Her desire for intellectual challenge led Susan to go back to school full-time, first studying creative writing, then getting her Master’s in Liberal Arts.
Tell us about your background…
I moved to Chicago in 1995 to join Doug, my future husband. I negotiated with JPMorgan to transfer from New York to the Chicago office. Initially, Chicago felt very provincial and I missed the buzz of the big city, where I had been determined to focus on a financial services career and felt supported by friends from Barnard College and Columbia Business School.
I moved on from JPMorgan to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity, leading a local, high-end, interior design company. Soon after, I branched out on my own to offer strategic consulting services to entrepreneurs, start-up companies, and non-profit organizations. At the same time, I became involved with a number of civic organizations, usually as a board member, so my billable time began to blur with my volunteer time.
As life got busier with the arrival of Nathaniel and Grace (now 16 and 13), I liked working on projects I could manage but, slowly, my non-profit work outpaced my consulting work.
When did you start to think about making a change?
Looking for an intellectual challenge, at the age of 38, I enrolled in the University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults, during which our group of mostly older adults reads more than 60 “great books.” This is a certificate program with no tests, papers, or grades. While it took me a while to be able to focus on the reading, I enjoyed the professors’ lectures, the discussions, and the structure of weekly class meetings.
As the Basic Program was nearing its end, I enrolled in a twelve-week course based on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, led by a trained therapist. I had two different friends who credited this book for their career shifts—one left teaching to become a practicing artist and the other was on her way to becoming a licensed therapist as she raised her children.
Encouraged by The Artist’s Way, I began to focus more on caring for myself. During that winter, overwhelmed in my role as Treasurer for a non-profit performing arts organization, I reconsidered my volunteer positions and asked myself why I was balancing everyone else’s books and not my own.
What is your next act?
I decided, at the age of 42, to go back to school full-time.
I applied to the Graham School’s Creative Writing Program at the University of Chicago. I had to choose a focus area between Novel, Short Story, Creative Non-Fiction, and Poetry. I chose Poetry because I knew the least about it, so it was another challenge—little did I know how difficult and eye-opening it would be. (Unfortunately, the Poetry track is no longer an option in the program.) After taking courses, workshop-ing poems, and eventually presenting my own collection of poems entitled “Reconciliation,” I obtained my Certificate in Creative Writing.
Here is one of my poems:
The Last Drop
two hundredth and
twenty seventh day.
beach grass grey.
The bottle poured
one glass unscathed.
A tense beginning
to a sober holiday.
I remember that night
and all other days.
I felt some pressure to publish my poetry but ultimately did not seek that outside approval, partly out of fear and partly because I felt it would take away from my enjoyment and pure learning.
At this point, I decided it was time for me to get a full-fledged graduate degree. At 44, I enrolled in the Master of Liberal Arts Program, which grants a University of Chicago diploma after the completion of eight interdisciplinary courses and a thesis. I was in the company of students from a wide range of backgrounds: recent college grads, retired lawyers, policemen, single working women. I chose Literature & Psychoanalysis as my first class because I knew and really admired the professor. I also took Ulysses with her and she became my thesis advisor. Last May, at 48, I presented my thesis paper titled “The MBA Degree: Feminism’s Final Frontier.”
As I look back over the last decade, I realize how fortunate I was to take courses and complete another degree as I raised my children. This period, during which I called myself “a learner, not an earner,” has paid me and my family back in many intangible ways. I found satisfaction in learning and exploring ideas while I stepped out of the paid workforce. I also liked being a student and the simplicity that implies.
What challenges did you encounter?
One challenge was making the time to prioritize creative thinking, writing, and editing. I kept up with the work but always questioned if this was a real, buried or experimental part of myself. I always seemed to be second-guessing the “practicality” of my studies.
Juggling school, home, and continuing volunteer responsibilities could be difficult at times. But being in school also allowed me the privilege and flexibility to spend the 2011-2012 academic year in Paris with my kids, Nathaniel and Grace, which was a risk well worth taking and an unforgettable family adventure. I did this after completing 6 of the 9 required courses and was able to audit a Gender Theory course at the University of Paris 8, which has a renowned center for the Study of Feminism and Gender.
The 10-15 page term papers were a challenge but, once I decided on a topic and got into the research, framing a case and making an argument, the writing became easier.
