…but what they didn’t say is that it would be lonely.

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Let me first say, all is well. I’m good. And I feel loved and supported, and in addition to a partner who treats me better than I usually deserve, I am employed, in a great doctoral program, and have a crew of people in my life who shower me with unconditional love.

That being said, 2017 has been really tough.

This PhD journey has been really tough.

I am one full year into my doctoral studies, and at two different points I almost gave up. Dramatically, I drafted two unsent emails to my advisor, throwing in the towel and apologizing for wasting her time. The first draft was written my third week of class, when impostor syndrome had set in and I was deep in the darkness of, “I don’t think I belong here.” I fell into the comparison trap, and was set off by the most trivial moments.

The second unsent email was drafted the Friday following Donald Trump’s electoral college win, and later revised when he nominated (and elected officials confirmed) Betsy DeVos as US Secretary of Education. If Secretary DeVos did not need a PhD to do her job, why did I?

Of course, neither email was sent, and both times I was left wondering if any of it would actually be worth it. Would the PhD be worth it?

Would it be worth me leaving full-time work (and pay) for a few years?
Would it be worth the hours of reading each day?
Would it be worth the unhealthy intake of coffee and ginger ale?
Would it be worth the 20lbs I gained?

Upon reflection and consultation, I learned these feelings were not uncommon. I found a community of other doctoral students who shared many of these same sentiments. My unsent resignation emails became a benchmark for Year 1 learning. It can only go up from here, right? I soon realized it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t cut out for this program (though, the verdict feels, at times, unresolved), it was that transition, in general, is hard. This transition, specifically, was hard.

This ongoing transition, is very, very hard.

And during this time of uncertainty, my brain will often do tricks on me that I never thought possible. I question my intelligence, my energy, my capacity. Phone calls and texts go unanswered, and the stories I tell myself lean more toward destructive than they do productive. But again, I am not alone, and (unsettlingly) there are many others who feel this same level of dissonance.

Now days away from starting Year 2, I am left contemplating what might exist in the next twelve months of studies.

In an attempt to help ease students’ transition to graduate school, a colleague recently posted on twitter, requesting a series of perspectives on what advice different folx wish they had before their first year of pursuing a PhD. I immediately responded with a practical perspective about the dissertation, something I truly wish I had understood before enduring several months of self-sabatoge. But after responding, I couldn’t stop thinking about an even deeper “wish” I had in relation to those starting the PhD experience, something that contributed to a lot of my discomfort.

Something that went beyond the first-year transition.

Something that went beyond impostor syndrome and the comparison trap.

My ‘ah-ha’ was that this experience is really isolating. 

Being a PhD student is incredibly isolating.

One of the toughest burdens of this doctoral journey has actually been the heavy pain of feeling alone – the countless hours of reading, writing, commuting to/from campus, and “waiting” for the next thing has all been really draining. As a strong E-Extrovert, I didn’t anticipate the amount of time I would be physically and emotionally flying solo.

And as I prepare for Year 2, I’m trying to make a conscious plan so I can avoid this feeling of isolation…a feeling many other graduate students feel, wade through, and fight on a daily, yearly basis. I believe I “survived” Year 1 because of my partner and community of friends and colleagues who love and support me despite the gymnastics in my brain. And still, I’m here, at the edge of Year 2, eager, and terrified.

Hopeful. Cautious.

Cautiously optimistic.

I am here for a reason. And despite the pressure I put on myself, and despite the hours and days of feeling completely solo, and despite the missed phone calls and unchecked emails, I truly believe there is an absolute reason that I am here, pressing on, and making this work. I don’t know what exists in this next year – personally or professionally – but I do know I can do this. And that, despite what my brain is telling me, I am not alone. I am worthy. I matter. This matters.

Simple reminders,

Michael

Committing to Thrive in 2017

This post initially started out as an apology letter to all those who experienced a flaky or unavailable Michael last fall. I have been a tad unresponsive since August, and the beginning of this past winter allowed for time to process and grieve the reality that being a student again has been quite a challenge. 2016 was quite a challenge.

