Articles / Dreams, a commitment to personal goals, striving for excellence, embracing challenges

Dreams, a commitment to personal goals, striving for excellence, embracing challenges

Posted on: November 4th, 2011 by No Comments

By: Dr. Joseph Towles, Research Scientist, Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, Rehabilitation Inst Chicago Research Asst Prof, Dept. PM&R, Northwestern University

As an adolescent, my earliest aspiration was to be a French artist, owing to my interests in both drawing and speaking French. I used to draw pictures of favorite TV show actors and musical artists. When I was first introduced to the French language, I was immediately drawn in perhaps because it was a way to express myself in “code” similar to when I taught myself Morse code and shorthand. At this point, I was set on being a French artist. In my young mind, however, I had not realized that the “French” part could only be realized through citizenship with another country. Anyway, I never went to art school and my interests went to other areas.

Strong influences and circumstances in high school and early college led me to pursue a PhD in mechanical engineering. At the time, I had only a vague idea of what an engineer does and virtually no idea of how having a PhD would change that. The early attraction, I think, was the end product: being able to work in a field that blended advanced levels of math and science; that would expose me to exotic topics; and that would provide me an opportunity to understand behavior at a fundamental level. This vision would be my prize for the duration of college and graduate school.

In college, my educational experience created a culture of high expectations in part through accountability groups and numerous opportunities for self-motivation. My peers and I organized ourselves and took ownership of the learning process. We were encouraged to study together, attend tutoring sessions, connect with upper classmen for helpful notes and old exams and get to know professors and TAs. Attending tutoring sessions was a proactive measure to solidify or tweak one’s understanding of course material, and to increase that B+ to an A. Study groups were the norm and facilitated friendly competition. Advisors were available to help troubleshoot issues affecting classroom performance. They also provided guidance, understanding, and were sources of encouragement to continuously strive for excellence. Excellence was always the end goal! Several keys to academic success relate to collaborating or partnering with others in the learning process, taking ownership of it and soliciting the guidance of others who are senior to you.

Given the rigorous path of graduate school, a commitment to personal goals was critical. An attitude that nothing else mattered and a willingness to “submit” to the graduate school process were vital to staying the course. In hindsight, I think a combination of factors—including qualities my parents instilled in me, support from others, a belief that what I was doing was worthwhile, and perhaps a desire to maximize on the opportunity that was given me—played a key role in helping me to remain focused.

My graduate school experience reminded me that challenging circumstances create an incubator for growth, maturation, or metamorphosis. The lengthy, intense process by which diamond is derived from coal is a common example in nature. I suspect that people (myself included) frequently miss the opportunity to embrace challenging circumstances and to learn to enjoy the difficult process. Often, the gem is in the “going through” rather than the destination. One writer put it this way: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our [challenging circumstances], because we know that [such circumstances] produce perseverance; [and] perseverance, character…”