How Alicia Keys Convinced Me to Quit Grad School

My accounting textbook laid splayed open in front of me. I spread my hands across its pages, feeling the glossiness of their surface, and how thick the hundreds of pages I had left felt. Why wasn’t learning by osmosis a thing yet? I imagined the knowledge rising in millions of tiny particles from the pages, osmosing through the skin of my palms, flowing upwards through my arteries, and entering directly into my brain’s Knowledge Centers.

This reminded me that not only did I not know shit about accounting, but also that I did not know shit about how the human brain works.

Get it together, I told myself. Just start reading.

This pep talk really got me going. I sipped my latte (I was treating myself on account of working so hard), and applied a facial expression that I imagined to be scholarly, or pensive. Now I was definitely ready to start reading.

“At the end of this section, students should be able to:


I read two pages. My scholarly face was already replaced by a mug of distaste and discomfort, sort of as if I had popped a Sourhead or a chunk of smelly blue cheese into my mouth. I bitterly taunted the book’s authors in my head, that the only thing I could “define and understand” was that there was not a bone in my body that wanted to be doing this. Heavy dread bubbled up from my guts, pressing down on my shoulders and emanating through every part of my body until it reached my fingers, hot on the cool pages. I felt the urge to run as fast as I could.

It was supposed to be the right decision, because tuition-waived classes, duh. What kind of spoiled jerk turns down free grad school these days? An MBA–everyone knows that’s a thing that’s useful…right?

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being a brat. That I was ungrateful, that there were millions of people drowning under tens of thousands of dollars of loans who would nearly kill for free grad school. Who did I think I was? Just not wanting to do it was a pretty shitty excuse. How lazy had I become? I started to feel like a hypocrite, and I hated it.

Quit whining and do your damn homework, I told myself angrily.

A business degree will allow you to do anything!

Anything can be achieved if you give it your all!

My eyes drifted upwards and landed on nothing in particular outside the cafe window. I couldn’t even make eye contact with the accounting textbook. I knew it was judging me.

I had class tomorrow, and this was my very last chance to get the reading and homework done. So I took a deep breath and did the obvious thing.

I closed the book without marking the page, and went home.

“I just really need you to take care of her for me. Please.” The desperation in her eyes told me she wasn’t bluffing. She wouldn’t be asking me if she had any other choice–this I knew. 

The newborn’s dark eyes sparkled in the dim light of my front hallway. Her lips, rounded into a gentle smile, released a satisfied coo into the silence. Poor child…none of this was her fault. 

I felt my guilt rising up into my gut. 

“Fine. I’ll do it.”

The words felt like they didn’t even come from me.

A half-smile that spoke simultaneously of profound relief and unspeakable sadness traveled across her face as she passed the swaddled bundle into my arms. Her tortured eyes briefly met mine, and for one second I felt the weight of her pain, striking me like a blow to the chest and radiating through my bones, my veins, my fingers. I felt the hair on my legs stand up like raw chicken skin. I didn’t know if I could do this. It was too much. I stared at the infant in my arms. But if not me…who?

“Mommy loves you so much…” With a final kiss on the baby’s forehead, and before I could catch more than a fleeting glimpse of her watery eyes, Alicia Keys was gone, and I stood alone with her daughter in my arms. 

…Then I woke up.

Soon after, I was caught off guard by what sounded like soft whimpering. Walking down my hallway, I paused, cocking my ear to the air. The stairs. I headed down, wary but moving quickly.

A cardboard box. Squirming with furry brown and black bodies, it sat just inside the front door. 

Guinea pigs? Kittens? I kneeled at its side.


Their coats were patchy; their bellies were not quite as plump as they should have been. Two weeks old at most, I thought, and clearly whoever had brought them here hadn’t been taking care of them.

I glanced up the stairs, adrenaline rushing. What the hell was I going to do with 12 sick newborn puppies? I didn’t have the time or money to take care of them properly. 

I looked back at the box. One of them wasn’t moving as much as the others. My head spun with reasons I couldn’t do this, but I felt my answer rising up in my gut. My arms, on autopilot, picked up the box and headed upstairs. 

Half of my brain was thinking of the midnight poop accidents, the constant walks, the destroyed furniture, the responsibility for 12 tiny creatures that would be on my shoulders. The other half of my brain looked at their tiny black eyes, barely open, and knew that I couldn’t just leave them alone. 

…Then I woke up.

I awoke in the morning with my head reeling with confusing but vivid memories of holding Alicia Keys’ illegitimate child in my arms, and boxes of crying puppies in the foyer. What the hell had I eaten before going to bed? Jesus.

