It’s Not How Many Times You Fall….

I began writing my dissertation in 2003 or so. My first year in graduate school at Kansas State University, I had the good fortune of enrolling in Dr. Robert K. Schaeffer’s graduate Social Change course. When Dr. Schaeffer assigned the requisite term paper due in every graduate level course I have ever taken, he gave me the best advice I could get: every paper you write in your classes should in some way contribute to your dissertation. So that year, I began writing my dissertation. I continued every semester writing a bit more of my dissertation, touching on subjects related to my topic (Job Satisfaction of Paramedics) in almost all of my classes. By the time I was done with my two years of coursework, I had the first 30 pages of history, research question, hypothesis, and methods complete in rough draft.

But then, disaster came. After I completed my coursework, I had to complete my two preliminary exams. The first, I passed without a problem. The second, not so much. In November 2007, I sat for my second exam, and a few weeks later, got a notification that I had failed. I was stricken, emotionally hopeless, and academically shamed. No one flat out failed their exams in my department.

I was given the option of retaking the exam in the next semester, and so I spent the next months studying, reading, and writing extensively on my reading list, and the next spring, sat for my exams again. I waited anxiously, but confidently this time given the time I had spent studying, for my results. On the Friday before Memorial Day, I got the email: I had failed, again.

I was nauseated with the depth of the failure. My graduate adviser informed me that I would be dismissed from the university due to my failure, and when I called him a few minutes after I got the email, he told me how sorry he was. And then he said, “maybe you should grieve your results.”

Thus started the longest fight of my life, and the fight that would prove my stubbornness, my hardheadedness, but ultimately, vindicate me in the long fight. I spent the next three years fighting for my exams to be read by outside faculty until, finally, in June 2011, I got the best email: I had passed my exams.

But my fight was not to be over. I presented my dissertation proposal to my new dissertation committee in December 2011, and then, three weeks later, was diagnosed with locally metastasized thyroid cancer in January 2012. I had surgery that same month to remove my thyroid, and still worked on my dissertation whenever I felt well enough. My dissertation chair was supportive, and gave me open ended deadlines so I could move forward as I could.

But then heartache struck in summer of 2012, when my dad’s kidneys failed, and I became one of his caregivers during home dialysis. Then in August 2012, at 4 months pregnant, I suffered a miscarriage. I spent two months after that suffering complications, and was rushed to emergency surgery to save my life in late October.

Again, I was recovering well, when in December of 2012, my dad became sick again, this time, with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Once again, I put my dissertation on the back burner, turned to my children and family, and for two months, alongside my sisters, while working full time teaching, I cared for my father while he died.

It took a few months for me to get back to my dissertation, but by May 2013, I realized I needed to get it done, for my own satisfaction, and for my dad, who didn’t really understand what I was doing at school, but who supported me anyway. So I began in earnest to write the first three chapters of my dissertation proposal, since it had to be rewritten since so much time had passed. I spent the next year working every minute on my dissertation. running regression models on a huge data set, teasing variables to see what was most significant.

And then, in May of 2014, I got an email from my dissertation chair: she was going on sabbatical and even though I was making progress, it wasn’t fast enough to finish before she went on leave. She wished me luck, and told me I needed to find a new chair. I spent the next 7 months trying to find a new chair for my dissertation, which, predictably, was difficult given the topic (no one in sociology has that expertise), and how far I was in the process. No one was comfortable taking over three chapters into the project. I was informed, once again, that I would be dismissed from the program if I couldn’t secure a new committee by May of 2015.

So I made a Hail Mary pass, and made a flight reservation to Kansas, then started making phone calls and sending emails to faculty who might entertain being my dissertation chair. I had three projects in my briefcase when I got to Kansas, wore a suit, greeted everyone with a handshake and warm smile. I have never been more of a salesperson than I was those few days in February of this year. I had nothing to lose.

On my last day in Kansas, while snow was blanketing the campus in stunning winter white, I met with the last person I had an appointment with; he was my last hope. He turned out to be the best hope, as well. I presented only one of my proposals to him, the one closest to my heart, and the one I believed in the most. I didn’t even tell him about the paramedic proposal. And he said yes.

I’ve been writing my dissertation for 12 years now, although my topic has changed, and I’ve deleted much more than what remains, it’s coming along pretty well. My deadline is October 2016, and because I’ve dreamed of being a college professor since the 4th grade, I’ll make it. I’ve not much to lose, and I’ve been at the bottom, and when you’ve been there, is when you work the hardest, and become the most innovative, and industrious. You learn what’s the most important to you. I was reminded of that while I was listening to these commencement speeches yesterday: sometimes you have to fall, to succeed beyond your dreams.

Here, in order of importance, are my picks for commencement speeches that best send the message, “it’s not how many times you fall, it’s how many times you rise up again, that’s important.”

The prolific Harry Potter author, who began her career working for Amnesty International, stresses the merits of failure and the importance of imagination, but not in the way you might think. As sociologists, I wonder if this is why we are so different from others: we have the imagination to see the suffering of others. If you have just 20 minutes to spare today, use it to listen to J.K. Rowling’s Harvard address to the graduating class of 2008.

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” J.K. Rowling

What happens when you are fired from the company you co-founded? You create something even better. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs addressed the graduating class of Stanford, 2005, with the message that sometimes, you need to get knocked down to be given the opportunity to be your best.

On creating Pixar, the company that recreated movie animation:

“I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.” — Steve Jobs

Comedian Ellen DeGeneres offers advice for Tulane University 2009 graduates.

“Really when I look back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing. I mean, it was so important for me to lose everything because I found out what the most important thing is, is to be true to yourself. Ultimately, that’s what’s gotten me to this place. I don’t live in fear, I’m free; I have no secrets and I know I’ll always be ok, because no matter what, I know who I am.” – Ellen Degeneres