Completing my thesis was another challenge. My interest in my thesis topic had been hovering for years—women, work, education, money, marriage. I have countless notebooks, articles, and folders about the subject and really just wanted to write something that helped me work through my own thoughts and contribute to the conversation.
My thesis demonstrated that the experience of the female MBA is an ambiguous story still under construction with multiple interpretations. I found a lack of deep reflection about the MBA degree: Getting an MBA was not an impassioned path for my subjects, who pursued it almost as a default. I also uncovered a significant difference in time allocated to work and home tasks: The women no longer in the paid workforce spent up to three times as many hours as their salaried peers on housework, cooking, driving, and chaperoning children.
One day, I hope to articulate beyond my thesis paper the business of living, learning, growing, and getting to know oneself along with one’s children.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
Once I enrolled, I knew I would keep going, even though I couldn’t answer a friend’s question about why exactly I was doing all this course work…
Being in school gives me an interior life, a sense of depth beyond the everyday, a connection to interesting works and thinkers, time to contemplate many unanswered human questions. I have to remind myself to be thankful for the time and flexibility to make these myriad connections rather than obsess about not making an MBA salary.
I did eventually admit that being a student was a good “cover” for being a mom; what I meant was that, by going back to school, I felt stimulated intellectually and had a flexible schedule that enabled me to focus on our family. It was a wonderful complement to being a mother and really learning to appreciate that role. I had to pay the University of Chicago for that privilege!
My husband is very supportive if not always completely interested in my mind chatter and internal dilemmas… I think my kids respected my commitment and saw my interest and enthusiasm in learning for learning’s sake. My son loves to read and it is fun to see him ask about a book and then pull it off my shelf. There are many things I would like to reread as he explores them for the first time (this semester he is reading Antigone and 2 Shakespeare plays). Sometimes I dream about getting a PhD although my daughter will question that and suggest I get a “real” job.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife, even possibly going back to school?
Manage energy, not time. This relates to the idea of flow—being in the moment, losing yourself in a task… I often approach the day with a LONG to-do list, but need to make time for not only the things I must do, but also the things I enjoy doing. An example might be The Basic Program—when someone considers four years, 60 +books, a class a week, they might feel overwhelmed, but if she wants to commit to learning and feels excited by it, it can become a priority…
Returning to school is a pleasure. I equated the MLA program to going back to college and really paying attention.
What resources do you recommend for women deciding whether to return to school or what to do next?
I already mentioned The Artist’s Way. I also strive to achieve one of Eckhart Tolle’s three modalities as described in his book A New Earth: acceptance, enjoyment, or enthusiasm.
Take advantage of online webinars, networking events, women’s groups, and other resources offered through your former schools and your current communities.
These are books that really had an impact on me, provided me with a new way of seeing, and fed my curiosity about feminism and humanism:
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Middlemarch , George Eliot
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
On Balance, Adam Phillips
Semrad : The Heart of a Therapist, Rake & Mazer
The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
If returning to school and completing a thesis paper count as a next act in my developing story, then I am now working on another transition to tie together what often feel like disparate pieces, as part of my ongoing attempt to accept the past, enjoy the present, and prepare for the future.
In the meantime, I have taken on a part-time consulting project helping an Education Technology start up pull together and write a comprehensive business plan. I feel energized by the project and appreciate the opportunity to apply my business background, skills, and experience to an exciting education endeavor.
This current project feels like a return to my old working self, but with a few differences. First, I need to catch up technologically and learn to manage the volumes of industry information and relevant trends. Academic work requires focused, in depth, analytical thinking and I am working to apply that approach to a tech start up. I often feel “slow” in an increasingly “fast” world.
I started this project after I got a call from a friend asking for help. That was the boost I needed to start something, because I was wavering between many ideas but no clear path. As I work on this part time consulting project, I am taking mental notes of what I am thinking, what I enjoy, what I want to keep working on personally/professionally. I hope to evaluate this inventory in a broader context in a few months, ideally with a coach who will guide and support me.
I still think about pursuing a PhD and ask myself how I could make money by reading books. I also have some small business ideas that would integrate reading books with running a business—my attempt to merge the languages and sentiments of humanism with capitalism. Of course, I still keep my notebook, full of quotes, musings and disparate ideas for that next writing project…
I want to remain flexible and keep exploring my next act(s) as my son prepares to apply for college and my daughter will enter high school next year. I have several interim goals: This year I am trying to read a book a week. So far so good…
You can contact Susan O’Brien Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.