What I Wish I Had Learned At School

a man reading a book on big book next to green tree with cloud on light green background

Does success at school translate into success at life? I write as little people are (finally!) back to school and everyone else back to the full throttle of metro-boulot-dodo. I’m also trying to work out how many times in the past thirty years I have used a simultaneous equation? Yes, my point exactly. Instead, I’m wondering how useful would it have been to learn – and in no particular order – how to negotiate a pay-rise; how not to get gazumped; the truth about childbirth or the best way to navigate the work place which, let’s face it, is where most of us will be spending a very very long time.

The School of Life dictionary (genius if you haven’t come across it) makes the very sage observation that given how long we spend at school, it is bewildering and deeply counter-intuitive how often success at school does not automatically translate into success in life. The root of the problem, it concludes, is that school curricula are not reverse-engineered from fulfilled adult lives in the here and know. That is, schools don’t ask what skills and knowledge will actually serve us in adulthood and devote themselves to nurturing star pupils in those areas.

Instead, schools are typically fixated on several unhelpful ideas that include: you have to learn what is known already, rather than develop the capacity to solve problems to which no handy solution yet exists; that it is the intellect that needs to be trained, whereas it is the quality of our emotional intelligence that will make the biggest difference in our professional and personal relationships.

Schools, it explains, teach us to redeploy rather than originate ideas; to seek permission; to meet rather than change expectations. Schools teach us anything OTHER than the two skills that really determine the quality of adult life: knowing how to choose the right job, and knowing how to form satisfactory relationships.

It isn’t, it asserts, the case that all we need to do to succeed at school is to flunk school. It’s a far more complex juggling act than that: “A good life requires us to do two very tricky things: be an extremely good student for twenty years, and simultaneously never really to believe in the long term validity or seriousness of what we’re being asked to study. We need to be outwardly entirely obediently while inwardly intelligent and committedly rebellious.”

What do I wish I’d learned? That A-levels on Emotional Intelligence had been a compulsory part of my education. I could have saved myself a lot of time, angst and grief: the endless procrastination or worrying what someone else thinks or why someone hadn’t replied to an email. Or else a helpful prod that we are all very very different indeed.

It’s the single most useful thing that will help you to thrive in life and the work place and so much more important than any career service at school or university will ever impress on you. Certainly it will help you manipulate a meeting or an encounter to your best advantage if you are able to ‘read’ the emotions of others around you.

What else could a double lesson of General studies have included? The ability to fail well is up there. This is definitely something that wasn’t taught at school although thankfully a growth mind-set is high on the agenda at a lot of schools today. Mistakes are our greatest teacher so embrace them when they happen. Failing encourages us to be emotionally tough and resilient and learn to cope with the hurdles that get thrown our way.

Which leads me neatly onto my next point of stepping out of your comfort zone. Try it. You have no idea how empowering or alive you will feel until you do. Useful to know too is that not many things are ever truly that bad. The things you worry about the most are never the things that actually happen. And if something does go wrong, frame it with this thought: in five years, will this really matter? Worry you will soon see turns out to be our biggest time waster.

Adopting lightness, in every aspect of my life – relationships, conversations, dealing with problems and work – has changed my perspective enormously. When you feel lighter and move with lightness, everything just works out better. Everything just IS better.

No one tells you at school when they say that you can be a rocket scientist or anything a boy can do that one day, you will be rooting around the recycling bins at 1 am in the morning for an egg carton for the Year 4 project. While breastfeeding a baby. On about three hours sleep. Even with the most committed, 50:50 split partner, juggling work and small children is tough.

What have I learned? Don’t be afraid to say “no”. Often this means listening to your gut. An entirely good thing (and very reliable tool in your decision making process). Your “no” makes your “yes” more powerful. There’s much to admire in someone who knows their limits, who can manage their time wisely and is realistic with the expectations placed on them. People will respect you, not resent you. Learn to work smarter not harder. Oh, and cut yourself some slack.

On this very topic, you need to learn to put yourself first. Far from being selfish, when you put yourself first, you are taking responsibility for yourself, which has always struck me as quite a sensible thing to do. When you put yourself first, EVERYTHING BENEFITS.

Learn to forgive. Know that most hurt is unintentional and a product of insecurity, self-doubt and worry. Being slow to anger and judgement or feeling less persecuted by the aggression and un-thinking of others. It will, I promise you make for a far happier life. Remember too that not everyone is like you.

Throughout our lives we can only hope to be good teachers as well as good students. To return to the School of life, we should never want to be liked just as we are: “Only a perfect being would be committed to their own status quo. For the rest of us, good learning and teaching are the only ways to ensure we have a chance of developing into slightly better versions of ourselves.”

On Not Giving A Damn What People Think

on-not-giving-a-damn-what-people-think

I grew up with a grandmother who cared a lot about what people thought of her. She was a wonderful woman – incredibly generous, pillar of the various communities where she lived, from India to Malaya to New York and finally, the Cotswolds. But in all the years I knew her, I don’t think she ever truly relaxed – to the point I’m not sure I actually did know the ‘real’ her. Read More…