What would you consider your most valuable possession? When I first asked myself this question, I went down the typical list of possibilities. We have a beautiful home. And I really like my car. Many envy my home theater and I take great pride in my extensive music collection. I don’t have much art or exotic jewelry.
Then I began to get more creative. What about my children or my wife? Those thoughts quickly passed when I remembered that the lease expires on children at the age of consent and the idea of possessing or owning a spouse is more creepy than tender. Perhaps I could say that I owned those relationships and that I’d worked hard to keep them positive. Again, that doesn’t seem right.
Most dictionaries define possession as a form of ownership. Most of the things that fall into that category are either bought or earned. And the term valuable, is normally used with relation to monetary exchange or at least to convey great importance. Perhaps the answer would be easier if I had purchased a few thousand shares of Microsoft stock when Bill Gates was getting started or created a more robust investment portfolio.
On further reflection, the answer to this question became self evident. In fact, the mere act of asking the question was a clue. My most valuable possession, without a doubt, is my education.
And I’m not talking School of Hard Knocks here. Nor am I talking about a few hundred books that I’ve read on my own. I’m talking about the formal education I got in grade school, high school, college and graduate institutions. Even though I did not fully appreciate this at the time, the things I learned there formed the foundation for everything I’ve done since leaving and all success that I have experienced to date.
As I’ve tried to explain to my children, a college diploma, no matter where it’s from, tells a potential employer at least one important thing. Each holder of such a document started a long and convoluted journey and finished what he or she started. Their rich and/or loving parents couldn’t buy it for them. They had to delay gratification, suspend disbelief and trudge through all the obstacles to complete the maze according to the rules of the institution that grants them accreditation. Granted, some schools are easier to get through than others. But, any completed college experience says something good about the degree holder, no matter what their GPA or caliber of school. Potential employers know this, but the graduate carries the confidence of achievement with them as well.
I am blessed to have two degrees supporting me. Both are in the same area – Organizational Communication. In school I was most fascinated studying how people talk to each other, and particularly how they talked to each other in a work setting with a shared business goal in mind. I had no idea how this form of focused inquiry would make me any money. I tried unsuccessfully to find a more market-friendly area in which to specialize, but in the end, I wound up being a generalist with a pair of liberal arts degrees. How could I have ever known that I would one day create a business where this would be my primary focus?
Since obtaining my Masters degree and heading out into the “Real World,” I have continued taking formal classes through work. And, of course, I have supplemented that with lots of reading, writing and self-study. This ability to think and write and speak that I worked so hard to develop in school is how I make my living today in the same way my brother, Ken, uses the diplomas he earned becoming a periodontist as the foundation of his dental specialty practice.
I was fortunate enough to get my formal college education quickly and immediately after high school. Many, particularly those who got an early start on their families, had to juggle work and school for much longer periods. Some even had to make the challenging leap from Non-Exempt to Exempt once they obtained their degrees because they opted to stay with their same companies. My good friend Nick obtained three degrees at night while working full time. He went from being a ditch digger to become Sr. Vice President of Operations for an international chemical company. Imagine the pride and confidence it gives you from achieving such a feat. What could you possibly ask Nick to do that would require greater effort or perseverance than that?
Unlike a car that depreciates or a piece of jewelry that can get lost, education is one possession that keeps on giving. If it’s not on or near the top of your list of most valuable possessions, my wish for you is that you will someday earn the right to put it there.
So what can you do to make education your most valuable possession? Consider taking the following actions:
- Invest in Your Own Education. Use your time and your company’s money to obtain degree or certification in an area that means something to you. If you have no company sponsor, look for other ways to fund your formal learning expedition. If it takes eight years, so be it. Had you started four years ago, you’d be half way done today.
- Don’t Stop Learning. If you’re fortunate enough to have a degree or three behind your name, congratulations. But please don’t rest on your decades old laurels. Information atrophies rapidly these days. What have you done recently to keep yourself up to date?
- Find Others to Learn With You. Most absorb information better through interaction. Even if you find it most convenient to pursue a degree online, seek out a partner or group of people to share your educational adventure with. You’ll learn more, faster, and it will be more fun!
- Appreciate What You Have. If the bulk of your current knowledge base comes from total immersion in the real world, don’t devalue what you’ve learned. Instead, supplement it with some strategic reading that gives theoretical foundation to your pragmatic experience.
Gary Markle is one of the most sought after experts on how to improve human capital to transform companies into highly productive enterprises where people actually enjoy going to work. Markle’s landmark work, “Catalytic Coaching: The End of the Performance Review” spent 37 weeks as an Amazon bestseller, ranking it in the top 5% of all books sold, and earning it the coveted Five Star rating. His follow-up book, “No More Performance Reviews” has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and The Detroit Free Press. It was also favorably reviewed by Atlanta Business Chronicle.