2016 started with, “will I get into graduate school,” anxiety, and finished with, “am I good enough to be in graduate school,” anxiety. In between those insecure moments existed finishing and starting jobs old and new, and a giant relationship advancement of moving in with my partner – who, just before January 31st, asked me, “Is the New Year hard for you?”

Easily, my answer was, “Yes.”

I struggle with change.

I always have, and probably always will.

Ever since I was a child, change was hard for me: when school ended each year, holidays, friends moving all around me (military kid), and various family circumstances over the years. While I am just now reaffirming this into existence, it is an important part of my story. In 2016, it has been a prominent and overwhelming part of my story.

Change.

Outside of the celebrity and icon deaths, electoral college results, and slew of social injustices to serve as a benchmark, 2016 contained more change in twelve months than I had experienced in many years. As a result, I was more critical of myself than ever before. I even changed my twitter bio at the beginning of the semester to read as follows:

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“PhD student battling impostor syndrome.”

Even while keeping up in a tough graduate program, “You are good enough,” lingered out of reach, and the stories I consistently told myself this past fall were mostly self-deprecating, dismissive, and unnecessarily limiting.

As a new semester has officially commenced, amidst embracing my status as a student, I am also reminding myself of a few key values:

I am so much better than what I told myself last year.
I am worthy of so much more than I gave myself last year.
I am capable of more than I endured last year.

The initial stories I told myself last year weren’t true. They were limited. They limited me. They were harsh and unfair. The stories I will tell in 2017 have to be authentic. They have to be filled with self-validation and courageous movement. The stories I tell myself in 2017 have to be ones where I am conscious of myself and my capacity.

The stories I live in 2017 must be ones where I am taking care of my heart and my well-being – taking care of me. I will take care of me in 2017. The reality of impostor syndrome is a huge part of my story. And outside of the self-deprecation, impostor syndrome will exist as a benchmark for how I plan to live (and thrive) in 2017.

…how I plan to move forward.

I lived my truth in 2016. I left a phenomenal job to be a student again. I’m a student again, at an incredible institution with a brilliant set of faculty and colleagues. I have a partner who loves me more than I knew I deserved or could ever deserve. I have a chosen family I probably do not deserve. I am now taking one day at a time, and inviting you to join me on this adventure.

Will you commit to thriving in 2017?

No impostor,

Michael

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Marriage…eventually. But marriage, possibly.

I went to bed knowing I would cry a few times today.

I woke up, and videos flooded my timeline. My Facebook and twitter feed both currently exist as an homage to this day one year ago, and alas, the tears are plenty.

I was overwhelmed on this day last year – by love, by stress, by, “what if?”

I remember this day one year ago so deeply and vividly, and as I shared my experience with a group of colleagues yesterday, I couldn’t help but tear up. On this day one year ago, I found myself sitting in an empty classroom of a boarding school, running an institute for my job. I was alone in the classroom, intentionally, refreshing my Twitter feed, refreshing the SCOTUS blog, minute after minute – close to one hour.

My mind wandered to, “when,” and, “what if,” and I paused long enough to miss the reality that my Twitter feed exploded. Between companies arguing for equal love, and friends and fellow community members typing in only emoji-speak, my body sat still with full-body chills. The Supreme Court of the United States had made a decision.

…one that favored me, and many people like me.

I cried. I cried uncontrollably, and stood up because being alone in that moment was no longer acceptable. Ultimately I had set myself up – if the vote went the other way, I could grieve privately and then move on to help others process. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that it would end in this result, and thus, sat still…alone, and needing to share the moment with other living, breathing, beings.

I walked out into the hallway of the classroom building, and not a soul was around. I was still crying, and seconds later, was jolted by the sound of a classroom door swinging open and another voice crashing into my silent space.

Peg.

It was Peg, a women, also living and working in DC, who I had grown quite close to over the few days we had already shared at the institute. We stared at each other, with a stare I will never forget, and immediately ran into a full embrace.

Peg and I held each other as we both sobbed for half of a minute, sharing one of the most emotional-intimate moments I had experienced up to that point.

