On Thursday, 25 October, I spent about two hours in the morning preparing for my online final exam, which consisted of three one-hour scenarios. The “honor system” was used to encourage students to not look at notes or our books during the exam, but that was the extent of the proctoring. At about 11 a.m., I started my first exam, worked diligently, and submitted it with a few minutes to spare. I immediately started the second module, which I finished in about 45 minutes. I took a break for lunch, spoke to a friend on the phone, and relaxed for a about 15 minutes before starting the third module, which I completed in about 38 minutes.
In the end, I spent more than four hours preparing for and taking the exam, the culmination of my first graduate class in American University’s online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program. Prior to this exam, I spent anywhere between 10 and 15 hours per week reading the materials, posting to discussion boards, responding to others’ posts, and writing papers. That time commitment was what the recruiters of the program said would be the case, so it was not surprising.
During the eight-week course, and those 100-or-so hours I spent reading, writing, and analyzing, I learned a lot, particularly from the book Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, who give the six key tenets of what makes an idea “stick” with an audience. The other readings in the course were helpful in aggregate, but none so much as the Heath brothers’ book. Throughout the course, I incorporated lessons learned into my job as a strategic communications manager. The best practices I pulled in had already begun to impact my work and show some results. I was happy about that, as were my colleagues I was supporting.
I was lucky enough (and grateful) to receive some funding support from my employer, as well as the Veterans Administration through my limited Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. In the end, the course cost me about $20 out of pocket.
At this point, you might think that taking the next course would be a no brainer, something already in the cards.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. And it’s not the case for a few reasons.
First, while I definitely learned a lot in the first course, I feel that most of that learning was done because I was simply told what to learn. I met with my professor twice, and those interactions were very helpful, but there was very little “instruction,” as I’m used to. I understand this could be a historical bias I have just based on my own history of learning in classrooms, but I don’t feel that I got a lot from my professor in the way of instruction and learning. If I had been given these books and these assignments, I feel I could have learned much of it on my own.
Second, the course is incredibly expensive at more than $5,000 per online course. Granted, it is eight weeks, but, again, it’s all online. I wasn’t able to secure funding from my employer for the next course, which meant that I would have spent $3,000 of my own money on the course, and that’s just money I can’t afford.
I give my wife, Abby, full credit for the third point. On a short road trip last weekend, she mentioned to me something very profound. As long as I stay in the strategic communications field, I’ll never be the decision maker, I’ll never be autonomous, and I’ll always have to ask for excessive (my word) amounts of approval for everything I do. As I view myself as a self-aware, smart decision maker, it’s disappointing to continue to work in a career where everything has to be approved at multiple levels. “I know you,” she said. “You need to be in front of people either in a classroom or on a stage. That’s when you’re at your best, and when you’re in front of a group, you’re the decision maker. You say what goes.”
She was entirely right. That was my passion—being in front of people, either sharing my knowledge with them, sharing other’s knowledge with them, or leading them in something. As long as I continued down the path of strategic communications, I wouldn’t be focusing on my passion.
Several days later, I was leading an event at work in front of a couple hundred people. And I was on fire, both internally and on stage. I killed it. I ruled. I owned it. I was amazing. I was [add in any word to describe a great performance]. Yes, that may sound pompous, but I also received extremely positive feedback from others. At the end of the event, a woman I didn’t know came up to me: “You’re in the wrong job.”
I laughed. “Thank you. I think that means you enjoyed it,” I responded.
“No, I’m serious. You need to do this for a living.”
That, in the end, is why I’m not taking the next course in the graduate school program…for now. It might happen in the future, just not at this time. Why? Spending another 100 hours over the next eight weeks doesn’t get me closer to my passion. I’m going to spend those hours to get in front of people, any way I can. I’m confident that the more people I get in front of, the more people will want me to keep doing it, and that will be my future.