Mastering the Mental Marathon: Making it Over the Certification Finish Line

Mastering the Mental Marathon: Making it Over the Certification Finish Line

By Micheline Murphy


There were thirteen of us. We were gathered in an otherwise empty lobby, standing awkwardly apart, no one talking.  Some stood at the counter, hunched over their phone, desperately trying to cram one more bit of information into already overheated brains. Some were so stiff with nervousness it was a wonder no one shattered right there. One or two paced restlessly, back and forth and back again like neurotic tigers at the zoo. The proctor didn’t arrive until 8:20. If there was a better recipe for inducing nausea without actually eating anything contaminated, I don’t know it.

That dreaded beast of an exam, the CCIE lab exam.


Now, I’m not a stranger to miserable test-taking experiences. In 1999, I sat for the Bar exam. That was a two-day, hand-written, series of essay questions. At the end of each day, I had to ice my entire arm to the elbow there was so much writing. When I finished, I barely made it through the door before bursting into tears of relief. The CCIE lab exam goes right up there for misery.


In this article, I share some of my own personal strategies for test-taking certification success.


Make a plan. Stick with the plan.

No runner ever ran a race without knowing how long the race was and what the race course was like, so why should I? The first thing I did when I began preparing to get a certification was to find out what material I needed to know. Every Cisco certification has a blueprint. Find it.[1]   Read it. Keep it close at hand.


Once I knew what material the exam would cover, I made a plan to get to passing. And here’s where some brutal honesty will save you future heartache. Consider these things carefully:

  • What is your current skill level?
  • Is there a deadline that you have to pass by?
  • How much time are you going to realistically be able to devote to study?
  • How much material do you have to cover?
  • What topics might you be able to cover faster?
  • What subjects are going to give you problems that you will need more time?


For me, I was Jon Snow. I knew nothing. Everything was going to be hard, and I was going to need extra time to make up for my lack of experience. The only thing I had going for me was time… I had lots of it. For each of you, your circumstances will be different according to your own experience, expertise, or education. But I would encourage anyone on the hunt for a certification to start here. With some careful introspection.


From my reflection, I emerged with a rough month-by-month plan to study. For example, I allocated two months to master ACI, a month for VXLAN, one month for NX-OS, and so on. Next, I took that rough study plan and put it in my calendar. April for NX-OS, May and June for ACI, July for VXLAN… you get the picture. Imposing my study plan on an actual calendar had three benefits:

  1. I didn’t have to think about what I was going to study next,
  2. I didn’t have to worry that I’d miss some subject matter,
  3. I had a way to estimate when I would be ready to schedule an exam.


As I said, the one thing I had going for me is that I had plenty of time. For many others, especially working women with families, spare time to study is rare. Still, take a hard look at what you can realistically devote on a weekly basis, and build that into your plan. I know an engineer who, with the blessing of his boss, set aside one day a week to study. Every Friday he studied, and has been doing so for years. “It’s just habit now,” he told me.  He’s got four CCIEs.


Once you’ve got your plan ironed out, now for the really hard part. Commit. Stick with your plan. Yogi and philosopher Pramahansa Yogananda said, “Persistence guarantees that the results are inevitable.”[2]  Your plan will not do you any good if you don’t stick with it. Every day. Every week. Every month. Until you get what you set out to get.


Train Like a Champion

Once I had committed to the plan I’d created, I knew I would have to study. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, I would struggle. I knew it was going to be hard. There would almost certainly be days when I wanted to throw something out the window, give up, and take some easier path. There had to be a way in which I could make the most of my study time. Which brings me to my second point: train like a champion.


What does it mean to train like a champion? We’re all engineers here. In our work lives, we keep up with the latest technologies and we look for ways to use what tools are available to make our networks run faster, more efficiently, or more resiliently. Why don’t we apply that to our own human machine?


In the data center, we design for 24/7 continuous-duty and high availability. The brain’s like a data center, right? Early brain research demonstrated that our brains are always active, and it can consume up to half of all of the body’s available energy and nearly 20% of all the oxygen we breathe.[3]  But unlike a data center, a growing body of neurological research points to a critical process that our brains engage in while we’re seemingly “at idle.”


This idle state, identified by Marcus Raichle and Ann Mary MacLeod in 2001, is called the default mode network.[4]  And importantly for us, activating the DMN has been correlated with creating automated, fast, and accurate, “autopilot” responses, and more highly available working memory, both of which are definitely needed in the heat of a lab exam.[5]


Translating this brain science into smart training techniques means building “rest time” into our training regimen.[6] As Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz point out in their article, “The Making of a Corporate Athlete”, the human body was never meant to run continuous-duty. Rest after exertion—physical or mental—is required or we lose performance.


