How To Plan and Live A Life

My friend Mijon described her childhood ambitions in this way: "When I was younger I wanted to be a ballerina, a doctor, a lawyer, and to work at Pizza Hut -- all at the same time."

I get that. Except I haven't really matured out of my "childhood ambitions" yet -- I still want to do a lot of stuff.

It's hard to know how to plan, let alone live, a life when you want to be a policymaker, a diplomat, a high school government teacher, a college professor, and a soccer dad. I also want to write a book. Or a screenplay. But probably both. So the short answer is: I don't know the best way to do plan and live a life -- but I've embraced a way that has worked well for me.

I loved working on campaigns and in the Oregon legislature, and I had an amazing boss that I loved working for -- but there was always a temptation to try something new, to travel, and to work with kids. So I took another job where I could do all that, and I loved it. Now I'm on a new journey, an academic one, at Stanford -- and I love it, too. Each of these things was, in some way, related to education.

One reason I chose to go to Stanford to earn my master's degree in education policy, organization, and leadership studies was because I wanted to specialize rather than generalize. I remember at an Oregon Association of Student Councils summer camp workshop on "dream boards," the presenter said he wanted to be so much of an expert in one subject area that when CNN needed to interview someone on this subject, they would call him. I think that's a good goal, and specializing allows you to dive deeply rather than broadly. That's why, ultimately, I chose to pursue an education policy degree, a subject I care a lot about and have some experience in, rather than a more general public policy or public administration degree. 

A friend of mine in college told the story (more like a legend; I think it's based on fact but not 100% accurate) of a congressman from Wisconsin. He decided that, when he arrived in Congress, he wanted to be a specialist in a given area. He chose the federal budget, and he studied the budget religiously. He wanted to know the budget better than not just every other lawmaker, but every federal bureaucrat, too. He wanted to be the expert, the go-to person to answer questions and propose reforms. Eventually, he was selected as chair of the House Budget Committee because of his expertise, and from that perch he caught the eye of a presidential candidate named Mitt Romney, who chose him as his running mate. Today, Paul Ryan is Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

An incomplete story at best, yes. And yes, there is plenty wrong with Paul Ryan as a legislator and politician. But I think there is something to be learned from his path, his ascent, and his choice to be really good at one thing instead of kind of good at many things.

So, while I don't want to pick one career path -- and I fully anticipate and plan on having jobs outside of the education sector, and doing each of those "dream jobs" at some point -- I do think it's useful to get really good at a specific thing, at least to start out. I think it's a good way to prove your value and competence, and also to open up more and better opportunities for yourself. Once you have proven yourself, I figure it's easier to move laterally to different areas.