Friday, December 5, 2014

Survivor's Guide to Seminary, Post #10 (Your Professional Image and Its Cultivation - Part 3)

So, whatever you are going to do with your seminary degree, there’s one thing that is certain no matter what direction you are headed – you will be a professional and it is in your best interest early on to cultivate a professional “image.” We chatted about this in my last post. We're continuing that discussion in this post with Tip #3 - Cultivate Focus, Dedication, and Intelligence.

TIP #3 – Cultivate Focus, Dedication, and Intelligence

These three are foundational pillars of your personal brand. They are the qualities that you need to be all about  - whether you are a student in the seminary classroom, a minister in a local Church, or a professor or faculty member. Focus, dedication, and intelligence are important qualities. But how does one develop them?

Cultivate Focus. Are you focused? Professionals are focused. There are lots of ways to be focused. Let’s just run through a few and work on implementing these in your life so you can be more of a pro.

  • Exercise: a fit body and a fit mind are a wonderful combination. Neuroscientists have known for a long time what most of us are just figuring out – it’s easier to focus your mind when you take care of your body. 
  • Meditate: a 15-20 minute session of meditation each day is perfect for increasing mental focus. Google search this one and find out how it’s done. 
  • Eliminate Distractions: If you are a student in seminary, this needs to be a priority in your life. Granted, you will likely have other things you need to take care of – family, perhaps even a job, etc. – but your work in seminary needs to be a high priority. Cultivate focus by eliminating distractions. Try this: for one week, keep a detailed record daily of how you spend your time. What did you do from one hour to the next? What activities did you do from first light of the morning until you went to sleep at night? At the end of the week, take a look at how you spent the week. How much time are you spending on your primary task: seminary? How much time are you spending in Internet surfing or entertainment? When you are reading or writing, do you have distractions like Facebook or TV pulling your mind away from your work? Finally, are you scheduling your time well (more on this later) so you are getting all the reading, writing, etc. for seminary completed? Eliminate distractions to increase your focus.
  • Know your goals: It’s easier to cultivate focus when you know why you came to seminary. We’ve talked about this already, but this is where knowing why came for the degree you are working on will really pay off – in your ability to cultivate focus. Focus comes when you know why you are in seminary and what you are doing.
  • Let your family and friends know that you are serious about your work: If your family or friends have not gotten the message that you are a seminary student and are serious about your work, sit down with them and let know you need a team around you that will help you focus on the challenges ahead. A large ability to cultivate focus will come from those you spend the most time with each day. 
  • Do not miss class: This should go without saying, but ditching classes is for undergraduates. You will be in every class, barring an emergency, and you will be there early, grasshopper.

Cultivate Dedication: Are you dedicated? Well, a professional – by definition in many ways – is dedicated. This is not a pastime for you, it’s your vocation, and it’s what you do. Cultivating dedication is really about shaping where you put your time and energy. Dedication takes large amounts of time and energy, and that’s why you need to track how you spend your time. Your time is what marks what is important to you.

In cultivating dedication, you want to foster those kinds of qualities – turning your work in on time, doing the reading, making it to class every time, etc. – that will tell your faculty that you are a promising scholar or ministry student, one who is committed to her work. In my opinion, dedicated students will think about their semester’s work every day. They will make some productive move forward on their work everyday. They will schedule their day so they can get the work done. If your social life and their work conflict, you will work first and play later. If you want to be dedicated, make seminary your priority.

Cultivate Intelligence: Professionals are intelligent in their fields. You need to be so as well. But what does that really mean? Well, there’s no one definition from neuroscience or psychology for what ‘intelligence’ is – but there are many definitions. At the very least, intelligence is goal-directed adaptive behavior bolstered by memory, “crystallized” facts and informational content, memory, initiative, and the ability to self-critique. To my mind, there are several things one can be to bolster what we mean when we say “intelligence.”

  • Read. Read widely and read well. Read a newspaper ever day, read books, journals, magazines, and book reviews. Read widely and cultivate a love of reading - even of things and of areas that are not in your field. There’s no better way to enhance the informational content of your “intelligence” than by reading. We’ll talk more about this in the next section, “The Six Über Skills of Seminary” 
  • Learn new things: As you become expert in the various areas of study in seminary, remember that the power of learning novel things – new things - can really increase your intelligence. While it’s fine to become a deep specialist in one area, challenge yourself to learn about other things – things that are now to you. Although I consider myself a systematic theologian, I also enjoy reading and learning about insects and American Civil War history. But more than that, I try to learn new things in these areas. Recently, I travelled with my family to Gettysburg and we hired a battlefield guide to help us tour the field and learn about the battle. It was a little piece of brain candy. 
  • Struggle: Neuroscientists have shown that our brains, much like our muscles when we lift in the gym, will respond with greater growth when we struggle. Environments where we are constantly learning will help us in this. As we struggle to master new knowledge, our neurons respond by making greater numbers of connections with other neurons, a sign of a healthy and intelligent mind. So, while in seminary, don’t take it easy on yourself. Read difficult things and be patient. Let your mind respond to the harder work (and know that it will). Don’t shirk the hard classes, sign up for them and let your mind work hard. The payoff, while not instantaneous, will eventually come. I remember when I first started reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. It was a tough bit of reading and I couldn’t read more than 10 pages at a time because I was constantly going back to a sentence I had just read making sure I had understood it. But these days, my mind has responded to the harder reading level of Barth’s work, and I can read 30-40 pages of the Church Dogmatics at a time. The struggle at the beginning is now paying off, so to speak. Lesson: work hard and let your mind grow, grow, grow (in connectedness).