The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

10 Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Some subjects are worth mastering in order to succeed as adults.

After leading IBM for six decades Thomas Watson Jr. was asked what lessons he had learned from making bad decisions. “Good judgment,” he said, “comes from experience. And experience comes from bad judgment.”

His adage illustrates the rule that error is a powerful teacher. The human brain learns best by monitoring its mistakes and trying not to repeat them.

But what if one never learned certain lessons to begin with? Then everyday life can be a source of great stress.

Alyssa Rosenberg at The Washington Post and Rebecca Traister at The New Republic both recently wrote howMillennials, especially grads of recent vintage, felt blindsided by the practicalities they faced as they trekked to become self–sufficient adults. Suddenly, budgeting, the legalese of rental agreements, time management, conflict resolution, negotiations of all kinds, even stopped–up drains required more resources than they had imagined. Or were prepared for.

Here, then, are the top ten life lessons that young people say they had to grapple with, and for which they wish they had been better prepared:

1. Budgeting: Adult life has costs you hadn’t anticipated when apartment hunting or feeling flush from your first paycheck. Food costs become astronomical if you don’t know how to cook. Phone, cable, and Internet bills introduce you to sticker shock.

2. Finance: Saving 20% of your income is crucial to your future security. It takes discipline as well as a stomach for delayed gratification. Some are lucky to have employers who offer retirement opportunities, but these complicated choices are only the beginning of financial literacy. Credit scores, credit card rates, mortgages, and banking agreements pose further challenges. Harold Pollack’s famous index card sets down simple rules that everyone should follow for financial security.

3. How to read documents and assert your rights: bureaucratic language can be harder to read than legal documents. Never sign anything you don’t understand. Take time to read it. Don’t let your fear of looking ignorant keep you from seeking help. Resist pressure: signing documents is never an emergency.

4. Stress management: Many people wish they’d been taught ways to manage the inevitable strains of adult life in both work and personal realms. Jobs don’t grant leeway for setbacks, late assignments, or personal drama. The marketplace can be merciless. You have to tech yourself resilience.

5. Time management: Work will structure your time much more than you’ve been used to. You need to determine how much sleep you need; what level of socializing, gym time, and alone time will keep you charged and sane. Unexpected illness, family obligations, and relationships all will require apportioning your time.

6. Housekeeping: Domestic economics is a basic skill, as are cooking and meal planning for the week. A large portion of your budget will be eaten up unless you learn how to feed yourself economically. Home economics courses are a bygone relic, but there are countless resources that can still teach you this.

7. Negotiations: You can ask for anything so long as you know how to ask. This is a learnable skill like diplomacy or learning how to operate a new smartphone. You will have to negotiate salaries, the final price of that new car, work responsibilities, the number of vacation days you get.Life is endless negotiation.

8. Career planning: The best careers have an arc that is planned rather than haphazard. Shaping its trajectory is hard if you haven’t been coached or reflected on what satisfies you, what you can tolerate, and where you want to end up. Planning demands a capacity for anticipation. This is another learnable skill.

9. Basic repair: You will spare yourself anxiety and unnecessary expense if you know how to sew on a button, unclog a drain, iron a shirt, check your oil, fix a running toilet, and perform common maintenance tasks. Things break. Owning stuff eventually involves maintenance. It saves you grief when you are prepared.

10. How to indulge: While not a basic necessity, knowing how to indulge luxuries such as vacations, special dinners, or entertainment requires you to figure out not only the cost of treats but also what your comfort level is, what you can make do with and what you cannot get by without. Indulging is a way to know oneself. Managing indulgences are a great way to learn what your limits are.

While these lessons were the most common ones that recent grads regretted not knowing, they are lessons that anyone can master at any stage of life.

E-mail neuroman@gwu.edu to reveive my newsletter.  Follow me @Cytowic, on Google+, Facebook, visit Cytowic.net, or read my reviews at The New York Journal of Books

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

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