If someone doesn’t take us aside and teach us a few things (assuming we’d listen) before we graduate high school, we are doomed to learn life’s hardest lessons in the real world beyond the classroom. With that in mind, here are 21 non-academic lessons every person should know before he or she graduates high school; if you graduated long ago (as I did), this list represents all the things you wish you had been taught, yet had to learn (or are still learning) on your own.
Love and Relationships
1. Choosing a Mate: Your ability to select a suitable spouse will greatly influence your financial and emotional wellbeing, yet parents and teachers seldom mention it. A few common sense guidelines: pick someone who’s a joy to be around and who makes you happy; know the person well; ensure compatibility beyond the physical because beauty and youth are fleeting, while the mind and heart endure.
2. Evaluating Relationships: Given the tremendous importance of relationships, it’s surprising we receive so little instruction on how to evaluate, prune, and nurture them. Start by asking yourself whether each of your relationships drags you down or lifts you up. Surrounding yourself with positive relationships is half the battle.
3. Conversation: Successful relationships require solid communication: use body language, appropriate tone of voice, and eye contact; be friendly and considerate of alternative viewpoints; persuade gently; listen, listen, listen.
4. Handling Difficult People: An essential life skill, handling difficult people can be taught, but seldom is. I’ve written about this before, and there are several good books on the subject, including Robert Bramson’s Coping with Difficult People.
5. Networking: Ask for business cards, maintain a Rolodex (electronic or otherwise), and stay in touch with people who respect you. Association breeds opportunity, personally and professionally.
6. Compassion: We are born egocentric, but by the time we graduate high school, we should be capable of understanding, appreciating, and sympathizing with others. Compassion helps us understand our place in the world and ensures we are emotionally well rounded.
7. Teamwork: Work environments have gravitated toward small teams. Sports, team projects, and group goals are great ways to learn teamwork, but are seldom adequate. Evaluate interpersonal skills regularly; correct as needed.
8. Giving: As a child, I always thought the expression “it’s better to give than to receive” was trite and silly. As an adult, I recognize the expression’s value. Having the capacity to give means you possess; having the will to give means you want to make a difference; having the desire to give means you care.
9. The Material Myth: Pursuing happiness by acquiring material things (granite countertops, plasma televisions, designer clothing) is like jogging to the grocery store on your treadmill: it’s not going to happen.
10. Saving: Keep 3 to 6 months salary in an emergency fund, in case you lose your job; use online calculators to determine the proper amount to save for retirement; keep money on hand for unexpected expenses, such as car and home repair.
11. Debt: Financial gurus suggest that total debt, excluding first mortgage, should not exceed 20% of take-home pay. This includes car payments, home equity loans, second mortgages, credit card debt, and so forth. Upper income consumers may be able to handle higher debt loads due to greater expendable income, while lower income consumers may be wise to carry less. And my number one rule of debt: credit cards should never be used as supplemental income.
12. Frugality: Live below your means. Look for bargains. Shop at discount stores. Clearly delineate needs (transportation) from wants (a big SUV). Feel free to indulge occasionally, but mind the consequences.
13. Debtor Responsibility: I believe every person who borrows money has a social, moral, and ethical responsibility to make payments on time and in the correct amount for the duration of the contract. Generally speaking, the credit bureaus agree.
15. Practicality: While you’re chasing self-actualization, paying bills remains important. Independent research using the Occupational Outlook Handbook or other resources can help you figure out how to make a living in whatever industry inspires you.
17. Entrepreneurial: Unless you’re related to business owners or have learned about business ownership on your own, there’s a good chance that owning a business seems puzzling, daunting, and overwhelming. The fact that young people in a capitalistic society aren’t given the basic tools of ownership is unfortunate. Find a mentor. Attend a workshop. Read.
18. Positive Thinking: Attitude determines altitude. If you believe you can do it, most of the time, you really can.
19. Personal Accountability: Most success boils down to perseverance, determination, tenacity, and other products of personal accountability.
20. Setting and Achieving Goals: Goal setting, research, planing, commitment, and hard work are all required to reach any big, life-altering objective. In other words, all the schooling in the world won’t help you reach your dreams if you don’t take time to determine what you want and how to obtain it.
21. Health: Throughout my life, I’ve noticed that no single thing does as much to improve my outlook as getting healthy. Eat nutritious meals in proper portions. Drink plenty of water. Try to get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily (or at least every other day). Get plenty of sleep. High school health classes teach these concepts, but seldom make the connection between health and the rest of life; the connection is real. And it’s huge.
So there you have it: 21 lessons you can’t (or generally don’t) learn in school.
These lessons are not intended to insult teachers or schools, or to suggest curriculum. They are merely thought starters; something to think about regarding lessons learned through painful experience.
Life is an exploration, and maybe certain lessons must be experienced to be understood. Yet I wonder how much pain we could prevent if we taught life’s important lessons to our young people instead of relying on the real world to teach them for us.