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Welcome to Michael's blog. Michael Andrew, (aka Michael The Maven) is a freelance producer, photography instructor, tech innovator, and when needed, disaster aid specialist. Disclaimer: Michael is a participant in Bhphoto & Amazon affiliate programs that provides an advertising commission if you purchase through links on this website.


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11.26.09         michael's insights  

Happy Thanksgiving! | What I am thankful for!


Happy Thanksgiving

I’m going to go out on a limb here and try to open up a little. I realize I am very much into pictures, which is what I typically post and I feel impressed to write this entry. I hope it helps you understand a little more about me, and maybe even a little about you too.

I wanted to pick one thing I am really, REALLY thankful for. Please do not get me wrong, I am thankful many, many things, you know the general type stuff. I am very grateful for health, my family, friends, supporters, students and encouragers, but that’s not what I want to write about today. I wanted to pick something specific and different that has changed my life.

I wanted to express how thankful I am that my PhD project didn’t work. That’s right, I am absolutely, completely 10,000% percent thankful I did not get my doctorate degree. The fact of the matter is, at the time, not getting my degree was, at least in my mind, one of the most stressful and terrifying things I had ever encountered. I lost many nights sleep over it. I’ve always had a knack for sticking it out in tough situations and believed I was there to finish the mission.

The plan was to be in grad school for 5 just years (get 2 Masters and a PhD in that time) Had my project worked, I would have finished, gone off to some Biotech company and probably would have been miserable. I had successfully completed my qualifying exams (that’s where 5 professors ask you anything they want, both written and oral and you have to successfully answer most of them. (To give you a taste, one professor asked me to “diagram how electrons in RNA nucleotides are pushed in the formation of a covalent bond during transcription”.) I felt good about passing, but I needed a dissertation to graduate. In the Cell/Molecular field, it isn’t enough to research something, you have to prove something new that no one has ever discovered before.

After my 5th year, and having passed my exams, I stayed on for an extra 3 FREAKING nightmarish years to try to finish that thing. My only regret is not having quit sooner, but looking back, I understand how hard it was not to walk away after a 5 year investment of time. Granted, I got the 2 Masters, but I grew up believing one day I would have a doctorate degree of some kind.

The last 2.5 years of grad school I spent what seemed like nearly every waking hour (with the exception of weekends) working in the lab, sometimes getting positive results and other times not. During those days, I wrote in my journal “You do not have to be dead to be in hell”.

I would have these crazy dreams (and btw- my dreams are extremely realistic and intense, I usually believe everything that is happening is real until I wake up).

One was of the fruit flies laughing at me and asking me if I knew who the test subject really was.

And in another, I was trapped in an old house, like an orphanage or something, because there were several children there, one of whom I was. We had to keep the house perfectly clean, so as long as we were in there, we were scrubbing the walls or floors. I wanted to go outside and play but all the doors and windows were locked and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t open or break them. I remember looking out the window and feeling tortured I couldn’t go play. Later on, I found a trap door in the basement that went down to hell (lol- yes, you are reading this correctly- hard to believe I am sharing this with the world) and the house owner told me that if I was brave enough to go down there and walk through hell, I would find a cellar door that would lead outside and I would be completely free to go and do and play however I wanted. “Or you can stay in here for the rest of your life” he said. So down I went and I could see the cellar door on the other side about 200 feet away, but as soon as I started walking I lost most of my strength and had to crawl on my hands and knees, which were being burned with every inch of progress I made. There were some other things that were pretty terrifying I wont share, but after a very long ordeal….I made it. And when I got outside, it was the most amazing, beautiful place I had ever seen. I started jumping up and down and was laughing. I looked back at the house to find the owner and some other children were watching me. They were crying because they were too scared to follow and would be stuck in the house for the rest of their lives. (Such are the dreams of Michael Andrew, I have something like this just about every night)

After I had that particular dream, I believed that going through hell was toughing it out in the lab, slowly working away and eventually finishing. I’m convinced now that is not what it meant.

After the 6th year, I had a very strong impression that: “You have to learn one single lesson and you will be here until you learn it.” I wrote it on my dry erase board that hung over my desk and I looked at it everyday for 18 months. I thought maybe the lesson was patience or longsuffering, or hard work, or enduring to the end, but as time went on, I felt I was missing whatever it was that was holding me back. I continued to work away, believing that “once I have my degree, Ill get a good job, get a good salary, and then….Ill be happy”.