Freedom.

We both felt free.

Moments later, colleagues in the room Peg emerged from also came bursting out of the classroom, surrounding Peg and I with hugs and cheers, and more tears.

“Love wins,” again, and again.

Equal marriage. Legal. Allowed.

“You belong. You matter. You are enough.”

Love, again, and again.

“…right to wed affirmed,” posits The Washington Post.

The press plate above now sits in a large frame in my living room, as I embrace co-habitation with my soulmate, best friend, and hopefully…eventually…legal husband. This moment at the institute – Peg, this moment, and the SCOTUS decision – lead me to believe I am worthy enough to be someone’s husband, that I am worthy enough to be simply, plainly, and beautifully me.

Someday.

Today I am unapologetically tearful. Today, I am reflecting, remembering, and hoping for more equal-minded decisions and legislation ahead. Today, I am pausing.

I am appreciating. I am loving. I am worthy.

Affirmed,

Michael

The Instagramification of 30

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“Michael, you seem really happy right now.”

“No, no. I mean, you actually seem really happy.”

“Are you really this happy?”

While I value happiness to be purely subjective, over the past two months and more times than I can count, friends and colleagues have contended that I am in one of the best states of wellbeing than they have ever seen in me.

“Michael, you seem really happy right now.”

At first, this was haunting.

And then it was sobering.

Should I be? Was I? According to whose standard? What is, “happy?”

As a skilled Instagram filter-user and twitter wordsmith, I chalked up initial concerns to be associated with the reality that social media and other tools for self-promotion (that’s all it really is, right?) reveal only what we want from them.

We control the keys, we sketch the answer, we move the dial.

Initial investigations lead me to believe that this all might actually be more than just a few Facebook posts and well-lit photos of my dinner. Perhaps, I was actually doing pretty well. Perhaps, I was, in fact, living in the murky waters of, “happy.”

What the hell happened to me? 

It was just one year ago that I was living in China, playing OneRepublic’s, “I Lived,” on repeat. I was begging for a sign that what I was doing and where I was living were more than just, “a wanderer wandering.” I was begging for a sign that ‘happy’ would come, and that it would be a seamless transition from the dissonance I was enduring. I was begging for an objective response to ‘happy.’ I was begging for a roadmap.

Alas, happiness is subjective.

It was a dear friend asking me the initial question yesterday that resulted in a bit of clarity around my conundrum.

“Michael, are you as happy as it seems?

Where does that come from?”

It was the second part of these questions that resonated with me most.

What had contributed to this change of pace?

According to Instagram, I love my new Fitbit. According to twitter, I’m moved by the Campbell Soup two-dads commercial. According to multiple platforms, I’m elated that fall is here. I love my community of friends in DC. I love food. Doughnuts on doughnuts on doughnuts. #NoFilter sunset. Photo of my super handsome partner.

These assertions are all so much more than a social media declaration. Each of these arguments ring very true for me – some just have a better filter than others.

So, what has contributed to this change of pace from the questioning and fluid state I was in just one year ago?

Instagram.

Okay, I’m kidding. It’s much deeper than that.

For starters, I found love. And I found it in the most striking of ways. While I’m not a perfect partner, I am learning to be loved even as a result of that lack of perfection. And this is absolutely okay. Accepting that I am not perfect (and may never be) is one of the biggest places of peace I have relished in as a young adult.

For years, I sold myself on the idea that if I worked really long hours and juggled dozens of tasks and to-do lists, someone would find me to be talented and successful and utterly appealing. This was not the case whatsoever.

I was left resentful and frustrated with the work I was doing, and in a lot of ways, I’m still surviving through this “ah-ha” moment. Instead, I have found joy in being present for my own life and the lives of others. Specifically, being around others who are living joyously or contributing to a joy-filled world is more important than a list of accolades or wins. This is my current win, and the unapologetic opportunity to be fully present is a new and exhilarating feeling.

