Sunday, November 04, 2007

My Learning Autobiography

My success has been driven, in a large part, by my passion to learn. Beginning as a child I was obsessed with learning how things worked. Before I even started school I would take my toys apart to figure out how they worked. Some of these experiments ended in success, others ended with parts that simply wouldn’t go back together, much to the chagrin of my parents.

Formal education itself was very enjoyable. I enjoyed nearly every subject and enjoyed the recognition that success brought me even more. School itself was very easy; I was able to achieve high grades with very little effort. However, the drive to be the best is what kept me interested. This drive to succeed followed me into high school as well. I joined a number of extracurricular activities like chorus, band, theater and speech team. This provided me with additional opportunities to learn and excel; it also provided the sort of challenge that the regular curriculum was not providing.

Unfortunately, this addiction to success also had a downside, if I didn’t have the skills to be the best I simply lost interest. My initial forays into sports and athletics didn’t hold my interest. Although I was able to make the teams I had no chance to be recognized as the best, so I just quit. The only thing that kept my interest in less interesting subjects – at least to me – like English and Spanish, was the desire to keep my grade point average as high as possible.

College started the next chapter of my learning experience. I had chosen my major based on the expectations of those around me; I was smart and particularly skilled at math and science. Such people went into engineering, so that is what I did. I also chose my school on those same expectations. University of Illinois was one of the best engineering schools within my reach, so that is where I would go.

It started off as very similar to the rest of my school career, I succeeded without much effort. But as the curriculum moved from the basics that were geared toward the general student population and towards more specialization, I started to struggle. I could no longer succeed by just showing up and didn’t have the discipline or drive to put in the extra effort required to be the best.

I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong and initially blamed it on my choice of majors. I switched majors to computer science from engineering but that didn’t seem to make much difference. Looking back it’s clear that I was having a crisis of identity. I was no longer the one that everyone looked to and I didn’t know how to turn to others for help – people came to me for help!

I couldn’t force myself to go to class anymore and constantly found ways to procrastinate. Eventually, I failed out. After taking a semester off I was determined to return and finish what I started, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I successfully completed my probation semester, but I no longer knew what I was going to do with my life and withdrew from college.

It’s possible that a different choice of institutions would have led to a very different outcome. If I had known how much my drive for excellence affected my overall performance I may have made a different choice. It would have also been beneficial to determine what my career aspirations really were instead of relying on the expectations of others.

But it was not to be; I was working my way through college so had some reasonable options to put food on the table. I was well liked and respected by my management, so they were anxious to promote me to a management position. This began my chapter in life as a restaurant manager. I spent the next three years working to successfully advance my career in restaurant management. I wouldn’t necessarily call them happy years, but I was content. I was learning about what it took to make a restaurant successful, and what it meant to manage people. But most importantly of all, I was being recognized for my efforts eventually becoming assistant manager then restaurant manager.

Shortly after taking over my own store I came to the sudden realization that there was no next step. There was nothing left to strive for and simply being good wasn’t good enough. So I tendered my resignation and moved to Chicago.

My stint as a restaurant manager may not have been overly satisfying intellectually, but it wasn’t devoid of learning. I spent much of my free time with my lifelong hobby – computers. I was introduced to computers during the fourth grade, ever since that introduction I was enamored. I played games, did homework, took computers apart, put computers back together and learned everything about computers that I could. I was very active during the early stages of the internet and would spend hours web surfing; I’d follow link after link enamored with all of the interesting things there were to learn.

This would end up serving me well; after moving to Chicago I served as a temporary secretary. Whenever there was a computer related problem or question I would jump in and do what I could. My associate was convinced that my knowledge was more than enough to work on computers for a living. She convinced me to apply for a desktop technician job; so I took the chance and obtained a computer job as soon as my temporary position was over.

It was amazing, I had found my calling. It was astonishing that you could have so much fun at work. People were actually paying me to do something that I had been doing for free for years. I was constantly learning something new and was being recognized for my skill. The limits of my education were only set by my desire to learn; from basic computer skills to networking to programming I wanted to learn it all. As the computer industry grew, I did as well. I gained the status of technical promotions and filled my yearning to figure out how things worked with no practical limit in sight.

For someone that loves to learn and someone that loves to figure out how things work information technology was too good to be true. Every day brings a new puzzle that must be deciphered and every year brings a slew of technology that must be discovered.

My career continued to advance successfully for a number of years and I was more than content. Then something changed, although I wasn’t able to realize its impact at the time. The advent of blogging was about to become a major contributor to both my professional career and my career as a learner.

It started off as a convenient way to read content from the web sites I would have visited anyway. Then I discovered a community of like-minded bloggers and academics. My political philosophy has always been a little different from most others, but this community shared my worldview and they had a lot of great content, research and theory to justify their positions. I started to devour this new world of economics and politics with the same lust that I originally computers.

I really wanted to participate in this community, so I launched a blog of my own. While it was not successful by the way these things are measured, it was very satisfying to participate in the blogging community. I applied my newfound knowledge of economics and incentives to improve my ability to make decisions. I also honed my writing skills, all of which had a positive impact on my career. My arguments were more persuasive, my ideas were better developed and I was much more effective when communicating with others. What started out as a pleasurable diversion had turned into a promotion to manager and recognition as a leader within the organization.

Which brings us to the present; I still enjoy learning how things work but taking toys apart isn’t as satisfying as it was when I was four. The things that I want to understand are much more complex now. What makes a business tick? How do you make a business better? When a business is broken what can be done to fix it? I certainly have thoughts on this subject, but in order to put them to the test I need to continue advancing in my career.

My career advancement to this point has been very natural, taking what I do well and love I have been able to achieve the each successive level of achievement. In order to continue advancing I will need to go back and finish what I originally started, completing college.

Not having a degree may not be a hard requirement, but I do not want something that I can control to prevent further success. Unlike discovering computers – where everyone else was essentially learning along side with me – there is a vast amount of knowledge about businesses and organizations. Completing my degree at this time is an opportunity to catch up with everyone else and an opportunity to continue the journey of learning that I began as a small child.

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