Salomon and Carmen Huerta in 1954.
When I first applied to UCLA, I wrote in my personal essay that I didn’t have any positive role models in my violent neighborhood.
Having grown up in East Los Angeles’ Ramona Gardens housing project, I wrote that most of the adults represented gang members, drug dealers, thieves, tecatos (heroin addicts), alcoholics, felons and high school dropouts (or push-outs). I also wrote about my disdain for housing authority officials and government workers for behaving like prison wardens and guards toward us: project residents who depended on government aid or welfare.
Moreover, I decried the police abuse that I had witnessed and experienced, like the time when a cop pointed a gun at me. My crime: being a 15-year-old making a rolling stop while learning how to drive.
Lastly, as the product of low-performing public schools, I highlighted the low expectations most teachers and counselors had for their poor Chicano students. Fortunately for me, I excelled in mathematics.
While I was eventually accepted to UCLA, I should have been more truthful in my essay. In fact, I did have positive role models: my Mexican immigrant parents.
But why didn’t I give them credit? Did they represent drug dealers, criminals or rapists, as some buffoons want to us to believe? No. They never committed a crime or received a parking ticket. It’s difficult to get a ticket when you can’t afford a vehicle.
Did they migrate to this country to take jobs from American workers? No. My father, Salomón Chavez Huerta, first arrived in this country as a farmworker in the Bracero program – a U.S.-Mexico guest worker program from 1942 to 1964. He also worked as a janitor and day laborer.
My mother, Carmen Mejía Huerta, worked for more than 40 years as a domestic worker, cleaning the homes and taking care of the children of white, middle-class families. Like millions of Mexican immigrants, my late parents took jobs that most American workers reject due to dismal pay, lack of upward mobility and low social status or stigma, i.e., immigrant jobs.
In retrospect, I should have written about their remarkable stories of hard work, sacrifice and resilience in a hostile society. It’s amazing how two Spanish-speaking parents with only a couple of years of education in a small rancho raised eight children, sending four of them to elite universities. This includes raising the most accomplished Latino artist, Salomón Huerta, in the United States.
Instead of being proud of my Mexican parents, I was ashamed of their low social status.
Actually, since I grew up in segregated neighborhood where all of the residents received government aid, like most of my childhood friends, I never thought of myself as Mexican or poor. As a kid, I assumed that all parents spoke only Spanish and kids wore hand-me-downs. I also considered food stamps to be the common currency for all Americans when purchasing food.
It wasn’t until being bused to a white-majority junior high school, Mt. Gleason Jr. High, in the suburbs that I first experienced overt racism and realized that I was poor. For the first time, I was different than most people. Not only was I different, but also labeled as inferior by my white classmates. It was the first time in my life that I was called a “wetback,” “beaner” and “low-rider.”
This idea of being different or inferior followed me to college. I will never forget my first summer class at UCLA, for instance, when the professor asked us to share about our parents. While we had other racialized minorities in the class, I was the only Chicano student from the mean streets of East Los Angeles.
“Both of my parents are UCLA alums, and they’re both attorneys,” an African American student said with pride.
“My mom is a doctor, and father is an engineer,” a Latina student boasted.
“I’m a foreign exchange student from Latin America, and my father is a diplomat,” another student said with delight.
I panicked. What should I say, I thought to myself? Should I say that my mother cleans homes and father sweeps floors in a factory?
Not being able to compete with my privileged classmates with their professionally accomplished parents, I uttered something general like, “My parents are workers in the U.S.”
While I will never forgive myself for not giving my parents credit for motivating me to pursue higher education, growing up in a society where brown people are scapegoats for America’s failures, it makes sense that I would feel embarrassed about my Mexican roots and working-class background.
While Mexicans in el norte have become convenient targets for American politicians like Donald Trump, there’s a long tradition of Mexican-bashing in the United States. Since the military defeat of Mexico in 1848, American leaders and public figures have treated Mexicans in this country as second-class citizens and social burdens or threats.
For example, as an influential public figure, the late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington famously argued in his 2009 article “The Hispanic Challenge” that Mexicans and other Latinos represented a threat to the U.S. Where was the public outcry over his racist thesis?
As the largest ethnic group, accounting for more than 55 million U.S. residents, Latinas and Latinos in this country deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
As a Chicano scholar with degrees from UCLA and UC Berkeley who, as a teen, internalized the pejorative narratives against brown people and the working class in this country, I have a clear message to Latinas and Latinos, especially young people: Don’t allow a bully like Trump or other American leaders to make you feel inferior due to your ethnic heritage or ashamed of your social status.