While I valued being challenged at work, I assumed success to come in my personal life via the same method as I received as a professional. I lived in a space where I believed I had to always be facing some type of adversity. And then, beating it (whatever, “it,” might be for each journey). This was (is) exhausting.

I’m vowing to live a less exhausted life. And I hope you’ll do the same.

Finally, embracing 30 has informed much of my current outlook on life. A lot of people were actually nervous about this rite of passage for me. So much so, that before, “Happy Birthday,” sentiments, they inquired, “Are you okay?”

Making decisions for my person rather than my profession has become a new life mantra. I have come to realize that learning is not exclusively found in a classroom or office. Learning will happen in your personal life. Once we accept this reality, we are left with the opportunity to learn and grow.

Vulnerability is scary, but we’re all better because of it.

Whether it is the instagramification of 30… or 25… or just simply the instagramification of being happy, I challenge you to choose you. I implore you to be true to yourself in revealing how much or how little you need to be in your current here and now. “The only way upward is onward,” and all of that…

I’m thirty years old. How rad is that? I have a world of life and living to unearth, and in the times of good, bad, ugly, favorited, reblogged, and retweeted, I’m going to keep pausing on the good stuff, and breathing out the bad.

Will you do the same?

Here’s to something great…

Regramming,

Michael

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The 60-seconds following, “I do…”

Shortly after college, I went through a period where my calendar had more weddings than I could count. I attended many, while others received a disappointing regret.

Of course, the weddings I attended were wonderful, and the ones with open bars were ever better. A group of my friends and I even established wedding rituals. Sitting with the same 4-5 singles at each wedding (several of whom are now with partner, and/or child), we would take bets on how long the ceremony would last – in Oklahoma, a wedding could last anywhere from twelve minutes to sixty minutes, and counting.

I watched some of my best friends get married those years after college, and now as I exist within another wave of marriages, I am finding weddings to be significantly less stressful for me (I know, I know, “It’s not about you,” and all of that). Weddings can be expensive for out-of-town guests. I can always appreciate the folks who understood/stand that an, unfortunately-I-can’t-attend, remark is mostly as a result of limited coins, and not because I don’t want to celebrate their love. And more than expensive, weddings can be disappointing for 20 to 30- year old out-of-town guests. Because celebrating love is fun, and it’s beautiful, and can be incredibly inspiring. In this context, there is nothing tougher than realizing you don’t have the funds to celebrate the love of some of your most important people. I digress.

I received a second wind last summer while attending the wedding of a very dear friend of mine in Michigan. I was pretty unhappy at this juncture of my life, and even while driving to the wedding, I remember anticipating how horrible it was going to be to only know one person outside of the bride and groom at this particular event. I even almost turned around and headed home while driving from southern Indiana to western Michigan. I was super-single, and sulked in a pity party for 80% of the drive.

And then something magical happened.

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Suzy Smith and Michael Chandler, 2014

Aside from the wedding being absolutely beautiful and wonderful (I wrote about it here), I experienced an out-of-body feeling while watching the bride and groom walk down the isle after committing, “I do.” It was enchanting. There was an instant change in the way they walked, smiled, and even held on to one another.

And I sat with those emotions for quite some time.

As a result, I now strategically place myself toward the back of any wedding congregation. I have decided there is nothing more satisfying than watching a couple experience the, “I do high,” just moments after they’ve committed to one another. Those 60-seconds following, “I do,” are some of the more joyous moments I have ever witnessed outside of the last five minutes of any episode of Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition. It’s so real. And incredibly powerful.

If you’re on any form of social media, you’ll know that I attended a wedding this past weekend in upstate New York. And it surely did not disappoint. And thus, I continue to believe in love. And to want love. And to spread love.

Sharing the same sentiments as I experienced last summer, I commit to, “happily ever after;” No gasps at wedding invitations and announcements of big life moments, no sighs of frustration in the celebration of other’s big life moments, and finally, no skepticism around love. Love love. And love it fully.

Here’s to newlyweds,

Michael

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Laura Persico and Chad Munkres, 2015

Stop, and go.

Have you ever switched lanes in frustration, only to later watch drivers from the lane you previously occupied pass by with ease?

