That’s what I thought when Alan came into my office and told me about the schedule he’d been keeping for the last month. This guy is living in Crazy Town, pardon my vernacular.

He had spent the last month working two part time jobs while taking a software development class three days a week. I saw the bags under his eyes but I also saw his face and energy light up in a way they hadn’t over the last three months I’d been working with him.

Alan had an idea for building software and had been working on it throughout the year with one or two developers. The idea had gained traction but he’d had trouble finding the developer that could interpret his vision to the letter. So after graduation in May he made the investment in himself and his dream to take this (expensive but well worth it) tech class in a city that’s a four-hour roundtrip commute from his home base. Did I mention that he’s doing all this while holding down a part time job that required him to be in office 10 hours each week and a research assistantship that had regular deliverables due to the project’s PI? Crazy town, right?!

His family or friends couldn’t make sense of why he would opt to go this path when he had just completed years of study for a doctorate in political science. As he put it, his parents were stunned, “You have two Ivy League degrees and you want to do a job that you don’t need a PhD for?!” His mom probably didn’t know that he was surviving off of McDonalds because he barely had time to cook or enough extra money for better food.

There are times in your life when you must live in Crazy Town to make your dreams come true. Crazy Town is not a permanent place but a temporary bridge while you work toward your next goal. You have to put some skin in the game if you want to accomplish new things and meet your goals. Whether it’s an article that needs to be written while you have to simultaneously teach, write a conference paper and work on your dissertation. Or, if it’s taking on a one year unpaid internship while managing a lab and finishing your doctoral thesis (that’s a true story of a molecular biology PhD friend of mine who now works in tech transfer and IP at an East Coast university.)

Why would a political scientist from a top university learn to develop software? 

No, not just because the money is good. 🙂

Alan believed he could attract investors to his software concept. He’d received early feedback from leaders in the software field, but unreliable coders made it impossible for him to create new iterations and edits based on that early feedback. He decided to take the software development course just one month after graduating with his PhD. Rather than rely on the sometimes-available skills of others, he would do the job himself.

When he came to my office he was visibly ecstatic, though a little exhausted. “My parents don’t get what I’m doing and when I think about it myself it just sounds ridiculous. But when I’m in class, I’m connecting with the instructors, the other students are connecting me with jobs in software development, and I’m creating something. I love seeing my skills grow and my work get better with each class.”

His tech class cost him a couple grand. His 4-hr per trip commute was another expense on his wallet and his body. He had to squeeze in the hours to do the research job, work the part time gig and read software development textbooks – all while trying to catch some sleep. By all accounts, this is a crazy situation to be in, hence Crazy Town. But it was temporary. The part time gig only lasted three months, the course roughly the same, and the RA position was flexible.

Alan’s story is a lesson for everyone who has to temporarily sacrificed comfort, money and time to make a dream come true.

He didn’t pursue the tech class with reckless abandon. He was working the part time job to help him pay for his classes and to cover his monthly expenses.

He didn’t drop all things academia. He maintained his relationships and research assistantship. It gave him the chance to extend his research beyond his dissertation topic and to gain new academic experiences that would help him make a more informed career decision.

In the end, it won’t matter if some big VC funds his software or whether the software ever really gets off the ground. He’s learned a new skill, discovered a passion, and allowed new doors and opportunities to be opened by following what he wanted to do, not just what he was “supposed to do.”

By extension, he’s created a new career path for himself in a lucrative field. In our last session we came up with a few strategies for leveraging the relationships he’s building in his weekly class, in case he wants to learn more about software development jobs. So far he’s learned about a couple job fairs for emerging coders and tapped into the new market of the tech scene on the East Coast.

Some times being bold doesn’t end with what we expect but it brings with it residual opportunities that we could not have foreseen from the sidelines. Be bold. Get in the game and play it strategically so you don’t stay in Crazy Town for too long.

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