5 LESSONS I LEARNED IN SCHOOL AND NOW WANT TO FORGET from Steven Handel
1. Grades are more important than knowledge.
This is one of the most common critiques I see regarding schools, and rightfully so. There is a world of difference between knowing how to regurgitate facts on a multiple choice or “fill-in-the-blank” test compared to actually understanding the material you are learning. In school, we are taught that an “A” is the highest level of achievement. And so long as you know how to memorize the right things and take a test, then you are presumably “intelligent.”
Why it doesn’t work: When we teach our students how to be more focused on grades, rather than the love for knowledge, we set ourselves up for an intellectually lazy generation. One that is content on mediocrity and “getting by,” rather than developing a true sense of wonder and curiosity.
2. The key to success is obedience and conformity.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I was a very good student on paper. Teaches usually liked me because I didn’t cause a ruckus, I didn’t question what they said, and I was very obedient and complacent to what they demanded from me. Even when we were told to write persuasive essays, I usually argued in favor of something that I knew the teacher would approve of (even though in my head I wanted to rebel against these social norms). My few experiences trying to deviate from what was expected usually back-fired on my report cards. I remember one time writing an essay about why video games were good for children, I remember my grade being significantly deflated compared to the times where I argued in accordance to my teacher’s values.
These troubles were especially prevalent throughout my history classes (which were by far my least favorite subjects). As a social science, you cannot teach history without presenting the information from some kind of point-of-view. The best history teachers are the one’s who try to cover issues from a variety of different perspectives, but often times your history teacher is personally biased to present information in a certain way. Critical thinking often becomes diminished for the sake of being a “good student.” To add to the fire, these classes are usually our first taste of politics, so we become molded into a certain way of thinking before ever having the ability to form our own beliefs.
Why it doesn’t work: Often we aren’t just learning English or history – we are implicitly being taught how to conform to the teacher’s worldview, beliefs, values, and personal philosophy. Parents may think they are sending students to school to learn fundamental and universal skills, but often children walk out with a cleverly molded view of reality. (This of course is also true in parenting and other early experiences throughout a child’s life, but the point still stands strong, and schooling is one of the biggest culprits).
3. Procrastinate ’till the last minute and you’ll be OK.
So many people I know bullshitted their way through school. They learned all the tricks on how to perform well on homework and tests without ever really putting in any planning or effort. For example, in English class, I used spark notes the night before I had to write an essay way more than I ever read the books we were supposed to read. And grade-wise, I did just fine. For most tests, I could usually cram some memorization in the night of and pass with flying colors. By the time the test was over, I forgot everything I “learned,” and got prepared to bullshit for the next chapter.
Maybe I was smart, maybe the classes were just too easy. That’s one problem you’re going to have when you try to standardize the curriculum to fit hundreds of individual’s varying needs. For me? I rarely felt challenged. I left school thinking I could cut-corners everywhere (and I still face the consequences of this mindset today).
Why it doesn’t work: Now that I’m in the real world, I know that the success I want to accomplish is going to take deliberate planning and hard work. I never learned these lessons in school – I’m trying to learn them now.
4. Your individual interests are largely irrelevant.
In this great interview, John Taylor Gatto describes the origins of our current school system. He claims today’s system is largely modeled after the Prussian educational system in the mid-1800s. In the U.S., the Prussian system was advocated and financed by industrial power giants like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and JP Morgan. They viewed individuals in a population as essentially cogs in a wheel; individuals were described as “raw materials” that needed to be “processed” in order to fit the demands of the current economy.
Instead of supporting students to pursue their individual talents and skills, their potential was largely ignored or thwarted, and instead the demands of society as a “whole” (mainly decided on by a select few social engineers – industrialists and politicians) became of primary importance. In essence, the education system was designed to manipulate and control populations on a massive scale. I would argue much of this still holds true today.
Why it doesn’t work: At the very least, the current education system diminishes our potential to evolve and grow, both as individuals and as a society. As individuals – our talents, skills, interests and values are placed as secondary importance. As a society – we lose out on a lot of creative and innovative thinking that could otherwise improve social progress. See this classic TED lecture by Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity.
5. Social hierarchies are rigid and hard to break.
One aspect of education that isn’t exactly related to class work is the social hierarchy that is often reinforced behind school walls. Of course, every child has certain social inclinations. Some may prefer large groups of peers, while others may prefer to hang out with smaller groups. The problem with schools is that there isn’t much breathing room to accommodate different student’s social preferences. Most students are usually mandated to be in a classroom with 25-30 students everyday of the week for 6-7 hours (this is usually the standard in both private and public schools).
As a result, introverted individuals, who may need extra time away from people to “recharge their social batteries” won’t get that accommodation met. Instead they will be uncomfortably placed in social settings that in-fact inhibit their social development and make them incredibly nervous and anxious.
