Monday, December 5, 2011

Achievement Rule #1 - Ignore the Naysayers

When I was 25 and serving my combat tour in Vietnam, I got two important letters.

One was from the head of the Department of Psychology at West Point.

The other was from the head of the Department of English at West Point.

Psychology and English were my favorite subjects when I was a cadet.

My professors had loved me because I was passionately interested in my studies and worked hard.

Both letters invited me to teach in their department at West Point.

I was thrilled.

I replied to both that I would love to teach there, and what would be my next step?

I figured I would go with the one that responded first.

That turned out to be the Department of English.

I never heard back from the Department of Psychology.

I later learned that the Department of Psychology mysteriously never got my letter.

So it goes.

So I pursued a graduate degree in English at Duke University.

Duke accepted me even though I hadn't majored in English.

The Army told me I had two years to earn a masters degree.

I studied the catalog and determined a masters degree could be earned in one year.

All my Army colleagues at Duke had to take a semester of undergraduate make-up courses first.

To complete a masters in one year, I would need to take graduate courses right away.

I typed and signed my course request card for masters-level courses and gave it to the department head.

He said, "No one has ever completed a card without counseling before. You already know what you want to do."

He seemed impressed and approved my request.

So I didn't have to take any undergraduate make-up courses.

When I shared my ambitious plan with some of my fellow students, they said it was ridiculous. Everyone takes six or seven years to get a Ph.D.

Some of the graduate students who started with me already had a masters in English, but they were required to take the full course load anyway.

Truthfully, I was in over my head.

In class, my professors talked about novels I hadn't read.

At night I would go home and read one of the novels.

That meant reading a novel almost every night.

My classmates used fancy words I didn't understand.

That night I would look up the words and add them to my vocabulary.

By the end of the first term, I felt confident enough to speak up in class.

By the end of the second term, I knew what I was talking about.

I took the exam for the masters degree and passed it.

By the end of the second summer and the third term, I had finished all 60 credit hours.

I had met all the requirements to take the Ph.D. candidate exam.

I took it and passed it.

After starting behind the eight ball, I had achieved "all but dissertation" status in 18 months.

My classmates who entered the program with masters degrees were still taking courses.

I decided to write my dissertation about the celebrated American novelist John Cheever.

I met him, and we became friends.

When my two years were up, I had completed my academic research and had written three chapters.

I joined the Department of English at West Point and maintained my friendship with John Cheever.

He lived an hour's drive from West Point, so I visited him once a month.

He told me everything about his life and work.

I earned my Ph.D. in 1977.

All this hard work changed my life.

This isn't a story about "fake it till you make it."

It's about following your passion, believing in yourself, being bold, working hard and never quitting.

I wouldn't be where I am today, who I am today, if I hadn't tried to do things that had never been done before.

It's amazing what you can do when you ignore people who say you can't do it and just get to work.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Amanda Miller said...

Thanks for this post. Very inspirational. What a testament to really wanting it!