Posted by: gcarkner | September 29, 2015

Foundation for Success

 Build a Foundation for Success as a Graduate Student

Dr. Gordon Carkner

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At the beginning of a new school year, it is worth asking the question: How do hard working, successful people of noble character pursue their highest goals and stick with them as a life-long task? What’s the secret to that Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer prize winner or Order of Canada recipient? Here are seven discerning pointers to keep you motivated and keep you building into your academic quest, and ultimately your career. These are some of the planks you need to lay down in order to fulfill your dreams. The best piece of advice given to me at the beginning of my PhD work was that one has to really, really want this, to be willing to grow up and do what it takes to make it happen. Are you hungry enough for that PhD, or Masters? This means you count the cost, find the resources and develop the skills, then commit yourself to the effort day after day with wise stewardship of time and good partnerships. How will your faith make a difference in this pursuit? These suggestions are rooted in the knowledge that God is interested in every detail of your life (Psalm 139), so a full conversion to living robustly under his loving care and grace is a key aspect of this foundation. The collected wisdom below is directed at helping you to mark out a design for a constructive life. It is not a slick formula.

1.    Devote yourself to your truest purpose (your deeper dream or vision). This will ignite your spirit and animate your life. Write it out clearly and revisit it regularly to reflect upon it and finesse it, at least monthly if not weekly. What is that great good to which you want to devote your life?  Become powerfully inner-directed by discerning this deeper purpose and let it drive your life like a piston. Ask yourself “Who am I deep within?”, “What gets me fired up and motivated?”  “What do I really want to accomplish with my life?” These are primary questions of the first order. Author Frederick Buechner says that “calling is where our passion intersects with the world’s pain and need”. Identify the unique and strategic nature of your calling; many people are deeply unhappy and bored because they did not take the time to self-examine, self-reflect and drill down deep enough to find this well of vision within. St. Augustine discovered that, as we look deep within, we also transcend self and find God in fresh ways; the reflective life is well worth living.

2.     Remember to follow you heart’s passion, and not some other person’s dream, unless theirs happens to coincide with yours. This will fuel you with energy, build your confidence and hope. Do what you love or risk dying inside and becoming a cynic/burnout. Be on guard for those who will try to exploit your giftedness or take credit for your hard work. Ask yourself, “What do I really enjoy doing that thrills me and gives me meaning?” This is at the heart of how you are uniquely made in the image of God. It needs to be taken seriously. There will always be moments of discouragement or disappointment, but you will be continually built up and renewed as you follow something that resonates with the core of your being, your core convictions and values. It is also important to reflect and re-examine where this inspiration is sourced, and to keep going back to that source of the good (constitutive good according to Charles Taylor). If your motivational source dries up, search for a new one. We all need a mentor or a spiritual director to speak into our life, help us mature, to keep the connection to this source alive. We need someone to help us to fan into flame our passion and push us forward to the edge of our individual envelope to realize the dream. This will keep our imagination growing, keep us leaning into our passion, aligning our whole lives with that core vision. They can help us remember who and what we love and to what we have been called. We see this intense focused attention in Jesus’ mission; he refuses the various distractions, and detractors, which come his way (John 14-17), and maintains his God-oriented priorities; he stays close to the Father and his core calling.

3.   Believe strongly in yourself, your ideas and what God has called you to uniquely. Don’t be afraid to be a little different; this will sustain you in the journey and help you ward off detractors or cynical voices. No one else can do this to the same extent. This is not narcissism but genuine self-confidence, a continual commitment to live out of your true self and turn your back on your false self (Parker Palmer). Your first and most fundamental question is that of your identity. Many people will try to discourage you from your life task and seek to discredit your vision—the “naysayers”, the diabolos faction. Don’t let the doubts and negativity of others, or your own doubts for that matter, stifle or crush you or pour cold water on your ideas. What is your vision for a better world, for helping others to flourish, for offering hope or repairing a broken world? Grab hold of this with tenacity; walk and work it through to the end of it; don’t sell yourself short to some lower goal of security and comfort, or trendy research. Work through the shadows and darkness inside you and eventually you will live into the light. There is true freedom in taking more responsibility for yourself and your vision in this way. This is called taking yourself and your giftedness seriously versus allowing trivialization or narcissism to take the lead. Falsity comes in thinking too much or too little of yourself and your gifts (Romans 12:1-3). Become tough in this commitment of believing in the unique person God has made you..

4.     Prepare for the inevitable challenges. They will most certainly come, both from within as well as from outside. Face down expose the coward within, and walk away from the cynics; they will waste incredible amounts of your precious time. This builds fortitude, muscle and maturity into your passion, so that you don’t cut and run when it gets hard or a bit more complex than you anticipated. I used to think that I was unique and that I would escape the struggles that I saw other people having, if I just had the right ideas. I was naïve and had to correct my perceptions. Adversity is not necessarily a sign that you are on the wrong track or headed in the wrong direction; it may indeed be a sign of the opposite. Pursuing righteousness, the true, the beautiful and the good can be tough sledding at times.

