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CIO Unplugged 2/27/13

February 27, 2013 Ed Marx 6 Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

Five Degrees of Separation

I’ll be the first to value talent and experience over education. But let me stir the waters. For those with a degree, you might skip this post. For those without, let me persuade you to stop making excuses and get back to school.

Although not always popular, the fact is that possessing a degree provides separation and increases the likelihood of upward mobility and salary for those with such desire. Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg are walking proof to the contrary, but they are also outliers. So get back to school.

I was about to get my MBA when my favorite college professor pulled me aside. Dr. Drennen said MBAs were “a dime a dozen” and to get a unique degree that set me apart. She helped persuade me by throwing in a graduate teaching assistantship and other incentives. With a baby at home and mounting expenses, I enrolled in Consumer Sciences (business from a consumer vantage point).

As the university contracted from 11 colleges to eight, Consumer Sciences was pooled with four other orphans: Apparel Design, Merchandising, Interior Design, and Housing. Preparing for graduation after one intense calendar year, the assistant of this newly formed division was unsure how the diplomas should read. Since I’d been required to take a class in each of the disciplines, I suggested it should reflect this. Sure enough, I was essentially conferred all five degrees. Just don’t ask me to pick out your suits or decorate your home!

Are degrees themselves so important? I suppose you can argue yes when it comes down to being a physician or nurse or engineer. Other times, the course content has little correlation with our eventual work or skill requirements or how well we perform. We all know people with lots of books smarts that can’t find their car in the parking lot. I get that. But something of more fundamental value arises from obtaining a degree than just the diploma.

I entered college at 17. Completely clueless, I ended up with a 1.6 GPA my freshman year. While I had some modest grants and loans, I had to work my rear off to live. I was dirt poor. But I stuck to it. I learned how to study. I learned discipline. I learned budget. I learned goal setting. I learned achievement. My grades improved, and I graduated.

My first roommate was an Italian rocker from the Bronx. I was a shaved-head punk. Our suite mates were nerds, and the guy across the hall a dork. Down the hall lived jocks and geeks with punch cards. Some students worked two jobs like me, while others were on Daddy’s dole. We had drinkers and druggies representing every walk of life. You learned to survive and form partnerships.

Life became complex. Unplugged from home. On your own. Mom wasn’t there to wake you up. You had to make tough choices on majors and classes. You had to multi-task, set priorities for studying, and balance a social life. You became immersed and familiar with management. Each decision forced you into rapid maturity.

Few of us escape school without encountering unrealistic professors and drama with jobs and administration. Coordinating with the financial aid office, admissions, guidance counselors, department managers, etc. We learn life is not fair. We learn to fight for ourselves. We develop confidence as we come face to face with politics and negotiate our way.

Between the varied undergrad classes, and moreover as a graduate student, I was exposed to many new ideas, concepts, and experiences. Whether working with lab rats (which in a clandestine early morning operation, I rescued my albino and set him free) or studying business, computers, poetry, design, etc., I was exposed to a world I would’ve never otherwise had the freedom or time to explore.

I have an open door policy and the welcome mat is worn. A common question I’m asked revolves around degrees. Should they go back to school, and if yes, what degree to pursue?

My answer to the first part is almost always, yes! You learn much more than the degree content itself and it opens up doors for advancement. The type of degree depends on career goals and long-range objectives, but you can hardly go wrong with an undergraduate in business or related field. For post-graduate work, I often recommend an MBA or MHA. No matter what, a safe bet is to follow your passion, even if the degree doesn’t seem to fit. I once had a history major run my data centers well. My five-degrees-in-one have nothing to do with IT.

I have written about my parents before. My mom never completed her secondary schooling because of the bombs that rained over Southern Germany for several years. She obtained her GED, enrolled in community college, and graduated the same year I graduated from high school. My dad’s schooling was short circuited by his unique circumstance. But when he retired from the Army, and with seven of us kids still at home, he jumped in and obtained his business degree before starting his second career.

I know many people have tough circumstance that might keep them from getting their degrees. Kids, time . . . all the pressure of the day job. It may need to wait a couple of more years. But for others, you need a kick in the pants.

I hope that after reading this, you’ll explore again. Don’t let pride interfere, nor the specific degree you really want. This is a great opportunity for self-evaluation and reflection. Jump in and separate yourself.

Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.

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Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. I was one of those who kept stopping and starting – when I finally graduated after 30 years of pursuing my degree I thought my Mom was going to keel over. But…those last couple of years when I was working full time, traveling extensively and had a family, mortgage, etc I loved being in school. Learning through the prism of life experience is very rewarding. On a practical note, what pushed me to finish was Monster.com. Once they started filtering resumes using software looking for the checkbox of a degree, I was doomed and I knew it. So yes…Go back to school!

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. The content and concepts you learn and take away from earning a degree may not be revelations or life long lessons by any means, but the obstacles you face and the disciple you attain certainly allows you to appreciate the experience more.

    One thing I would add…The saying “You get out what you put in” certainly applies to education and obtaining a degree. Former classmates of mine were constantly complaining, “This teacher sucks”, “duh, I already knew that” etc. The “know it all” mindset creates an additional barrier for people and I have witnessed the damage it can do to ones confidence first hand.

    A positive attitude truly goes a long way.

  3. Hi Ed,

    I think this may be the most tangibly valuable column you’ve written. I am often frustrated, and completely baffled, to be honest, by the conversations we have in this country about the value of education. It always seems to come down to a simple formula that compares the cost of the degree with potential earnings. To be sure, that’s an important factor, and we’re making education so staggeringly expensive that this formula drives higher-education decisions more frequently. But we should at least be talking about the inherent value of the experience. You touched on the practical life skills gained from navigating through university. There is also invaluable knowledge and insight to be gained from a firmer grasp of literature, philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics and the sciences. Many of the disciplines won’t help a graduate make more money, but they will provide a new understanding of the human experience and the world we live in. How much is that worth?

  4. So right on Ed! Diversity, flexibility, politics, street smarts, all first appeared in those formative years! Learning to work and play well with others. How to win freinds and inluence people. How things really get done. How to win well. How to lose well. I was so fortunate to have had that experience.

  5. We get educated every day by living our lives. The more we live the more educated we become. The moral to the story for me is never stop living and you will never stop learning. I greatly value formal education and going to college and obtaining your degree. I graduated from high school, I obtained my bachelors degree, and nearly 10 years ago I obtained my MBA.

    Over those past 10 years, I have spent all of my energy toward helping the company I worked for grow to $10B in revenue, acquire its largest competitor, make the transition to a digital world, and build an incredibly talented global IT infrastructure team. All of that energy and education got me laid off about a month ago, when a peer of mine that had been with the company for 16 years with NO college degree, poor leadership skills, and a total lack of respect by his team still stays gainfully employed.

    I could sit here a wonder why in the heck did I spend all of that time in school. Why did I spend all of that money on my education. What did it get me? I will tell you….it led me down a path that no other member of my family had ever achieved, it gave me 3 awesome kids after meeting their mother my sophomore year, and going back to get my MBA while they were in school taught them the importance of education and what hard work and commitment can achieve.

    I think I lost site of a lot of things in my life over the past 10 years, being so focused on my company and not on what is truly important. Even this negative event is an educational experience that is only going to make me better going forward. So never stop living, and you will never stop learning!!! Oh, and get your degree!!!! 🙂

    (so sorry for the long reply, but it all just started flowing once I started typing)

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