Life Skills I Wish I Had Learned in School

We all know that, in many parts of the United States, the education system is completely borked. In many cases, school systems are being pushed to teach kids through rote learning, and not teaching them how to learn or how to think critically.

Recently, as I’ve fully launched my own business, I’ve come to realize there were some things that I wish I had learned in school. Some of these items are skills that probably weren’t as necessary15-25 years ago as I was moving through our public education system. All of them, though, are essential to success in today’s world.

How to organize information

I was quite inspired by this interesting letter from the Unquiet Librarian to President Obama. It’s quite long, but here’s a passage that stuck out to me:

First, the real problem here is not information itself or the devices in which people access it, but instead, the core issue is the fact that too many people lack essential information evaluation skills that are relevant for today’s information landscape.   Secondly, information and the gadgets are like anything else—people have the free will and choice to use them in a positive manner or a less than positive way.

It’s no secret that all of us are inundated with information at unprecedented levels. It’s easy to be constantly distracted and we need to find ways to keep ourselves focused. Yet even when we’re focused on a task, that task itself can easily require paying attention to a wide range of information (this is especially true if you work in a job that require online research).

When I was learning how to do research, I learned to keep everything on note cards. I learned to “tag” them (to use a more contemporary phrase). Today, we have social bookmarking sites that help us do this (Evernote is a popular one). That said, there are times when sorting through massive amounts of information can be cumbersome and overwhelming, even if you’re using an online system to help organize. And properly tagging information can be a challenge at times. I would have loved to have learned a more efficient system for organizing information in my own head, not just online (which didn’t really exist back then anyway).

How to build social capital and network

If you’re in business, then you know what the value is of networking. This is a topic that never came up in any of my classes–either in high school or college. Yet, it’s an essential life skill for those who want to get ahead. High school was all about the social hierarchy, where you fit in (or didn’t, as was my case). It would have been great to have a class that taught us how to build coalitions, how to give back to your community, how to meet new people and identify ways that you might be able to work together. Sure, I picked this skill up along the way (and I’m still trying to hone it), but it wasn’t until I joined the workforce that I realized the importance of networking.

How to plan a project

This is something I didn’t really learn until college and grad school. In high school and earlier, very little attention was ever paid to planning. Sure we had projects (science fair, anyone?) but very little instruction was ever given about how to carry out the assignment. Either you had a parent who could help you, or you had to figure it out on your own. Just imagine the improvements we might see in the world if students were given more of meta-instruction on how to conceive of a project, plan it out, and implement it, rather than given a somewhat obscure assignment and left alone to figure it out.

How to ask for help

Honestly, this is something I still struggle with today. I am a fiercely independent person who thinks I can do everything. For students, help is often requested too late, usually when the student is struggling. Additionally, it can sometimes be seen as a sign of weakness when a person asks for help. I see this enough with my own children, which is why we’re always offering to help them with their homework (but not in a way that allows them to depend on us to get it done).

I should point out that these skills are not always learnable in the classroom, and many students pick them up in extra-curricular activities and other social settings. I’ll admit, I wasn’t very active in high school clubs and such (though I was an editor of the school’s literary magazine). Because I was working almost every day since I was 14 (I grew up an only child in a single-parent family), I had little inclination to commit to other activities. At least from that experience I grew a strong work ethic (something else that’s often overlooked in contemporary education)!


  1. Kate

    Daniel – Great post. I wish that I had taken accounting in high school. Even without starting my own business, I can’t believe how much finance has become a part of my day-to-day work responsibilities. It’s something that I never expected. – K

    1. Daniel

      I have to honestly say that I wasn’t interested in anything business-related when I was in high school. I’m sure there were business classes offered, but I had no interest in them. In fact, it wasn’t until after college that I realized what I wanted to do for a career. I just wish someone had said to me, “Daniel, you really need to learn how to [insert life skill here], no matter what you want to do.” Of course, I was also saw myself at the time as a rebel, so chances are I wouldn’t have listened.

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