At some point in our lives, most of us come to the realisation that school hasn’t really prepared us for the outside world. For some, that realisation comes while they’re still in school, leading to disengagement and alienation from the education system. For others, it comes when we’re sitting in our first salary negotiation, or at home, wondering why it’s so much harder to make new friends as an adult.
Our school system was designed during the Industrial Revolution, with the intention of giving kids the foundational skills they’ll need to go out and find a job and become productive workers for the economy. But increasingly that model is coming into question, as the world around us changes ever more rapidly and we seek meaning beyond our day jobs.
So what are the 10 things I wish I’d learned in school?
1. Social skills
Learning how to deal with people has been one of the biggest challenges, but definitely the most important skill I’ve learned since school. How to have a conversation with someone new, how to come across as likeable, how to influence others into your way of thinking, and how to deal with difficult people would all come under my banner of ‘social skills’.
Charisma is something that can be learned, like anything else. Anyone who’s read the book ‘how to win friends and influence people’ will know there are a huge number of little techniques, tips and tricks that make a world of difference. From the importance of maintaining eye contact while you’re talking, to body language and mannerisms, there’s a huge difference between what you can achieve in your personal and professional life when you know these little things and when you don’t.
2. Where to find good, reliable information
It’s pretty hard to overstate the impact the internet has had on our lives. We’ve gone from a world where learning something new meant hours at the library trawling through the encyclopaedia, to one in which we have every piece of information ever created by anyone anywhere in the world at our fingertips, instantly.
On top of that, the format of all this information has changed too. Podcasts, blogs, YouTube videos, TED Talks, apps, websites, forums and audiobooks have revolutionised the way we consume and interact.
We’ve gone from information scarcity to information overload real quick, and we need a completely different skillset to manage it. We need to know how to tell good information from bad information, to identify bias, and to find that nugget of gold amongst the mounds of dirt.
Digital literacy is a critical skillset in the digital age, yet schools are stuck asking students to summarise chapters from the textbook and write exam papers using paper and pen.
3. Healthy Routines & Habits
School is structure. There’s bells to tell you when to have lunch and when to sit down. There’s 10 weeks a term, 4 terms a year, assignments with due dates, teacher’s reminders, merit systems to reward you when you’re doing well, and scaled punishments for when you’re not.
Yet when you’re thrown into life you lose all that, and everything blurs into an endless cycle of work, home, work, weekend and repeat. We constantly feel like we’re not doing enough but overworked at the same time. We struggle to make time to see family, hang with friends, find a work/life balance and relax without feeling guilty about it.
The antidote is undoubtedly a strong routine. From waking up the same time everyday, to scheduling time out for ourselves, having a routine reduces decision fatigue, creates space for creativity and offloads a cognitive burden we’re so used to carrying around with us.
Specific routines and habits can really help us with specific challenges too. Journalling helps me emotionally process things and keep my challenges in perspective. Meditation helps me focus and manage the emotional rollercoaster of every day. Running when I get home from work keeps me fit, gives me a great endorphin rush and helps me switch off my work thoughts. Whatever your habits, having a schedule is a critical part of finding success in adult life, and I wish I’d known that earlier.
4. Relationships and dating
Finding a partner to share our life with is one of our greatest sources of joy, but something we rarely talk about in school. Obviously everyone is looking for something different in their romantic life, and I’m sure adults would totally disagree about what advice they wish they’d been given as kids, but that doesn’t mean the space to discuss the topic isn’t important.
I wish I’d learnt the different languages of love, the importance of communication, maintaining a sense of self, and of accepting other people’s flaws. Being given time to think about what I’m looking for in a relationship, to reflect on the influences of our ideas about love, and to discuss my ideas with others would have been incredibly valuable, and certainly would have saved me from a few painful lessons.
Getting your way in life is mostly about asking for it. From putting off cleaning your room for one more day as a kid to receiving a pay rise at work, getting your way is a skill we can learn and get better at.
And it’s a critical skill too. It doesn’t just mean more money in your pocket, but hundreds of little wins every week, that cumulatively make a big difference in life. Learning to understand other people’s perspectives, how you can help them achieve their own goals as well as yours, to put forward an argument without anger and to find win-win situations are things that come with practice, and I wish I’d been practicing in school.
