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We are Students of Life

9 min

On May 18, 2018 I chose to sit in the rain after waiting four years for this day. It was the day of my college graduation ceremony where I walked across the stage to receive my Bachelor of Science degree in Finance. It was a bittersweet close to this chapter where I grew to be comfortably challenged. 

There was certainty in college. I didn’t know what life would be like after leaving the confines of college. I had spent four years in a safe environment to pursue the necessary credits for the guaranteed outcome of graduation. If I checked the boxes of the required courses and received the passing grades, I would come out from Miami University of Ohio with a diploma. This outcome was thanks to professors that guided the way and counselors who helped shepherd me. I felt safe.  

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The environment of universities makes it seem obvious what we are supposed to do. There are spaces everywhere to study in. A college is a magical place where habits are formed from your surroundings because the norm is to be a student. It is gratifying to be surrounded by like-minded individuals in college. The students are all determined to come out from it with the same goal. This diploma proved that we played the game of school. Being compliant with the preset requirements was rewarded. They proved that we can finish what we set out to achieve. It showcases being a learner. Success is proven at the game of school with the diploma as evidence. 

With the diploma hanging on my wall, my preconception of specialization as the next step was unsettling. So many components change after leaving the confines of college. The entrance into the scary “real world” is made. There is no course curriculum. There are no office hours to ask the all-knowing professor who can help answer your questions. There is no game with rules on how to achieve. There are no formal evaluations to know how you are doing. 

Did you get an A over the last four months in your personal, professional, and social life? After leaving school, these are all evaluated by different factors. The lack of objectivity and structure is scary. It was handed to us on a platter in education for the majority of our life. After leaving we need to figure out what those factors are and what we find important. In school we are given preset beliefs of what it means to be successful. By doing this, we start to believe that there is only one way to achieve it. We start to believe that preconceived beliefs are the way to become accomplished.

This is not true. We borrow the definitions school gives us and need to redefine it for ourselves. After leaving school, it is just the beginning. Those classes you still want to take or learn about can still be pursued. Your curiosity won’t fade away.  I didn’t gloat long before I realized I wasn’t ready to stop learning. In a formal sense, I enjoyed learning too much to give it up.

It is now up to us to incentivize ourselves without the certainty of grades.

Because I am not enrolled in an institution, I technically am not a student. I have changed my mind — I still consider myself one of life. Like a student in college I still commit my resources to my education. Since I left college, I have come to realize that life is a school in a different environment.  Life should be seen as a classroom— we never leave it.

The attitude shifts from learning in the formal system of education versus in life. It is a privilege to become knowledgeable. The premise of education is to teach tools to set up the foundation of learning. 

Since leaving school, I have shifted my beliefs to what it means to be a student of life. 

1. Be resourceful with who you know.

In 1st grade, my friends Kate and Kara learned how to do addition and subtraction from their older siblings. I was jealous that they had the advantage of getting to learn something before me. They jumped ahead in the curriculum.  Because of this, I felt that I needed to get extra help. I didn’t want to get left behind. 

During my onboarding training last summer, my peers and I gathered existing PowerPoint decks of business leaders who presented, scrubbed the contents, and put them into a master file to use later on. By doing this, we didn’t have to start from a blank slate each time while creating a pitch deck or agenda for a meeting. If you find a more efficient way to get things done, it is innovation. 

Being resourceful saves time. Solving a key problem in a timely manner as a job gets rewarded.  Time is a limited resource. I learned that using resources, like an older sibling for math class is being resourceful. 

2. Recycling ideas is creativity, not plagiarism. 

In kindergarten, I wanted to be an artist. My best friends Luiza and Pilar were both much better at drawing than myself, so I attempted to copy their drawings. After uncovering what I was doing, Miss Shirf made me sit on the other side of the room during art time. I was traumatized that I would have to think of my own ideas to draw. My drawings got worse. I lost confidence in my ability to become an artist because I didn’t have a natural talent like my friends. Imitating is not something to be embarrassed about. 

In actuality this is how people get better through upping their standard of what great work is. By building upon other people’s ideas, you can apply them to your life. That is what creativity means to intersect two ideas together in a novel way. This is not cheating.

3. Vulnerability is good.

According to Brené Brown research, acknowledging weakness is a strength. Throughout 6th grade, I always focused on being a top performer in my honors pre-algebra class. I continually asked for more math problems and more extra credit. I was afraid to admit that I was awful at biology. I fainted while dissecting a frog, so even my consciousness was lost during it. I felt like the laughing stock for not having the courage to sit and learn about how the bodies function. I ended up failing most of the tests in this class.

During my internship in 2017, I was given ginormous packets to read through to understand how cars were sold on “SmartAuction” where cars were auctioned daily online. I struggled to understand our clients of the car dealers and automotive companies through reading. I ended up feeling like I failed because I was too afraid to admit my weakness of being a dyslexic slow reader.

If I had been more upfront with my manager, I could have made time chunks to meet with her and learn the content thoroughly by having directed discussions about the content. 

