you gone back to school? What have you learned?