Several years ago, I made the decision to stop doing this. And at the time, it was one of the best decisions I could have made for myself. Of course, now that I am car-less in DC, I have found validation through a new and related challenge: crossing the street.

When I lived in China, crossing the street in Beijing was mostly an, all-hands-on-deck, experience. While a car may try to break the pack, it was more difficult to plow through a sea of 50 people all trying to cross the street at the same time. There was great safety in great numbers. And time and time again, especially on major intersections, I watched people pack together to cross the street.

And a similar sentiment exists while crossing streets in DC (although, I generally like to consider myself a rule-follower, waiting on the crosswalk signal to provide pedestrians with permission to move forward). Whereas a light will change and people will walk, it is also not at all uncommon for people to dart across the street, with grave attempts to dodge cars and traffic. These people stress me out.

I walk ten blocks to work every morning, and as a rule-follower, I try not to follow these renegades into the road without an accompanying, you-may-walk-now-you-good-citizen, affirmative light. Around block two this morning, I was joined by a man who was clearly in a hurry and visibly stressed. Three blocks in with this individual, I realized the other passers-by had also noticed his frantic behavior, and we shared, “Yeah, I know, dude needs to chill,” expressions.

Every time a light blocked us from crossing the street, this man would huff/puff in frustration, and find the least dangerous opportunity to cross the street. Every single block. And between his dart across the street and arrival at the next light, I caught up to him. Three times. And to be clear, I caught up to him in my normal, easy-breezy (beautiful, Cover Girl) pace. It almost became a game for me. Same pace, same result each time. Again, changing lanes only to pause.

Of course, I have no clue what was going on with this individual, and chances are, it was something deeper than just a lack of patience and a load of frustration. Although, these things happen a lot, right? Impatience and frustration. We get “stuck” in a space, and think the only option is to switch lanes. Or, in the case of my fellow-DC busy bee this morning, we rush through intersections, only to be stopped by the ones glaring and waiting ahead. This is also a metaphor, y’all.

Please, friends, let your current reality happen. Sometimes, you’re going to be in a lane with no movement. And sometimes, you’re going to hit every red light. Pause. And let this be a gentle reminder to slow down. Let the flow happen. Trust the process, and let the process be a partner to your trustworthy spirit.

You’ll get there.

Patiently,

Michael

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Oxygen Mask Warrior

In education, it’s easy to pause and ask the daunting question, “What will they do without me?”

In fact, if you work in any student services or client-based field, this question has probably crossed your mind at least once in your career (and for some, once, per week). I certainly had this moment as I prepared to leave my previous posting in higher education, and covered it some in the piece, “The Educator Curse.”

I recently visited with one of my closest friends, who is currently torn between a huge possible job opportunity versus staying in his current position. Mixed within the layers of, “What if,” the aforementioned question, “What will they do without me,” was certainly alive and well throughout our conversation. And this was, however, a bit surprising to me. Up until this moment, I had always viewed this particular friend as an oxygen-mask warrior.

safety_oxygen_maskYes, you read that right: Oxygen Mask Warrior

I’m talking about making you your #1. I’m talking about securing your own oxygen mask before assisting others. I’m talking about making yourself matter.

This specific friend has always been one of the few people in my life to argue, “Michael, take care of you first,” and in the most, if-you-can’t-love-yourself-how-in-the-hell-are-you-going-to-love-somebody-else, kind of way. Furthermore, he has modeled the way in doing this, living as an example to me in all of his actions. But life happens, and sometimes we forget how capable and unique and talented and worthy we are.

And, all of this leads me to the question, Is your oxygen mask secure? 

Amidst the busy weeks, crazy hours, long nights, and unpredictable life moments, are you an Oxygen Mask Warrior? Are you kind to yourself?

So much of my move to Washington, D.C. is dripping in personal and professional selfishness, and in the best of ways, I have fully embraced this new reality. I’m excited about this. And, in fact, I’m thrilled about it. The only way upward is onward. Secure away, life warriors.

Taking care of me,

Michael