One way I rest is to make religious use of the Pomodoro method while studying or labbing. Twenty-five minutes of time devoted to hard studying or labbing just one thing (Each time period is called a Pomodoro, or tomato), followed by a five-minute break. Rinse and repeat. Every four tomatoes, take a longer break.[7]  The short bursts with regularly scheduled breaks help me to make the most of my study-time, knowing that I am always working towards a break. Although the Pomodoro creator recommended a kitchen timer and a piece of paper, there are a bazillion apps out there for Pomodoro. The one I use actually shuts my laptop off at the end of a tomato so I have to take the break.[8]


Another brain optimization that I use is exercise. Regular exercise is linked to improved concentration, sharper memory, faster learning, and prolonged mental stamina, all of which the lab exam requires.[9]  I make the time to exercise in the middle of my study day, over my lunch break. Sometimes I combined study and exercise—running on the treadmill to INE videos, or biking my trainer with a fistful of flashcards. But exercise doesn’t have to be a big block of time. One engineer I know builds in short exercise breaks over the course of his day, for example, walking to a farther sandwich shop to get lunch, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.


Finally, the best athletes don’t train alone. They have training partners and support teams. Find yourself a study partner or a study group. CLN is great for that, and even if your study partner isn’t in the same time zone, we all happen to know a company that has some great collab tools.  .


But the most important thing is to *have* a support team. Especially for women, who are often expected to put in extra unpaid hours at home taking care of the spouse and kids, a solid support team is critical.[10] Talk to your partner, your spouse, your kids, your friends and family about the support from them that you will need to be able to succeed.  What can they do to make sure you have quality time to study?  What support do you need to get to your own success?


Certainly, making time to study is important, but be creative. On my first lab attempt, my husband flew down to the testing center with me. He took care of the flight, the hotel, and the rental car. He got me fed and made sure I got to the testing center on-time. For me, those sorts of things on “race day” were beyond merely helpful; they helped me put all of my energy into the exam.


Failure is Your Friend

The CLN feed is riddled with folks posting their heartbreak and despair after failing an exam attempt. I’ve never posted about my own failures on CLN, but I’ve had them. We all have. For myself, I failed my first four exam attempts. Four. For someone who considered herself reasonably smart, four failures were a really tough blow. After all, I’d passed the Bar exam in one. Was I really smart enough to do this?


It really wasn’t until someone on CLN whom I really looked up to as a smart and experienced engineer told me how many times he had failed in his career that I started to “get it.”[11]


You see, failure, in many ways, will make you stronger than success. One of my favorite quotes is now, “Your best teacher is your last mistake.” Now, whenever I take an exam, as soon as it is done, write down everything you can remember about the exam you just took. For my lab exam, I literally sat on the curb in the Cisco parking lot writing down everything I was tested on. My notes now form the basis for preparing for the next attempt.


I’ve extended this strategy to my lab. Whenever something goes pear-shaped in the lab, I write just as many notes about what went wrong and how I fixed it as I would if I got the lab working on the first shot. Maybe more. My lab notebook is now one of my most valuable resources I have in my certification journey.


The other thing I “got” about failure is my emotional reaction to failure. It used to be that a failure would crush my spirit. I still see many folks on CLN who react to failure as if it were some sort of personal attack. But when I rearranged my thinking about failure, I found that I could bounce back faster and stronger. Now, I see failure as more of a positive thing. For one thing, failure is part of being human. So, I forgive myself for my failures much more easily. Also, I embrace failure as an opportunity to be seized or a lesson to take advantage of. How many times have we made a mistake, and by working through the mistake, we learn the lesson better and come out of the experience with a stronger understanding?


Please share.

These are my tips for surviving the sometimes grueling certification process. I hope you found them useful.


But, no engineer is an island. For all of us who commit to the certification process, we will each have to face the exam alone, but that doesn’t mean we are alone. Where ever you are in your own journey, please share your own tip or tips on mastering the mental marathon.



[1] Cisco Certifications

[2] Or for the more contrarian women in my audience, “Still, she persisted.”

[3] Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute, On the Brain Newsletter, "Sugar and the Brain”. The fact that the brain is such a resource pig also means that feeding it (right) is another aid to performance.  When I sat for the LSATs, I took a handful of Snickers bars with me.  To this day, Snickers still remind me of the LSATs!

[4] Raichle, ME et al., “A Default Mode of Brain Function”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 16 January 2001.

[5] Vatansever D et al., “Default Mode Contributions to Automated Information Processing”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 28 November 2017.

[6] See for example, Ursrey, Lawton "Your Brain Unplugged: Proof that Spacing Out Makes you More Effective" Forbes Magazine, 16 May 2016 ; Loehr, Jim and Tony Schwartz, "The Making of a Corporate Athlete" Harvard Business Review, January 2001

[7] Henry, Alan "Productivity 101: A Primer to the Pomodoro Technique" Life Hacker, 2 July 2014

[8] The other benefit of using the Pomodoro technique is that it forces me to physically break from the keyboard.  Getting shut down because of repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel will really derail a girl!

[9] Friedman, Ron "Regular Exercise is Part of Your Job" Harvard Business Review, 3 October 2014.

[10] Women spend 4.5 hours a day on average doing unpaid work.  This work is typically related to cooking, cleaning, and raising children.  Guys, can you imagine how you’d feel about studying if after your regular workday you still had 4.5 hours more of work before you could study?  "Women's Unpaid Work is the Backbone of the American Economy" Market Watch, 15 April 2018.

[11] I wrote about sharing failures in my first Women in Networking post.  I'm Not an Imposter!  Are You an Imposter?  We're not Imposters!