Getting Schooled by a Former Flunky

Though the temperature might not agree, fall is coming. The sun is setting earlier, and our disappointment in baseball is slowly fading into a sense of dread over the coming football season. What that means to most families is that either school has just started or will begin shortly. I can tell I’m getting older because, at this point, about the only thing I remember about going back to high school was the feeling of dread about finding my new locker, remembering the combination, and trying not to get lost learning my way to a whole new set of classrooms.

Well, I may not remember too much about what I learned in high school, but having now spent more years at work than I did in school, I can tell you quite a bit about what I have learned about the importance of high school. This may sound strange, but from where I sit now, the important thing isn’t so much what you learn in high school, but that you figure out how to learn in high school.

Kids are faced with many different teaching styles and a multitude of changes from year to year, in educational focus as well as testing standards, but the primary goal of a good student remains unchanged. The first step is to develop good work habits. And trust me, it took an extra trip through the 8th grade before I learned that lesson. What I know now that I didn’t back then was that regardless of how long you choose to continue your formal education, you’ll never be at a point in life where you can stop learning. And short of winning the lottery, you’re not likely to get to a place where putting in the effort now won't pay big dividends later.

Developing good study habits means paying more attention in school. It requires you to put a lot of other things in your personal life second, and it certainly takes a few more sacrifices to your social life than most kids are comfortable with. But once you find a system that works, you’ll find that even though the work might get harder and harder, the effort that it takes to excel actually doesn’t really change. And the best part is that the work ethic, started at that level, will easily transform to serve you your whole life.

It’s all about maximizing your results and minimizing your efforts, which might mean working a bit harder to get started, but trust me, as a person who has spent most of his life finding the best way to be productively lazy, it means working a lot less hard later on. After I hit bottom and had to repeat a grade, I finally started to figure this out. So I started to work harder at first.  As I learned how to manage my time and effort, I started to turn the corner, replacing “working harder” with “working smarter”. But even with seemingly less effort, my grades kept rising. And as I eventually made the transition from high school to college, while the amount of effort didn’t change, the results continued to. Not only did my grades continue to improve but so did my attitude, and I began to enjoy the learning process.

Once out of college, the real results appeared. While I didn’t finish with honors or at the top of any class, the peripheral benefits of my work ethic became evident. Keeping my nose clean in the classroom meant sticking to the straight and narrow outside of school as well. As it turns out, what makes you less popular in high school makes you considerably more desirable as a prospective employee, and, making the cut of a sports team as a teenager is nothing compared to the competitive environment of landing a good job in your twenties.

If your goal isn’t just to get a job, but to have a career, then what you do now becomes critically important. Not because you’ll ever have to use calculus or give an oral report on a Shakespearian play, but because not doing so might just end up as the only appreciable difference between you and that one other candidate still in the running for the single opening at the company that everyone wants to work for.

As a visual reference, take the ‘want ads’ section of the paper. If you think that finishing high school isn’t important, then take half the section out, wad it up and throw it away, because you’ve just eliminated those careers as an option. If you think that doing drugs and drinking alcohol aren’t that big of a deal as a teenager, then take half of what you have left, wad it up and throw it away as well, because even the slightest indiscretion in those areas can disqualify you from earning the trust of most of the people who do the hiring. You’re now left with one quarter of the jobs that were available at the start. From that group, less than half are going to be open to those without a solid college education. And less than half of that half will be attainable to someone who cannot demonstrate some semblance of a strong work ethic. And if you are fortunate enough to land one of those few remaining positions, you won't be able to hold it for long if you don’t have the passion for continuing education that will keep you ahead of the curve of the next graduating class.

In today’s economic environment, just finding a job is tough, so getting the best ones can be downright impossible. It’s not about just being able to DO the job; it’s about beating out all of the other competitors in order to GET the job. You might not like it, but a commitment to learning today will indeed pay off beyond your wildest dreams tomorrow.

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Volume 5, Issue 17, Posted 3:05 PM, 08.25.2009