But as I stared at the ceiling and mentally confirmed that I did not have custody of any children or animals, something began to dawn on me.

A helpless child, whose last hope was me…I certainly was in no position to take care of a child, but she was just a baby–I couldn’t just leave her! Alicia wouldn’t have asked me if she had any other choice. I had to take care of her.

A box of helpless puppies, skinny and patchy…I was not at a point in my life to have one dog, let alone multiple, sick, infant ones, but they were just tiny puppies–I couldn’t just put them out on the stoop! I had to take care of them.

Due to the fact that my dreams are usually about things like the entire Obama family showing up at my old dorm room looking to crash for a couple nights–except they were ALL ZOMBIES–or an archaeological excavation in my backyard accidentally digging up alien slugs that would then take over the world (both actual dreams that happened in my brain), I don’t usually put much stock in their significance. But this morning, it was very clear to me that for the first time ever, my subconscious had a useful AND intelligible message to deliver.

I thought of the baby with a miniature version of Alicia Keys’ face, and of a box of squirming puppies.

It would seem, wouldn’t it, that there might–JUST MIGHT–be something that I was feeling obligated to be responsible for, but that I really didn’t want to do.


I could feel my accounting textbook staring at me from across the room. I realized that I knew what my decision had to be.

“I’m sorry,” I told it in my head. “You’re a really cool book, and I know you’ll make someone very happy one day but this relationship just isn’t right for me right now. I swear, it’s not you…it’s me. I’m sorry, but…it’s over.”

I logged on to my student account and dropped my classes.

The feeling of “having a weight lifted from your shoulders” is usually a metaphorical description, but this was as close to a physical manifestation of it as I’ve ever felt.

People, I had been going 100 miles an hour for nearly my entire educational life. Throughout high school and college, I was always drowning myself in Activities and Things To Do and Leadership Opportunities and Other Standards Of Youthful Success. At the time of my Alicia Keys dream, almost one year post-graduation and just a few months into a new job, I was finally enjoying a life where I had time to just hang out and take care of myself, my health, and my happiness.

I was getting better at surrounding myself with people who brought me positive energy, instead of taking energy away from me. I was devoting more time to healthier habits like cooking nourishing food and exercising purely for the joy of feeling my lungs stretched full of air. I was spending hours in coffee shops on weekends by myself, enjoying my own company, tuning out the noise of the world around me, and not being on any time schedule.

I realized that this new discomfort–this feeling of dread, of “should”, of “must”–wasn’t actually so new. In fact, it had once been so familiar to me that I didn’t even notice its presence–I just followed it. Only after its absence did I start to even realize its existence.

For a long time I had been swept along in this tide, but I was in my own little tidal pool now, only creating currents of my own, and I had no intentions of getting swept up in the current again. I wasn’t going to do this just because I “should”–and that was okay.

We only ever have one chance at happiness: in the present. Half of the struggle is figuring out what we actually want, and the other half is learning to accept and respect ourselves and our needs enough to prioritize the things that make us happy.

At the end of this section, students should be able to:

Define what they want in their life right now. Not in the future–this exact moment.

Understand that it’s okay to choose what makes you happy, over what you feel like you should do. There will be plenty of time in life for “shoulds” and “musts”, but there is no moment for happiness besides right now.

Explain that they don’t want to be in the library at 11pm working on a group project and eating a shitty burrito from a crappy Mexican place near campus because they didn’t have time to cook. They want to leave work at 5pm, go running, cook a healthy dinner, and go to bed at 9:30. And that’s okay! 

Use opportunities and resources that are available to them, but also realize that access alone is not enough–they have to want to do it. And it’s actually okay to not want to. You don’t have to do something just because you can.

Differentiate between what they want, and what they’re being told they should want.

Provide themselves with love, gentleness, understanding, and trust, so that they can make the most of the present, in the best way they see fit.

Sidenote: I also had major arm surgery at the beginning of the semester that quite complicated my ability to write, take notes, and do homework for several weeks. However I’m actually quite glad that this happened and that my ability to succeed in classes was compromised, because otherwise it might have been even harder to admit to myself that this wasn’t what I wanted. To have the “could” aspect compromised allowed me to consider the “should” aspect in a way that was much more respectful of what I really wanted. It’s a good lesson for myself for the future, when I might again confuse being physically capable of doing something with actually wanting to do it.

If we just look, there are opportunities all around us, should we choose to take advantage of them–and in many circumstances, we should! But–you don’t have to do something just because you can. 

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