Strangely enough, one often faces the greatest opposition when one is headed down the center of the right path. See Jesus’ temptation in the desert; there was a great temptation to detour or retreat, but he stayed with his vision in the teeth of formidable challenges, bribery, fraud and perversions of reality.  Don’t expect an easy ride on the road of your true purpose. The best goals can go against the stream of the majority as any reformer would affirm. Therefore expect challenges and don’t be surprised when they show up; the biblical writer James enjoins us to ‘welcome trials as friends’ and let them build our character, strengthen our resolve; trials can become our best pedagogues. Failure is now seen as a mere set-back, a great teacher and a courage strengthener on a successful path of integrity and fruitful productivity. Stay on your flight path.  If it is the right one, it will run deeper in your soul over time, where convictions reign and mobilize energy.

5.    Team up with good people who get you. It is absolutely vital that you ask for the help and support of others with different gifts. Help is out there, but you have to ask, pray, discern and explore new relations. Build good partnerships starting now, drawing on different types of expertise, people who are also committed to excellence and creativity. Christianity is fundamentally a community for good reason; it flies in the face of radical individualism. Build a creative think-accountability-action team. The right combination of gifts strengthens the cause like nothing else and can help you problem-solve difficulties in creative ways. It draws on different kinds of expertise and of course financial resources. You are the chief architect and entrepreneur of your purpose or calling. if you are in touch with it, believe in it, are able to articulate it, your passion will be infectious to many others. Surround yourself with good people who understand you, complement your giftedness, and get you and your vision. These are the truly priceless friends. Empower your vision with people, including good mentors. We ought to spend one third of our time with mentors, one third with peers and one third with people we develop–a powerful formula.

6.    Challenges in the journey mean you must work creatively towards solutions. This taps unconscious resources you may not have been conscious of. This is the grace factor. Don’t quit on your dream when you first run into obstacles; be undaunted; get creative and use your ingenuity when others might get discouraged and quit something really important. Learn the art of creative problem-solving with your team. Identify and objectify the issues by getting them on paper. Get going with positive vision and suggestions. Rethink the context; re-imagine your opportunities, resources and options; mobilize your partners. Lean into the wind if necessary backed by your calling and your faith, fuelled by a prayer group. This is endemic to discovering your emergent self, the one you and others are coming to know for the first time. You are actually becoming a new and deeper person while you reinforce your commitment. We all have certain handicaps, which actually have the potential to either discourage us or make us stronger and more courageous. Re-work and redefine those challenges; learn from them and grow in wisdom; this is what meeting with your supervisor is all about. This is especially worth discussing with fellow grad students who can offer good advice from their experience. Nothing thrills me more than seeing this kind of conversation where iron sharpens iron.

7.    Perseverance is a very important key to accomplishment of your life task, no matter how large the challenge. Note that it is one of the dynamic, life-giving fruits of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5, a willingness to grapple with your true life vision in the long direction. “Never, never, never, give up” was the brilliant advice offered by Winston Churchill to young high school students one day when asked what was the most important lesson he had learned during his years of leadership in World War II. Know that true rewards come eventually to those who persevere through hard work and disciplined creativity. Stanford business management guru Jim Collins encourages us to work within a good 20-40 range and avoid extremes which can produce exhaustion. Sabbath is important for hard working people like grad students. Students from GCU who have recently defended a PhD dissertation affirmed this point. Make that good thing come true gradually as you put shoulder to the plow; keep drilling for those diamonds in your research and you will eventually find them (that fruitful research topic, that final defense dissertation). Everyone wants to quit near the end of a long haul project like a PhD.

Parker Palmer (Let Your Life Speak, p. 32) says it well:

The people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision. They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside. They decide to claim authentic selfhood and act it out—and their decisions ripple out to transform the society in which they live, serving the selfhood of millions of others.

With this dynamic infrastructure built into this vision for your life’s work, you will surely flourish and help many others to do so as well. These commitments are essential to all sound and mature leadership. Henry Cloud (Integrity) enjoins us to face reality at all costs and build character on the journey, to follow our vision and leave a positive wake behind us. We all admire someone who has this calibre of character. Dr. Don M. Page represents this kind of life commitment to me as he promotes his ideal of servant empowered leadership.

God’s Courage and Grace in Your Quest,

Dr. Gordon Carkner,  Graduate & Faculty Ministries,  Outreach Canada      gcarkner@shaw.ca

Here at UBC to empower you to reach your full potential and your truest self

Further Reading Suggestions:

Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage. (much wisdom in these pages; some think it the best book on leadership)

Henry Cloud, Integrity: the courage to meet the demands of reality. Harper.

Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea.

Jim Collins, Great by Choice.

Don M. Page, Servant Empowered Leadership.


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