What They Don’t Teach in College

Seven relevant life skills most people learn too late

Posted Sep 27, 2013

In far too many classes that I have taught over the last 5 years, I have heard the refrain from students, “This is the first time we are learning this.” Or, even more disturbing, “I wish I had learned this earlier in my college career.”

I’m not a teacher by training or official schooling. I’m an educator, certainly, but I’ve learned most of what I know from the school of hard knocks. Yes, I am blessed to have obtained an MBA—but the actionable, and repeatable, ideas I have gained over time have come from making mistakes and trying to figure out how to fix them. I’ve had only a couple of mentors throughout my career, and more often than not, I have been in situations where I was trying to figure out answers to questions that seemed impossible.

What are some of the life lessons I would teach every college student—and career professional—if I had the chance? Here are seven of the most important lessons I fervently wish everyone could have the chance to learn:

  1. It’s a waste of time and energy to find the person, people or organization to “blame” for your troubles. There are so many things in life that aren’t fair; I teach my kids it is the one four-letter word I never want to hear them utter. Why? Because you can’t right all of the wrongs, and you won’t ever be at peace if you are looking for fair. Does that mean you don’t try to change things or fix yourself? Of course not! But, more importantly, focus on those things you can control and you can influence. Spend minimal time on those things that are completely out of your control. Instead of blaming and finger-pointing, figure out what you can do to make a difference.
  2. Communication isn’t natural and doesn’t come easy to most people. Yes, we learn to talk at an early age and talking, as well as walking, is a natural function for most people. But talking and communicating are two different things. Communication takes focus and energy. It takes a sincere interest in the other person or people. It requires active and reflective listening. In other words, you need to actually care about others if you ever really want to communicate effectively.
  3. Learn how to solve your own problems. Stuck in a rut? Many people are, at some point in their life. Not sure what to do next or how to get somewhere? It’s a common occurrence. The question is whether you spend your time lamenting how stuck you are, or you devote your attention to finding a new, creative way out of your problem. Problem-solving skills are a scarcity in most businesses. Be a problem-solver, not a problem-maker.
  4. Become curious—about yourself, about other people and about the world around you. Don’t take things at face value or believe everything you hear. Ask “why?” as often as a three-year-old. Be interested in what’s underneath any information you hear, or learn. Where is it coming from? Why is it being passed along? What’s the background or intention? This is different from being paranoid—instead, it’s taking a sincere interest in learning. Life is a schoolhouse for those who want to learn and explore.
  5. Never stop networking or making connections. For many people the world is small; it’s their family or the place of work they visit each day. There is a world of people out there to connect with, to learn from and to engage with. You don’t have to become a social butterfly, flitting from one event to another, but it’s important to have connections and contacts. Keep in touch with people. Be interested in their lives and share information about yours. You never know when you will need a friend or colleague to help you somewhere along the way.
  6. Share your talents. Everyone has a gift to offer. It’s a waste to keep your gifts hidden from the world. Find out what you are good at, or the talent you can share, and actively seek places to share those gifts.
  7. Give up being a naysayer. There are plenty of people who can tell you why something won’t work, why it isn’t possible and how negative to be. There are numerous newspapers and websites to tell you how dire circumstances are, and to encourage you to just give up. Instead, refuse to believe the naysayers and don’t participate in their game. Find the positive in every day. Simply being able to walk, talk and breathe is a gift. Be a glass-half-full kind of person even when circumstances seem to tell you otherwise.

The most learned person can only gain so much from reading books, from laboratory testing and from sitting in class. Real learning comes from experiencing the world and seeing your place in it. Try and apply any one of these seven tips to forward your life and career.