I Spent 15 Years in University and Didn’t Learn These 7 Essential Life Lessons. Here’s What Every Degree Should Teach.

If we’re talking life lessons, I still remember when I learned how valuable my humanities degree was.

I was standing under the July sun in Northern Ontario. I wiped sweat out of my eyes with my sleeve as I yelled into my handheld radio.

In the distance, I could see a line of 18-wheelers waiting to come through the curving line of cones–including one that was seriously oversized with a Yuke truck destined for a nearby mine.

As of two months earlier, I had never stepped foot onto a highway construction site. Now, I was in charge of 10 other workers, and currently navigating how to keep traffic flowing over a steep hill and around a team blasting through the Canadian shield to make room for the new highway. At the other end of the hill, tri-axles (dump trucks) waited to drop fill.

“We’re going to need that curve longer,” I yelled into the radio–drawing on the provincial regulations that I’d memorized on my lunch break a week earlier.

Just two months before that, I’d sat at a long wooden table in an enormous old house on the university campus and defended my master’s thesis on diaspora identity in Philo and 4 Maccabees.

Two months later, I would be starting a PhD far away in Toronto.

This was my summer job.

I was surprised to learn how well critical thinking could map from diaspora theory to construction plans. When my boss was stressed out about environmental compliance, I told him to give me the build plan and I’d take care of it.

And I did.

I discovered what many humanities students discover when they step into the world.

Although they lack “hard skills,” critical thinking abilities and willingness to learn never go out of style. With a lot of hard work, you can quickly adapt to any new workplace.

But while there are a lot of transferable skills from a degree, many grads (including myself) falter and take a long time to find their footing. While there are many reasons for this, I think one of the biggest is the gap between some of the realities of the world and what we learned during education.

So, if you’re doing a degree right now or have done one, here are some basic life lessons that I didn’t learn in university.

1. There’s no shame in work

Some degrees are great and prepare you for work. If I’d done an engineering or nursing degree my work transition would be a very different story.

But in some disciplines (I’m looking at you my liberal arts peeps), there is still a strong disdain for actually having a job.

Maybe this is a leftover from the days of European elitism when the university was to finish those who were already rich. But among my humanities peers teaching college classes, the word “job”–when used to refer to non-academic work–is as bad as the word “capitalism.”

Universities and colleges have been playing this game for a long time, pitching what they do as somehow unique and above the level of ordinary mortals.

Even worse, some educators scoff at the idea that a degree is about something as crass as making money. “This is about the life of the mind,” one of my profs would say as he stared pensively out the window.

And, of course, we buy it. Who the heck doesn’t like the idea of getting paid to sit around in old libraries and read books?

When I close my eyes, I can still smell those books.

Talk to the graduates of some of our degree programs and you’ll see that the things learned are so unmoored from reality that it’s impossible for them to be properly valued in the marketplace.

Students have never been asked to think about their own value proposition–one of the vital life lessons.

And it’s like pulling teeth trying to get some departments to even think about a world where they might help their students get the much-cursed job.

I’ve often quoted the statistic that many grads have jobs they could have gotten with their high-school degree. This is true for 44% of all grads.

So here’s the life lesson: Work is not shameful. Every time I’ve done the hard work to understand how my degree can be applied to a job, I’ve learned and grown. And I love that I’ve been a part of big things, whether it was building a road or creating refugee programs.

2. It’s better to own the machine than work in the machine

When I read Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin for the first time, he argued something that I’d never heard.

Education isn’t created to make you unique. It’s not to build your leadership abilities. It’s to turn you into a reproducible cog in an industrial age machine.

Now I know I’m going to sound like I’m contradicting myself, but bear with me. At their very best, college and universities are usually trying to plug you into a job. Which, as I already said, there’s nothing wrong with.

However, getting a job is a way to go and build someone else’s world-creating machine. And, the second of these life lessons, some of you should build your own.

While shocking at first, I’ve come to believe that there’s a lot of truth in Godin’s claim. Education doesn’t teach you to build the world. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that most small business owners did not go to college.

There’s even a running list of college dropouts who have gone on to be wildly successful.

The reality is, as Seth Godin writes in Linchpin, that the world doesn’t actually reward people who stay in their lane and follow all the rules. And education is fundamentally about following rules.

One of my biggest frustrations with advanced degrees is that students who hold them know what needs to be done in the world.

They can identify every social inequity and even some ways to fix them.

But most don’t know how to take the massive action to create the world that they want to see. It’s a life lesson they’ve never learned. Instead, they look for a job to match their skills.

So if you’re angrily tweeting about some problem on a regular basis, maybe it’s a sign that you need to grow your leadership skills to the point where you can step out and help fix that thing!

If you hate the work that X company does in an area or see a big need for X in another area, maybe you’ll be the one to solve it.

Change needs to happen. So go and make it happen!

Imagine if people with degrees and big ideas had the ability and knowledge to execute and build their vision in the world!

3. Learn about money… now

This is perhaps the most vital of life lessons, and you probably didn’t learn it in school (unless you studied business or finance). And, if you were raised like me, you probably didn’t hear it from your parents.

We live in a capitalist system and very few people get an education in how to actually succeed in that system.

