What I wished I learned in school

12 Jul

It seems to me that schools often teach the opposite of what’s necessary for the real world. Perhaps in school people have plenty of time and no money, so long papers, emails, and presentations are not a problem. However, people in the real world have plenty of money (or at least more money) and no time. This is a list of what I wished I learned in school before I graduated.

  1. How to talk to your boss. In college, you’re supposed to bring problems to your teachers during office hours, and you share the experience of coming up with a solution. In the real world, you’re supposed to bring solutions to your boss in an email, in the hall, or in a five-minute conversation. Typically, your boss either already knows about the problem or doesn’t want to know about it. Your role is to provide answers, not questions. Believe it or not, but in the real world, those who can do, do. Those who can’t do, share with others who can’t do.
  2. How to survive a meeting that’s poorly run. Unfortunately, it could be a while before you run meetings. Until then, you’ll be a hapless victim of them, so adopt these three practices to survive. First, assume that most of what you’ll hear is pure, petty, ass-covering bull shiitake, and it’s part of the game. This will prevent you from going crazy. Second, focus on what you want to accomplish in the meeting and ignore everything else. Once you get what you want, take yourself “out of your body,” sit back, and enjoy the show. Third, vow to yourself that someday you’ll start a company, and your meetings won’t work like this.
  3. How to run a meeting. Hopefully, you’ll be running meetings soon. Then you need to understand that the primary purpose of a business meeting is to make a decision. It is not to share experiences or feel warm and fuzzy. With that in mind, here are five key points to learn about running a meeting: (1) Start on time even if everyone isn’t there because they will be next time; (2) Invite the fewest people possible to the meeting; (3) Set an agenda for exactly what’s going to happen at the meeting; (4) End on time so that everyone focuses on the pertinent issues; (5) Send an email to all participants that confirms decisions reviews action items. There are more power tips for running good meetings, but if you do these five, you’re ahead of 90% of the world.
  4. How to figure out anything on your own. Armed with Google, PDFs of manuals, and self-reliance, force yourself to learn how to figure out just about anything on your own. There are no office hours, no teaching assistants, and study groups in the real world. Actually, the real world is one long, often lonely independent study, so get with it. Here’s a question to test your research prowess. How do you update the calendar in a Motorola Q phone with appointments stored in Now-Up-To-Date? (I’ll send a copy of The Art of the Start to the first person with a good answer.)
  5. How to negotiate. Don’t believe what you see in reality television shows about negotiation and teamwork. They’re all bull shiitake. The only method that works in the real world involves five steps: (1) Prepare for the negotiation by knowing your facts; (2) Figure out what you really want; (3) Figure out what you don’t care about; (4) Figure out what the other party really wants (per Kai); and (5) Create a win-win outcome to ensure that everyone is happy. You’ll be a negotiating maven if you do this.
  6. How to have a conversation. Generally, “Whassup?” doesn’t work in the real world. Generally, “What do you do?” unleashes a response that leads to a good conversation (hence the recommendation below). Generally, if you listen more than you talk, you will (ironically) be considered not only a good conversationalist but also smart. Yes, life is mysterious sometimes.
  7. How to explain something in thirty seconds. Unfortunately, many schools don’t have elevators or else students would know how to explain things in a thirty-second elevator pitch. Think mantra (three words), not mission statements (sixty words). Think time, not money, is the most important commodity. Think ahead, not on your feet. At the end of your thirty-second spiel, there should be an obvious answer to the question, “ So what?” If you can’t explain enough in thirty seconds to incite interest, you’re going to have a long, boring career.
  8. How to write a one-page report. I remember struggling to meet the minimum page requirements of reports in college. Double spacing and 14 point Selectric typewriter balls saved me. Then I went out into the real world, and encountered bosses who wanted a one-page report. What the heck??? The best reports in the real world are one page or less. (The same thing is true of resumes, but that’s another, more controversial topic for unemployed people who want to list all the .Net classes that they took.)
  9. How to write a five-sentence email. Young people have an advantage over older people in this area because older people (like me) were taught to write letters that were printed on paper, signed, stuck in an envelope, and mailed. Writing a short email was a new experience for them. Young people, by contrast are used to IMing and chatting. If anything, they’re too skilled on brevity, but it’s easier to teach someone how to write a long message than a short one. Whether UR young or old, the point is that the optimal length of an email message is five sentences. All you should do is explain who you are, what you want, why you should get it, and when you need it by.
  10. How to get along with co-workers. Success in school is mostly determined by individual accomplishments: grades, test scores, projects, whatever. Few activities are group efforts. Then you go out in the real world the higher you rise in an organization, the less important your individual accomplishments are. What becomes more and more important is the ability to work with/through/besides and sometimes around others. The most important lesson to learn: Share the credit with others because a rising tide floats all boats.What about freeloaders? (Those scum of the earth that don’t do anything for the group.) In school you can let them know how you truly feel. You can’t in the real world because bozos have a way of rising to the top of many organizations, and bozos seek revenge. The best solution is to bite your tongue, tolerate them, and try to never have them on the team again, but there’s little upside in criticizing them.
  11. How to use PowerPoint. I’ve seen the PowerPoint slides of professors—it’s no wonder that most people can’t use PowerPoint to sell hybrid cars when gas is $10/gallon. Maybe professors are thinking: “This is a one-hour class, I can cover one slide per minute, so I need sixty slides. Oh, and I’ve written all this text already in my textbook, so I’ll just copy and paste my twelve-point manuscript into the presentation.” Perhaps the tenure system causes this kind of problem. In the real world, this is no tenure so you need to limit yourself to ten slides, twenty minutes, and a thirty-point font—assuming that you want to get what you want.
  12. How to leave a voicemail. Very few people of any age leave good voicemails. The purpose of a voicemail is to make progress towards along a continuum whose end is getting what you want. A long voicemail isn’t going to zip you along to the end point of this decision. A good model is to think of a voicemail as an oral version of a compelling five-sentence email; the optimal length of a voicemail is fifteen seconds.Two power tips: First, slowly say your telephone number once at the beginning of your message and again at the end. You don’t want to make people playback your message to get your phone number, and if either of you are using Cingular, you may not hear all the digits. Second (and this applies to email too), always make progress. Never leave a voicemail or send an email that says, “Call me back, and I’ll tell you what time we can meet.” Just say, “Tuesday, 10:00 am, at your office.”

One last thing: the purpose of going to school is not to prepare for working but to prepare for living. Working is a part of living, and it requires these kinds of skills no matter what career you pursue. However, there is much more to life than work, so study what you love.

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