Life’s tough. You’re going to face setbacks, and if you don’t, it usually means you’re not aiming high enough. As Michael Jordan said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed”.
Eventually, I learnt that the path to success is a long and meandering one, with plenty of steps backwards, and plenty more you think are forward but really aren’t. Sometimes you lose sense of which way ‘forward’ even is.
Resilience isn’t always getting back on that proverbial horse and achieving your big goals in life. Sometimes resilience is having an absolutely shit day at work but being able to wake up and do it again tomorrow with a smile on your face. Sometimes resilience is getting through a tough break up and still taking a chance on a date when the time comes around.
For me, Stoicism, practising self-kindness and meditation have helped me become more resilient. There are strategies, habits and practices we can put in place to be more resilient, and they’re something everyone should be taught.
7. The Science of Happiness
The ultimate answer most of us would give when asked “what do you want in life” is, quite simply, happiness. Yet we never really look at happiness directly. What is it? Where does it come from? What makes us happy? What doesn’t? Psychology has been overly focused on the opposite end of the spectrum - studying depression, anxiety, neurosis and psychosis, but recently there’s been a shift towards the study of positive psychology, and science can give us some answers.
We know that there’s a big difference between extrinsic and intrinsic goals when it comes to making us happier. Extrinsic goals are those that require validation from others, like wealth, fame and admiration, while intrinsic goals are those that we find satisfying in and of themselves, like learning an instrument, cooking or helping others. Intrinsic goals are positively correlated with our happiness, while extrinsic goals aren’t.
We also know that happiness is relational. People in poorer countries aren’t less happy than those in wealthier countries, despite their comparative lack of resources, education and healthcare. Equally, bronze medalists are happier than silver medalists. These surprising facts are simply because our happiness doesn’t come from our objective conditions, it comes from comparing what we have to what we expect to have. The silver medalists looks at the gold medalist and thinks ‘damn, that could have been me’, while the bronze medalist looks at the medal-less fourth-place getter and appreciates what they have even more.
8. Social Media and its antidotes
The relational nature of happiness is why social media has been shown to be depressing. We see the amazing things our friends are up to while we’re at home alone on a Friday night and we can’t help but feel down. But those amazing things other people are doing are curated, polished versions of reality, and we don’t get to see all of our other friends also sitting at home alone at all.
On top of that, social media is highly ephemeral. We look at each post for a few seconds, then scroll down to something else. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Reddit or something else, when it comes to our attention, we’re not paying attention to ‘Facebook’ for 20 minutes, we’re paying attention to this post for 10 seconds, and that post for 5 seconds, training our brain to constantly be looking for something new and we’re losing the ability to focus on anything for too long. It’s why I’m always told by people who loved reading as a kid they can’t focus long enough to get through a book anymore, and we constantly reach for our phone anytime we’re given a few moments to ourselves.
Just knowing that has helped me cut back my social media use. Disconnecting is easier said than done, but another thing that can help is mindfulness based meditation. Meditation grows our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for attention and willpower, helping improve our concentrating and retain focus for longer.
9. Choosing a job
Every school has a Careers Advisor, and while that’s an incredibly important resource, there’s a bigger world of work which we need to be introduced to during school. Meta questions like what factors make for a good job, what qualities are employers looking for in a candidate, what’s the difference between developing depth experience vs. breadth of knowledge, and how to know when it’s time to leave a job are all super important.
One of the best things I was taught after school was the importance of knowing your career narrative. About having a clear and well communicated description of why you’re looking for a new job, why you want this one in particular, and how it’s going to help your career in the future. Also the importance of having good anecodotes and stories to the common questions of ‘what are you good at?’, ‘when have you faced a challenge at work?’ and ‘what skills do you need to improve?’.
10. Managing your inside world
We all know rates of anxiety, depression and suicide are rising. We also know half of those who will develop mental health disorders show symptoms by the age of 14. We need to be starting a conversation about mental health with our students, discussing the common causes and early symptoms, how to recognise them in ourselves and in those around us, and what to do about it. Reducing the stigma around talking about mental illness is the first step to many people seeking the help they need, and schools can play a big part in that.
But beyond treatment and intervention, we need to be teaching young people prevention strategies too. Exercise, strong social support networks and good nutrition are important, while teaching specific strategies like cognitive behavioural therapy in schools has been shown to reduce anxiety in children.
What do you think? Any others you’d add to this list?