by Rebecca Fraser-Thill

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When you think of autumn, what springs to mind? Crisp evenings? Shortening days? Earthy scents? Halloween pranks?

Oh come on, you’re holding back. Just try to convince me you don’t think of school.

And no wonder you do:  after umpteen-odd years of trucking off to pencils, books, and dirty looks at the first drop of a leaf, autumn and school are strongly associated in our minds.

Which is fine and all. Until this association starts making us think we want something that we don’t.

The Dangerous Fall/Grad School Link

Let’s get this out of the way up front, lest I be labeled an anti-gradschoolite. There are many valid, terrific reasons to attend grad school. For instance:

  • Working toward better placement/career potential in a field in which you have proven and sustained interest
  • Increasing your knowledge of a subject about which you have proven and sustained interest
  • Engaging with the brightest minds in an area in which you have proven and sustained interest

(Sense a theme?)

If everyone were attending grad school for valid reasons, though, I wouldn’t see a sudden surge in “hey former prof, I’m thinking of going to grad school!” emails every darn autumn. Which I do. Every year. The onslaught is a-coming.

To understand why the “huh, grad school is sounding good” blitz is a seasonal phenomenon, we must travel back in time to our childhood falls. In particular, to the prelude of our first day at school. (Cue the wavy lines and do-do-do-do music.)

The New-School-Year Scene:  Your mom is ironing the brand-new outfit you’ll wear on your first day, and you’re loading your crisp, clean backpack with all manner of school supplies. Your erasers are pink and four-cornered. Your pencils are sharp and smell like a day in the words. Your notebooks are ripe with blank pages so fresh and new that they stick to one another in their spiral spine.

Can you feel it?

I’ll bet you can.

For twentysomethings, The New-School-Year Scene is as irresistible as the (ever so brief) ‘N Sync reunion.

Why Twentysomethings Crave Autumns from the Past

Why is the draw of school in the fall so overwhelming to us when we’re in our twenties (and perhaps far beyond)? Because those are the years when we’re positively unmoored by the lack of what I call The 3 P’s:  possibility, predictability, and purpose.

When we conjure The New-School-Year Scene, those 3 P’s become tangible all over again. We remember what it felt like to be poised on the edge of an entire new existence. Life seemed organized, opportunity-filled, and oh-so-beautifully structured.

No wonder, then, when autumn comes lugging its conditioned associations to The New School Year Scene we think:

“Oh! I could have those feelings again! I want that! I think I’ll go to grad school!”

Sorry to break it to you, but once college ends, the days of experiencing an externally-imposed sense of the 3 Ps are over. Period.

The twenties are all about accepting that very point. And then figuring out how to create our own internally-driven sense of predictability, possibility and purpose all the same.

This process is often termed “becoming an adult.” And it sucks. Totally sucks. No sugarcoating there.

Thing is, going to grad school solve the underlying issue of needing to learn how to create for yourself what the world once created for you.

It only defers it.

(Full disclosure:  I write this not as someone who took my own advice, but rather as a recovering Autumn-Allure Addict. Yes, a AAA. As bad as it gets. To avoid facing the fact that my days of externally-derived 3 Ps were over, I jumped into grad school AND teaching. That’s right, I’m here to scare you straight.)

The Problem With Going to Grad School To Relive the Fall of Our Childhood

Point number two why grad school is the wrong answer if the idea is only hitting you in the fall:  not only does grad school fail to provide the 3 P’s for the long run, it also fails to square with nostalgia.

To see what I mean, please join me again in my time machine. This time we’re traveling back to about two months into any given school year.

The Two-Months-Into-School Scenario:  You’re back to wearing hand-me-down clothes that fit awkwardly and get you teased. Your backpack’s bottom has blackened and the zippers have begun to show signs of rebellion. Your erasers have turned into dark, amorphous blobs that are inexplicably sticky. Your pencils are perpetually broken and smell of cheese puffs. And your notebooks? Oh, your notebooks. Once a stack of possibility, they now hold words and symbols you barely care to try to understand and their voluminous ranks have been decimated from notes passed to friends and paper airplanes flown at substitutes.

Had you forgotten that scene? Ours minds are convenient like that, scraping the moderately crapping portions of life from our memories. Hence the onset of Twentysomething School Nostalgia.

This delusional nostalgia is a major issue. I’d wager it causes a good portion of poor-grad-school choices, with desire to impress and social comparisons being the other major reasons. (Or you can be really “awesome” and go for the trifecta like I did!)

The reality is that grad school consists much more of the Two-Months-Into-School Scenario and barely any of the New-School-Year Scene.

In fact, you don’t even get The-New-School Scene beyond the first year of grad school – if you even get that – because you work your behind off year-round. And you’d better be damned sure that you care about the words and symbols that you’re writing in notebooks because you won’t only be jotting them down, you’ll be creating some of those jammies of your very own.

