School: The Training Grounds for Something Other than Life?

What I really want is to be excellent at offering the commodity that I offer to other humans. I want to be excellent at it for my own sake (so that I can earn my keep) and for theirs (so that they can get the product they pay for and more). And if I can do it with a flourish of good will and inspiration, all the better.

I doubt I am an outlier in this aspiration. In fact, I know I’m not. I have many friends who want the same thing. And that’s why they went to school. And that’s why they excelled at school. It was a choice based on a hope that would later be compromised.

They did well in grade school, they did well in college, they did well in grad school, and now they want to go out and do well in their professions.

But that’s where the disconnect stands firmly at the gate, foreboding and mysterious.

Why? What is this disconnect? It is the simple fact that school, for all the ways in which it tries to prepare us for real life, is not like real life.

What you need in order to do well in real life is grit, hustle, creativity, adaptability, and individualized forgiveness (as opposed to universally-applied and identical “fairness” like the grading system). The current American system of education hinders some or all of these attributes for many.

In school, they hand you a syllabus and a schedule, a dot-to-dot that, if simply followed, will create the big picture of what you’re supposed to learn and do in that class (and if followed on time, an ‘A’ grade).

But in real life, there are no syllabi (syllabuses?). It’s the biggest secret that real-life professionals keep from the rest of the world: no one knows what they’re doing at first.

There is no comprehensive guideline for the practical application of profession. No map for the everyday nuances of starting a job in real life. And, if you’re like me and most of my professional colleagues, there is not even a good amount of training, supervision, mentoring, or even a worthy policy book to guide the way.

Dentists get out of school and hope they can find a “real” dentist to shadow for a few months. For all their education, they aren’t “real” dentists yet. Social studies majors graduate not knowing what they’re actually “qualified” to do now, so they flounder until they find an 8–5 desk job or go to more school. Lawyers go to a firm and get handed projects they don’t know how to practically complete, too afraid to ask questions, because lawschool was supposed to teach them this, right?

Every one of them is now faced with the realization that the hustle isn’t over. In fact, it just got harder because it is far less well-defined.

They’ve been trained to take a task and follow it to the T. They’ve been trained to look at a schedule and plan their timing accordingly. They’ve been trained to answer T/F questions, to fill in blanks and bubbles, to write papers on strictly-construed topics.

But now the rules are gone. There is no safety net. No professor with a rubric. There is only them and a boss and guesswork. The professionals forgot to write a syllabus.

What school forgot to teach professionals is either how to run a company like a classroom or how to run an education like a company (or maybe a little of both).

We used to be a society that valued apprenticeships over attendance, grit over grades, experience over education. We were teaching our amateurs by letting them watch and model after the masters. And in many ways it was good for business and good for the individual. Now, we weren’t completely right. There was value in allowing a person some time specifically dedicated just to thinking and exploring and learning without the need to start a career or do anything directly affecting business. There was value in dedicating time to education alone. But somewhere along the way, we let the pendulum swing too far.

We’ve done so many dot-to-dots that we’ve forgotten how to draw.

When people hear that I didn’t graduate from high school (and never intended to), they are aghast. Invariably, their next question is “But then how did you go to college and law school???” They really believed it when all the authority figures told them they couldn’t go to college without first successfully completing 13 years of formal schooling. They really believed it when they were told they had to walk in the front door, exactly in order, procession style, with grades in hand.

They know how to follow rules and directions, but they don’t know how to strategize, innovate, or find the back way in. The equation was simple, but it wasn’t in the textbook, so they never learned it.

Students are lacking examples of creativity, lacking opportunities to practice adaptation, lacking freedom to innovate. And so they go into a profession, and they see no other way of advancing other than by dedicating their hours and hours of time to work their way up a grueling ladder of ill-defined steps toward some ill-defined light they see up ahead. They are cogs in a machine hoping to one day run the machine. They never thought about making their own machine. They never knew such a thing was possible.

And they never knew it was possible, because the ones running the machine didn’t know that either. They never learned the art of climbing mountains, just the art of climbing ladders.

For some reason, the ones who make it to the top, the professionals who go on to lead or start companies (dentists, psychologists, lawyers, etc.) are too often lacking in the ability to think big. They rarely even define their business and mentor their employees with purpose. They worked their way there without really knowing anything except how to follow orders, so now they just give orders and hope their employees figure it out like they did.