School doesn’t directly teach us how to be social or manage our relationships, it just sort of throws us into a social cage and whatever haphazardly develops out of it is what we get. Often for males, aggressive jocks and alpha males rise to the top, while passive nerds and geeks get bulldozed over. And for females, looks and gossip are of primary importance if you want to fit in. Of course these are cliches, but it touches on a general tendency that develops and becomes reinforced throughout many school hierarchies. In return, many students graduate with a warped view of others.
Why it doesn’t work: Schools are a very confining place for social interactions to develop in a healthy manner. They are rarely a good environment to foster compassion and empathy toward others.
25 Lessons Learned from Steve Jobs
Jobs has paved a powerful path of innovation, excellence, passion, and prosperity and has modeled a way of leadership that’s all his own. Here are some of the key lessons we learn from his journey:
- Beginners don’t have baggage. The lightness of a beginner frees up creativity. Steve says, “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”
- Be bold. Life’s brief, then you’re gone. Steve says, “Life is brief, and then you die, you know?”
- Be what’s next. Don’t chase after what you missed. Instead, figure out what the next big thing. Steve says, “If I were running Apple, I would milk the Macintosh for all it’s worth — and get busy on the next great thing. The PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago.”
- Design by committee doesn’t work. You can’t arbitrate your way into a great design. Take it from Jobs, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
- Design is more than veneer. Design is a multi-layered thing. It’s a lot more than just veneer. Steve says, “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”
- Don’t live someone else’s life. Live YOUR life. Steve says, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
- Drive to do great things. It’s your ambition, passion, and drive that will take you places you never dreamed possible. Don’t worry about impressing others. Impress yourself.
- Excellence is a way of life Steve finds the art in life and the beauty in engineering. He sets a higher bar. Steve says, “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” Jobs also says, “We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life.”
- Get out of the way for the moving force. The ones doing the work are the moving force. Steve says, “The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay.”
- If they fall in love with the company, everything else takes care of itself. The real secret to taking care of the company is hiring people that fall in love with the company. Steve says, “When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else.”
- It better be worth it. If you’re going to put your life force into it, then the journey has to be worth it. Steve says, “And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it.”
- It’s not the money. It’s the impact. Make people’s lives better. Leave the world a better place. Steve says, “I was worth over $1,000,000 when I was 23, and over $10,000,000 when I was 24, and over $100,000,000 when I was 25, and it wasn’t that important because I never did it for the money.” Jobs also says, “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.”
- It’s the crazy ones who change the world. Think differently. Don’t be afraid to be different. It’s the crazy ones who change the world. The crazy ones change the world. The ones who think they are crazy enough to change the world, are the ones who do it. It’ not crazy, it’s genius.
- Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower. You don’t buy your way through innovation. Innovation is a by-product of leading great people. Steve says, “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”
- Make people great. It’s tough love. Steve says, “My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them better.”
- Perseverance pays off. Steve says, “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
- Put your heart and soul into it. Don’t just go through the motions. If it’s really worth doing, then it’s worth doing really well. Steve says, “I think the key thing is that we’re not all terrified at the same time. I mean, we do put our heart and soul into these things.”
- Pick your priorities carefully. So no to the hundred other good ideas. Steve says, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”
- Simplicity wins. It’s about power and simplicity. Steve says, ““We’ve gone through the operating system and looked at everything and asked how can we simplify this and make it more powerful at the same time.”
- Talent is a huge multiplier. In the book, The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership for a New Generation , Jay Elliot and William Simon write that Steve Jobs would say, “great engineers are a huge multiplier.” They also write that a lesson they learned from Steve is, “One of the greatest things about finding good people is that they become your best recruiters. They are the people most likely to know others who have the same values and sense of style that you and they themselves do.”
- Take responsibility for the complete user experience. Don’t take a piecemeal approach to user experience. It’s not about a bunch of beautiful parts …it’s about the end-to-end experience. Steve says, “Our DNA is as a consumer company – for that individual customer who’s voting thumbs up or thumbs down. That’s who we think about. And we think that our job is to take responsibility for the complete user experience. And if it’s not up to par, it’s our fault, plain and simply.”
- What you don’t do defines you as much as what you do. Steve says, “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.” In the article, “Think Different”: The Ad Campaign that Restored Apple’s Reputation, Tom Hormby writes, “Amelio had reduced 350 projects to 50, and Jobs cut that number down to 10. He turned Apple’s convoluted (and often overlapping) product line into a simple product matrix.”
- You have nothing to lose. Follow your heart. Avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. Steve says, “Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
- You just might be right, even if nobody listens to you. Just because nobody listens to you doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Steve says, “You know, I’ve got a plan that could rescue Apple. I can’t say any more than that it’s the perfect product and the perfect strategy for Apple. But nobody there will listen to me.”
- Your brand is your most valuable asset. It’s what you stand for. It’s the attributes that people think of or feel when they think of you. It’s the perception and the aura. Steve says, “Our brand is the most – or at least one of the most – valuable things we have going for us now.”