(For the record, the same could be said of teaching, so don’t even go there unless you have a “proven and sustained interest” in pedagogy. Identical urge, different cloak.)

How to Fight the Annual Siren Call to Go to Grad School

So if you now recognize that your sudden desire to go to grad school is born more of the leaves a-changing than your purpose calling to you, how can you fight the insincere urge?

1) Start by accepting what you’re actually craving each autumn:  a return to a life you’ve outgrown. Allow yourself to grieve the loss of the rhythms of childhood and the comforts those rhythms brought.

“Our twenties can be like living beyond time. There are days and weeks and months and years, but no clear way to know when or why any one thing should happen. It can be a disorienting, cavelike experience.” –Meg Jay, The Defining Decade

2) After grieving, create ways of infusing your current existence with hints of seasonality. It’ll take the edge off the false allure of autumn. For instance:

  • Schedule a day-long clothes shopping trip every fall.  Bonus:  take mom with you – nostalgia and financial support in one fell swoop!
  • Go back to using a paper planner and choose an academic year one even though you now live on a calendar – or fiscal! – year
  • Reinvigorate your office supplies every fall with a fresh infusion of pens and desk organizers. And some of those big rubber erasers. Just for kicks.

3) Make a concerted effort to construct the 3 P’s – purpose, possibility, and predictability – for yourself. This is, of course, a humongous task. No wonder I’ve devoted an entire website to the process.

All in all, do whatever you have to do to experience the clear path, opportunities, and “my life is all in order” feeling of your childhood autumns…without jumping into grad school. At least until grad school, not nostalgia, is truly what’s calling you. Your wallet, social life, and mental stability will thank you for it.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

What are you going to do to create a sense of purpose, possibilities and predictability this Fall – without entertaining the sudden notion of going back to school?


Fraser-Thill_squareAbout Rebecca

Rebecca Fraser-Thill is the founder of Working Self, a site that helps young adults create meaningful work – that actually pays the bills! She teaches psychology and is the Director of Program Design for Purposeful Work at Bates College. Her work has been featured throughout the media, including on The Huffington Post, The Chelsea Krost Show, and Stacking Benjamins. Follow her @WorkingSelf.

We humans can be pretty funny, can’t we? Any species would have to have a sense of humor to evolve the way we did.

Because could you actually guess that our number one fear is public speaking? In fact, surveys show that we fear it more than death. And yet public speaking and proper communication skills might just be the most important thing we will learn on this planet.

We fear the very thing that will bring us success. I hate to say it, but I am one of the 75% of people in this world who would rather eat a fistful of worms than get up on stage.

But I don’t want it to be like that. I don’t want my speaking anxiety to keep me from standing up in front of the classroom to share my research, or from asking a question as an audience member, or from walking into a room and confidently introducing myself.

No fear should ever keep us from sharing our ideas and opinions.

And this is why I am so so excited for the Speak Like A Pro virtual conference. Five days with some of the best speakers and thought leaders out there. I can’t wait to hear all their tips on how to calm nerves, practice like a pro, connect with the audience, and still be authentic and, well, real.

I was so eager I decided to do a little interviewing myself with the Life After College crew.

The Life After College Team on how to Speak Like A Pro

Melissa, tell us about your process for structuring and organizing speeches:

The first thing I do when structuring my speeches is to create a bullet list of the three or four key takeaway items I want the audience to leave with. Whether it’s a shift in mindset, new knowledge points, or a big idea – I start with these points as the basis of the talk/or a loose outline.

From there, I fill in the content with a story or anecdote to ensure that the talk is engaging and relatable, and end with placing the transitions, additional explanations and stage actions.”

Melissa Anzman

Davis, what is the most important thing you do to practice for a presentation?

“The first time I was asked to give a speech was in 3rd grade for Black History month. I was assigned the role of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,  a great honor. I researched everything I could and even read his MSN Encarta entry (this was before Wikipedia). Up until the day I was suppose to give my report in front of my class, I had done everything except practice. I thought the words would naturally come out of my mouth; after all Dr. King gave great impromptu speeches and even Ms. Britton, my 3rd grade teacher, did not have a script when she taught us.

In short, when it was my time to speak, I had no lines memorized, I didn’t even have a script; I froze, didn’t say a word, and had to be escorted back to my seat. I received an F on the assignment.

That was 12 years ago and since, I have won multiple state public speaking competitions, been a finalist in multiple national competitions, and delivered multiple key notes. My secret? Making time to practice. Everyone from Tony Robbins to my mentor Susan Cain, who have both built careers public speaking, practice their speeches daily, what excuse do I have not to?”

Davis Nguyen

Rebecca, how do you ensure you are connecting with your audience?

When I’m giving a talk, I make sure to actively read my audience throughout: is anyone nodding along, smiling at my ridiculous jokes, glaring, sleeping, running for the exit? This audience read is only worth as much as I’m willing to act on that read and change course, though – and that’s the scary part.