By the time I’d finished my undergrad, I’d read Marx and Weber. But I’d never learned how to turn my knowledge and skills into a value proposition in the marketplace. I could talk about exploitation, but I had no fricken clue that I could make money work for me.

I’d never learned how to get paid, or how to grow wealth.

I was just taught to complain about how unfair it was that everyone else had it and I didn’t.

Check out our four favorite personal finance books here!

4. Great success often needs a team

Damn I hate group work.

One time, I had a group project. My team included a guy who was useless…

I mean, really useless.

This guy wouldn’t show up for our group meetings, wouldn’t talk to us, and in the end, we just planned the project without him–then he showed up and presented something half-assed that he’d done himself. 

I hated working in a team. I loved working by myself when I had total control of the outcome and didn’t have to socialize too much.

Now some of you reading this understand me completely, and the other half of you are scratching your head.

That’s good! You learned to work on a team. It will serve you well.

The world requires a certain amount of teamwork and playing well with others.

Even at it’s best, college doesn’t usually include the kind of group work that makes the world work. The greatest partnerships are made up of people with different and complementary skill sets.

If you did group work in college, it was probably with people who were exactly like you.

As an entrepreneur, I love having people who know things I don’t on my team. Bookkeepers, graphic designers, lawyers, accountants, bankers… they know stuff I don’t. And I know stuff they don’t. That’s what makes a team function. 

(Imagine how transformative it would be to have projects that matched up people from all different departments in the school to create something!)

So, to the people coming out of a degree and wanting to do everything themselves, I think it’s a great way to stay average. If you want to do great things in this world, build relationships with people who have totally different skill sets and work with them.

5. Networking is vital

A great segue from the last point.

Networks matter. Networks and connections give you what you need in life.

Of course, this starts out with the ability to build a career and maybe get your first job. Most of the readers of Roostervane are thinking in this vein.

But, over the course of a lifetime, your network then becomes your ability to make shit happen.

  • Want to start a non-profit? It helps to have community partners to work with.
  • Want to start a business? It’s great to have some potential clients.
  • Want to get a higher-paying job? It’s nice to be able to flip a message to interested parties telling them you’re looking and getting job offers back.
  • Want your company to start a new product line? It’s nice to know some people in the field you can chat with about it.

Did you know all this stuff comes from networking?

Probably not, especially if you’ve recently been in higher ed.

You imagine networking as standing in a room talking to strangers and handing out business cards.

In reality, networking is just stepping into the sandbox of life. Everyone’s building their own stuff, but it doesn’t mean you don’t lend a shovel or borrow a bucket. You come together to build the turret of an enormous sandcastle, but then you go off and dig your own moat. But you work with others to build the world you want and help them build the world they want.

For more, check out my post on how to network like a CEO.

6. Leadership is decision making

“We build the leaders of the future.”

You’ll see something like this on the masthead of a lot of universities.

But I meet too many students who have crushed confidence from their education that takes years to recover.

To be honest, I’m not even sure if leadership is something you can learn in a class.

I think you’d be better learning leadership by stepping into the real world and getting tossed around a bit. If you are given a position with real responsibility, or if you try to start a business, you’ll learn leadership pretty quick.

A lot of grads do eventually grow leadership skills, but I’m not sure how many of them get them from school.

Too often, students are trained to sit and wait to be told what to do, usually with very clear instructions. This isn’t how the world works.

The world rewards decision-making.

One of the first and most important places to make decisions is about your career. Don’t just wait for it to happen to you.

  • Decide the type of work you want to do.
  • Decide the impact you want to have.
  • Decide how much money you’re worth.
  • Decide how you demand to be treated.

One great podcast that gives advice for growing leadership is the EntreLeadership podcast. And I’m pretty sure that Dave Ramsey was one of the first people I heard defining leadership as decision-making.

7. The world only cares about results

In Canada, it’s common to go to university for a four-year undergrad.

And it’s also common to go to a community college AFTER that four-year degree, to gain some sort of skill, experience, and placement that will actually be valuable in the real world.

When was the last time you created a project you could show an employer in university? When did you last create something that had the same title of something that people actually use in jobs?

My spouse is a graphic designer. She fell into this career after being a social worker and hating it.

As we do, her first instinct was to go to college for graphic design so she could start a business. But after some research, she realized that clients don’t care if you went to design school or not. They care if you’re good at making stuff.

And she worked as hard as she could to become amazing! (She also made the Roostervane logo.)

Education can do a lot in this world. But at some point, you’re going to need to learn to produce things and excel at them. This is why resumes are such a tricky thing for new grads.

Employers don’t care if you “did research.” But they do care of you “produced a high-impact report that was implemented by my program.”

The first of these is a task. The second is a result.

If your degree doesn’t include producing things that can demonstrate your skills in the marketplace, you might need to take it upon yourself to do it.

Education could do a better job of teaching these things. But you’re probably better off learning them yourself.

We tell kids to stay in school. I want to tell them to get the hell out. Run far. Work first. Travel in between. Find ways to get out of school, and only then will you be able to determine if you need it. 

I’m not against post-secondary education. Far from it.

But I do think, while we’re waiting for the school system to teach these 7 essential life lessons, we should teach them to ourselves.


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