My PhD professor was pretty flexible, but I didn’t like having to be in certain places at certain times. We had to go to all of these meetings that were absolutely lame, and if we didn’t go they would threaten to take away our scholarships. So I went. There was a ton of stupid things like that. Be here at this time, do this, do that. I didn’t mind the teaching, that was fun. I just HATED being controlled. I felt like, the more I believed I need the degree to be happy, the less freedom I had.

As long as you believe someone else controls something you need to be happy…you wont be. Once you start believing and understanding that you alone control your destiny, your happiness and your freedom, you suddenly become responsible and if you have the teeny tinest bit of drive, you start to hustle and made things happen.

At about 7.5 years into it, the little voice came back to me (schizophrenic-like isnt it?) and asked “Can you walk away from this knowing you will never have this Doctorate degree and be happy for the rest of your life? Would you rather own a PhD in Developmental Genetics written on paper or a PhD in Courage written on your heart?” It took some time to flirt with this idea, and over a period of a month realized, the lesson I needed to learn, was the Courage to walk away. It made sense ““You have to learn one single lesson and you will be here until you learn it.”

That was probably one of the most important decisions of my life because after I decided to leave, I was freaked out for about 3 days…I mean like…SUPER Scared. I didn’t have a real plan, I had a few shoots, but other than that…NO DIPLOMA, NO JOB, NO FUTURE.

Interestingly, I have learned now, that over those 8 years of grad school, many important and valuable skills were acquired. I had learned how to take difficult subjects and make them simple, I learned people skills, analytical and trouble shooting skills. I developed the habit of concentrating for hours on a topic, or working 16 hour days, for YEARS with absolutely nothing to show for it, that maybe 10 people in the world would care about if it did work. Makes it so much nicer when I can finish a DVD, hold it in my hands, watch it, and know many people will benefit from it.

I learned to accept that I don’t know most things, but I could find the answers if I looked. I learned how to learn.

And in the final, last lesson, in a metaphorical way, I learned that even after all that investment, of time, homework, papers, tests for grades that now mean nothing, YEARS of hard work, stress, study, I could stand up proud, and lift the biggest middle finger I could ever imagine and say “Keep the degree, from here on out, Im going to put my faith in myself and I will find a way. I’m not sure how I am going to make it, but I am.” It was like pushing on an immovable rock for 8 years makes pushing other things a whole heck of a lot easier.

It has taken me some time to learn, but that very act of leaving my PhD and rebelling against what society says is needed for happiness “work hard, get good grades, get a good job, work for someone else, and maybe make good money” isn’t always true. I believe its usually not and for the most part, it’s a lie. I imagine there are a few exceptions to the rule, but yes…as an employee, as long as someone else is telling you when to work (which also translates into when to wake up, when to spend time with your family, when to eat, how much money you will be making, etc, etc, etc)- this is not freedom.

I would be willing to bet that the majority of people do not like their jobs, yet they stick with it because they feel trapped, there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. They feel as if there is no way out. I know this because I was there. Believe me when I tell you, there is always a way out, it’s a matter if a person is willing to pay the price.

Actually walking away from that degree, which in my heart I believe I had put more than enough work in to earn, but couldn’t have it because I hadn’t proved something new, was the price I had to pay, and it has opened my eyes and given me the strength I need to move forward.

I have many friends who have recently lost their jobs and are just terrified and feel hopeless. I wish I could take what I know and transfer it somehow so they can see what a tremendous opportunity they have. Having tried to do this, I know now, that the only way someone else can see it, is if they too are willing to pay the price.

If I had not gone through that AWFUL experience and had not learned to have COURAGE, I would not be anywhere close to where I am and what I am doing today. The best part is, I feel like I am just barely getting started. I’ve only been a Maven for just over 2 years.

So yes…today, I am thankful for one of the most painful, terrifying, hell-like, trying experiences of my life. I look back on it now and feel so incredibly deeply grateful for it. Isnt that ironic? What brought me absolute misery in one point in my life, has brought be a tremendous gift now that I’m on the outside of the house, at least, I feel like Im on the outside of the house now :) - It’s as if it was trapped in a Gulag, and someone set me free. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I don’t think I’ve learned everything I need to about it, but I will be thankful for it for the rest of my life.

I honestly and sincerely hope that me sharing this with you, has helped you in some way.

COURAGE brings freedom.

Have a great Thanksgiving Day!

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