So I’ve worked to get comfortable with being somewhat spontaneous. When I’m working with slides it’s hard or impossible to fully alter my path, of course, but what I say with each slide often varies depending on what’s happening in front of me. I find that the best way to lose an audience is to have a speech prepared and to hold to it stubbornly, come dirty looks or confused glances.

I’m also a big believer in the use of self-effacing humor. The expert advice on speaking probably holds something like, “act confident and your audience will feel at ease” but I find that personally, the more uncoordinated and self-conscious I act, the more people are right there with me. That’s because, at heart, I am uncoordinated and self-conscious.

I find that it’s all about being comfortable with vulnerability – both my own and that of the people listening to me. When I’m willing to good-naturedly point out my faults – without getting anywhere near self-pity, of course – and perhaps run into a podium or chair while I talk, all the better for the likeability factor, and for my audience’s willingness to open up to me in return.

But this last point brings up the most important matter of all: being self-effacing and appearing physically clumsy is my shtick. It’s what works for me. If someone else tried it, it might be a total disaster, just as it’s a total disaster when I attempt to appear perfectly polished and pulled together, which I’ve tried more often than I care to admit.

It’s like a story a colleague recently told me: days before she had a big speech, her partner encouraged her to “be inspiring – like Obama!” My reserved, thoughtful colleague thought the 180-degree turn from her usual approach might be just what she needed to make her audience enthralled. Long story short, my colleague is no Obama, and the more she tried, the worse the talk went. Her partner was actually in the back of the room covering her eyes by the end.

Above all else, audiences sense authenticity. So being who I truly am – and sizing up the audience as I go to make sure my authentic self is connecting – are the ways I keep an audience in their seats…and their minds in the room, too!”

Rebecca Fraser-Thill

Jenny, do you ever get nervous before a speech? How do you deal with those last-minute anxieties?

I almost always get hit with a huge wave of nerves before delivering a speech, whether I’m in front of 50 people or 500; but the most helpful thing for me to remember is that it is a wave, not permanent state or a reason to panic.

If I take three deep breaths, pace a little bit (where no one can see me), and open and close my fists a few times, I can usually work out the extra adrenaline in my body before going on stage. Even if I still have a pounding heart when I first start, it will often calm itself down after a few minutes.

Public speaking understandably engages our fight-or-flight response. As author Scott Berkun put it in his book Confessions of a Public Speaker:

  • We are an animal standing alone on an open plane
  • With no weapons and nowhere to hide
  • With dozens (if not hundreds of eyeballs staring at us)

Evolutionarily speaking, this is a scenario in which we were surely about to die! So our bodies produce extra adrenaline to help us high-tail it out of there.

The key when public speaking is to give this adrenaline something to do, so that it doesn’t express itself in a shaky voice (or if you’re like me, a whole shaky leg). From a post I did earlier this year on Michael Bay’s CES freak-out, here are 5 Tips for Handling an In-the-Moment Flood of Nerves:

  1. First and foremost, you must breathe. This is critical. Take a few moments just to collect yourself and breathe. Take in a nice big inahle of air. The audience will hardly notice and it will start to reactivate your relaxation response, letting your brain and body know they are safe.
  2. Second, if you’re in a Bay or Blake Situation (hah) try to laugh! Crack a joke. Which brings me to number 3:
  3. BE YOURSELF! Nobody expects you to be perfect, especially when they can clearly see that things are going haywire.
  4. Acknowledge the issue. Bay did a good job of saying, “The type is all off . . . sorry, I’ll just wing it.” Okay, great! Now breathe and ad lib. Take an improv class if you want to get more comfortable with this.
  5. KEEP GOING! This is critical! The show must go on! Don’t make a fight-or-flight response worse with the internal monologue of, “Well now you’re really fucking it up.” Or, “Screw those tech guys — this should not be happening! My reputation is ruined!” Acknowledge the snafu, but KEEP. GOING. An American Psychological Association study even recently found that Getting Excited Helps with Performance Anxiety More Than Trying to Calm Down. The worst thing you can do is start freaking out about freaking out.

People will love you more for keeping strong and (awkwardly) carrying on.

Jenny Blake

Paul, what inspired you to get into the business of public speaking?

There is no other work that makes me feel more alive than up on stage doing my best to bring an audience to life. Because as a public speaker I feel like I’m part performer, artist, advocate, comedian, entertainer, teacher, and story-teller — changing my role from one sentence to the next.

Public speaking requires me not only to fully be myself, but to be more than I thought I was capable of. It requires me to be fully present as I strive to present something that might change someone’s life from that moment on.”

Paul Angone

More About Speak Like a Pro

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The Speak Like A Pro conference is going on now through Friday, August 29.

Conquer your fear and get your free ticket here!

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