4. Speed does not mean you are smart. 

School is biased towards those who finish tests fast. They have the privilege of time to go back and double-check their work. I took the standardized ACT five times and I never once completed the reading or science section. Since I failed at the speed reader class I attended, I ended up going to tutors and programs. They trained me to spend less time thinking and more time making educated guesses. Each time after I completed the standardized test, I was humiliated after my score went down.

In actuality, you don’t have to be fast to be smart. Quality can be a superpower when acting with precision. Through having a long-run outlook, we can seek input and not just for a set amount of time. 

After leaving school, we become friends with time. As life goes by, more experiences come where learning can be connected to each other.  We get to intertwine the two as we apply the learning to life. The curiosity of whether it works compounds over time into knowledge — what Shane Parrish defines as success. We can be the tortoise instead of the hare. 

5. Play the long game.

School is outcome-based. Did you graduate? No? You dropped out, so that makes you a failure. Where realistically if a better opportunity came along at the time, pursue that. An outcome is not essential. That is what filmmaker Steven Spielberg did to take up an internship at Universal Studios and he decided to get a degree later on at age 55. 

There is no race any more. We can be as slow as we like and make progress inch by inch for the rest of our life. We evaluate ourselves against our past selves. We can choose to be tortoises instead of hares where there is too much sense of urgency. We can be more calculated in our decisions. What opportunity costs are we paying while foregoing other opportunities?

We can take advantage of unlearning and relearning something in a different way. I started playing the piano when I was nine. It was not fun because I was coerced into playing. I can now patiently enjoy it as I start relearning it.

There is no race any more. We can be as slow as we like and make progress inch by inch for the rest of our life. We evaluate ourselves against our past selves. We can choose to be tortoises instead of hares where there is too much sense of urgency. We can be more calculated in our decisions. There isn’t always a beginning and an end. Life is continuous.

6. Show your work to create a process.

School doesn’t always care about how you ideated to solve a problem, as long as you turn it in. They don’t necessarily care about how you got the answer, so showing your work doesn’t matter. The caveat with a math class of partial credit for showing steps sometimes and with history or English for showing your arguments in a final essay. 

I’ve learned to focus on the system. How you get to the result matters (in some cases) more than the outcome. This allows for more experiments to be run.  The process is what matters so that you can reproduce the answer again.

For my weekly newsletter, I have a process each week that helps me to perform the task. There are many iterations of it that help me understand my thought process on how to recreate it. Without knowing these steps and only seeing what a reader sees, it would be much more tedious each week to create. 

7. Assignments are not done once they are turned in.

Once worth improving it and should move onto something else. In reality, nothing is ever final. It is abandoned in order to move on. Though actually, we can always revisit them. Just as the meanings of books change over time to us as readers. At different points in time, what we create will have a different lens as well with a different beholder.

Movie director, David Fincher, has said, “You can always make something better. They say, and it’s true, movies aren’t finished, they’re abandoned. And you have to make your peace with that.” It is your choice to iterate again on a finished project. 

8. Have a bias to ask questions rather than share answers. 

In school, asking questions meant that you didn’t do your homework. This threat of your knowledge base creates anxiety to improve. Now knowing the answers meant a lower participation grade. It turns students into wanting to be perfectionists. To strive to be know-it-alls. One cannot learn if they have this mentality and are risk-averse to failing. 

Realistically, asking a question shows that you are curious. Even if you did your homework, reinforcing a concept is key to understanding. 

9. Become an effective listener.

The talker gets a reward for raising their hand and participating. In 9th grade, I left the comfortable walls of the private school where I was raised alongside 24 other students and transitioned to a 2,000 person public high school. Any confidence I had was crushed by the intimidation of my classmates. I ended up taking lower participation grades because I would rather hide in class than participate. I was scared of what others would think of me and became the turtle who crawled back into their shell. The public shame was not worth it for the reward of shooting my hand up to give answers.

After being in human capital consulting for ten months, I soon realized that the key to solving the client’s problems is by listening. It’s not from talking. The problem cannot be identified by an outsider. They need to be explained and detailed by the insider who knows everything about the company. 

If we are coming to a client to help with their diversity and inclusion, they could mistakenly believe they lack diversity and need to recruit differently. In actuality from asking questions and gathering data, the behaviors of the existing leaders caused the problem. What limited diversity they had created a higher attrition rate while moving up the stake of the workplace. The behaviors weren’t inclusive and caused people to leave. 

Being loud to make assumptions is what leads to miscommunication and ultimately not being able to provide a viable solution to their problem. 

Life is an equal playing field where it’s not an objective competition in school. We can pick and choose what we take from these experiences that propel us forward. We can choose to have high agency. In life, we can all help each other— this is what it means to be a student of life. 

Author Ryan Holiday sends out monthly book recommendations with the closing, “Enjoy these books, and treat your education like the job that it is.” I agree. We need to address our misplaced beliefs around learning. There is so much to be discovered. After we leave formal institutions, we enter the long game of life.  


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