I gave a talk this week to a group of graduating business school students at Edgewood College. They asked for real world advice. This is what I told them. Regardless of your career stage, I hope these insights are helpful!
There are two ways that college trains you to fail in the real world:
#1 College tells you what you need to know
Colleges and professors design your education and take charge of your learning. They give you a syllabus. They tell you what books to buy and which articles to read. They tell you what classes you need for your major. Everything is set out. And the result is that you become a passive learner. You expect other people to teach you and tell you what is important to know.
Just tell me what I need to know and spit back to you in order to get an A in the class
But passive learning like this will kill your career. You can’t rely on a boss, co-worker or mentor to teach you everything. Doing so will result in you being laid off or downsized or eaten by the software that is eating the world.
Successful people actively learn how the world around them works. And they exploit it to their advantage. They figure out their company’s business model and what makes it go. What skills they need to propel the company forward. Who are the gatekeepers blocking their way. Who has the power. What organizational currency they need to get ahead. Passive learners sit and wait for these lessons to be slowly (if ever) taught to them by someone.
Don’t be a passive learner. They are like animals in the zoo, sitting inside the false security of their organization, waiting for someone else to take charge of their day. Active learners are like animals in the wild; constantly learning and evolving and adapting to master the environment around them.
This may sound grim and depressing, but there is good news here too. It’s really easy to design your own syllabus for the real world.
There is a fire hose of information waiting out there for active learners
Give me 30 minutes on any subject, and I bet I can find information and resources that will start me on the path towards being an expert in that subject.
- TED Talks
- Online education (e.g., OneMonth.com)
- LinkedIN Groups
- Institutional Research & Journals
- Traditional & Digital Media
- Trade Publications
- eBooks (traditional and self-published)
The list goes on and on, and this doesn’t even touch on methods you can use to engage with the thought leaders on your subject (which I’ll explore in a different post).
I’ll give you one example of this in my own career as an Entrepreneur. I follow the blogs of incredibly smart people that teach me about Venture Capital, Marketing, Start-ups, User Design, and Silicon Valley thinking. I listen to the Exponent Podcast, which lets me sit at the same table with two incredibly smart people as they discuss technology, business models and society every week. I keep up to date on the latest startups launching via ProductHunt and TechCrunch. Heck, I can even watch every lecture in Sam Altman’s class at Stanford. Let me say that again: I can attend Stanford Business School for free. There is simply no excuse for not grabbing these amazing resources. Find these resources for the subjects and skills that you need to make your career take off.
Unfortunately, this active learning concept bumps right into the second way college trains you to fail.
#2 College Doesn’t Reward You for Being Exceptional At One Thing
Throughout your educational career you’ve been taught that the way to advance and get ahead is to strive for A-level work in every subject. Once you have an A in a subject that comes easily to you, you need to move on and focus on those two or three other classes in which you struggle. You focus on the stuff you aren’t that great at doing.
Consider the following image, in which the water in the bottle represents your brain power/aptitude in a subject and the glasses represent the different subjects you are taking. College incentivizes you and rewards you for spreading that water around to every glass; never pouring more into a glass than is needed to get an A.
But in the real world, I want at least one of those glasses to be overflowing; even if that means that a few of the other glasses are close to empty. I want to be exceptional at something.
The real world rewards people that have an exceptional skill or talent at one thing far more than people that are good at everything.
I hate sports analogies but I’ll use one here that works. Think about golf. How much money will you make shooting par golf (which earns you an A in college) versus shooting 10-under par? Lots. Money follows value and the best way to create value is to stand out as exceptional at something.
Find a skill or a subject that you love and have natural abilities in, and work really hard to be exceptional at it. This is your “secret sauce” that you’ll spend your career enhancing and leveraging to stay out of the zoo and at the top of your profession.
So there you have it. The two simple rules you need in order to unlearn what we subconsciously train you to do in college are:
- Don’t wait for someone to give you a syllabus on your career, instead be an active, lifelong learner.
- Pick a subject or skill in which you become exceptional, getting a far higher grade than just an A.
Do this, and you’ll likely be the one designing the software that is eating the world and collecting the capital that separates the have’s from the have not’s. And you certainly won’t have to worry about a robot replacing you anytime soon.
*Caveat: A college education is incredibly valuable. It teaches you life skills, provides you with a base of knowledge and your first network, and gives you membership in an important club.