Now, I’m not necessarily talking about the natural entrepreneurs and innovators: the Adobe managers, the Costco CEO’s, the Google training teams, or even the rare, education-based professionals who own companies and have figured it out.

I’m talking about all the other ones who are granted a pass into owning a company because they have a monopoly on the subject-matter and simply stuck with the company long enough to buy it out or work their way into management. The ones who made it to the top, but who are actually terrible hikers who never stopped along the way to enjoy the scenery or study the wildlife. Who don’t really care about the mountain or the view.

School never taught them this. It never taught them empathy, how to put themselves into the shoes of a beginner (or even how to remember how they themselves once felt to be in those shoes). It never taught them how to create training provisions, divisions of labor, support systems, team encouragement, creative environments, natural and positive incentives. They survive as “leaders” because they have employees who refuse to give up after putting in so much work for the educations that got them to this place (just like they once refused to give up for the same reasons).

But they survive amidst a damaging wave of stress, bureaucracy, gossip, inter-office competition, and hurt egos. None of which is necessary to run a business.

Lately, I’ve noticed a new wave sweeping over employment. And it’s time to apply it to professions.

It’s a wave of creativity and innovation most often applied to tech companies, product manufacturers, and retailers. It’s a wave that lifts the individual. And it’s a wave that lifts the business.

The wave is these companies that dedicate extra time to hiring and training, that create a hiring and training environment ripe for honesty and vulnerability (there really are no dumb questions). These companies talk to their potential and hired employees on a more personal level, understanding their strengths and weaknesses. They get to know them. They have open-door policies for innovative thinking. They have open offices, creative walls, on-site amenities. They realize that families (significant others, children, even parents) are an integral part of their employees’ lives and happiness (and therefore efficiency) and not a disability. They realize that there are other ways of accomplishing things. They find the back door. They re-invent the machine. They leave the ladder and climb the mountain.

Too often we underestimate the returns we can get when employees work at high capacity, because they feel competent and appreciated. We think that taking time to train appropriately is taking time away from work. We’d rather throw them into the deep end than take a year to teach them how to swim. But we forget that the former causes trauma while the latter creates confidence. And what is our ROI from trauma? Is it worth it? And what about the ROI from confident employees? Isn’t it worth it?

Too often we underestimate the returns we can get when employees work less and play more.

A company in California recently required their (well-trained) employees to take an extra day off every week. They changed the 5-day work week to a 4-day workweek. And they didn’t add any hours to the 4 remaining days. The kicker? Get this: they had to promise to do something creative, adventurous, new, or challenging on that fifth day. The result? Get this: no decrease in product output or bottom line for the company, happier employees, better people, better families, better everything.

This is what we need. More of this. More thinking outside the box. More people walking in the back door. More people turning the dot-to-dot over and drawing on the backside. More people inventing. More people climbing. More waves lifting.

We’re getting it in some industries. And now we need it in the professions. Maybe a good place to start is by implementing it where the professionals excel: school.

Where is the back door to school? You can do what I did and attend part time, leaving the rest of the time open to whatever creative tasks your heart desires. But that’s not a practical option for most. So what can we do? I don’t have a great answer, but I do have some questions to get the thinking started:

Isn’t there room for more personal projects? Isn’t there room for more free time? Isn’t there room for less emphasis on grades and grading systems? Where are the classes on EQ? Where is the age-mixing? Where are the classes on interpersonal relationships and money management and taxes and household maintenance and philosophy and art and music and adaptability and innovation? Where are the classes for the self-learners, the book-learners, the do-learners? Isn’t there room for this? Ask Finland. They excel at school in many traditional ways, but they dedicate less time to structured schooling than we do and much more time to open and creative schooling. They don’t even have homework.

Homework. Chew on it for a second.

We are taught from day one that our work doesn’t end when we get home. No wonder we all take our work home with us every day. No wonder we lose ourselves in the machine. No wonder our loftiest goals reach only so far as the top of the ladder or the on/off switch.

It’s time to get off the conveyor belt, step down the ladder, turn the paper over: draw, paint, sing, dream (sleep!), imagine; walk through the backdoor, climb up the mountain, and create a new machine.