8 Life Lessons I Didn't Learn in School (and 5 I Did)

September 23, 2015

Some of you school-age dumplings have just gone back to school / college! When I look at kids with backpacks, or undergrads chatting with their friends on their way to classes, I become nostalgic for the good old days, which for me is college. I thought I knew what I was getting into, but it turns out the stuff I took away was completely different from the course catalog.

Truth be told (Mom, close your eyes) I don’t remember a lot of the stuff that I memorized for finals, or even expounded upon for twenty pages with some conviction. At the time you feel like this knowledge is so important, but courses leave out some pretty important lessons that you only learn hands-on, through much trial and error.

Here are some important lessons they don’t teach you in school. 8 Things I Didn't Learn in School (and 5 I did)

1. How to go through the job process smoothly

On the surface, colleges nowadays supposedly teach you how to write a proper resume, a cover letter, wear a blazer and show up to job fairs, etc. But you will still make rookie mistakes that you blush to think about later on. For instance, I remember as a senior applying to jobs, I actually wrote handwritten cards to my interviewers after each interview, like our Career Services advised us. That is actually a really nice touch, but in the real world, people are busy and communicate almost exclusively with emails. How was I supposed to know? But don’t worry, you get the kinks out quickly enough. And also…

2. No embarrassment stays with you that long: How to Get a Thick Skin.

Everything slightly gauche or naive used to torture me, like sending that handwritten card to a snarky interviewer who clearly wasn’t going to hire me anyway. Since then I’ve made at least dozens of embarrassing mistakes both shallow and profound, with people close and far–and learned that it’s not worth the energy to keep feeling bad. Most people don’t care enough to judge you for too long, and you also have to stick up for yourself. Real world, not school, gives you a thick skin, and you have no idea how valuable that is (you’ll see!).

3. You don’t get a second chance. 

Early in my freshman year, I completely forgot that a French paper was due that day. I went to the professor and got an extension until the end of the day, banged it out, and turned it in. (To this day, I occasionally have horrible dreams where I completely forget to do an assignment.) In the real world though, you don’t get to whine about it; there is no professor generously and gently wanting you to succeed. (It’s more like you and your parents want you to succeed, and that’s about it).

4. A “B” is not a failure. Failure is failure.

So this French paper? Because I turned it in late, I got auto-marked down a full grade point. Since I was 17 and just starting college, I was absolutely devastated at this failure to get an A. But it turns out, a B is not a failure in the real world. You’ll have a number of days when you feel like all you did was put out fires, or try your best to avoid some explosion at the office, or curl into a ball at the end of the day barely breathing, and those are not failures either. Unless you folded your business, got fired from a job, maxed out your credit card, or have no place to stay at, you’re doing pretty good.

5. But if you fail, you can get back up again. 

As someone who has actually hit that point before, I now know that failure isn’t nearly as terrifying as I thought it was. This realization is the biggest green light in the world to start living fearlessly, and no one at school can teach you that. You have to learn it for yourself.

6. You have to be your own biggest advocate. 

Hopefully, as a student, you have a teacher, mentor, or group of friends who point out your strengths, encourage you, and motivate you to strive higher. In life-life, you have to do all that stuff for yourself, and then make sure other people acknowledge it too. There is no such thing as being a great student and waiting for that smile and A+ from the professor–you have to make your cause be heard.

7. You can’t do anything for someone else. You have to do it for yourself. 

So about that approval from professor thing: there is no such equivalent in life-life. You shouldn’t work for anyone’s approval, even if it’s your boss or your loved one. Everything you do, you have to do for your own satisfaction and accomplishment.

8. Love is its own, completely different thing. 

School is all about rational and analytical thinking, goal-setting, knowing your interests, etc. But love has nothing to do with any of that. You can’t decide to like someone if you don’t, and vice versa. Someone perfect on paper won’t stir any emotions, and someone you think you don’t want will make you melt. You’re going to plan to marry by x age and have y kids by z, and that kind of formula goes out the window. You can’t love with your head, period. But that’s the magic of it.

And lest my education be completely wasted, these are invaluable lessons I had in school:

1. You can set goals, try really hard, and accomplish something you didn’t think possible. And this will give you confidence and a way of living for the rest of your life.

2. It’s really fun pushing your boundaries, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. In college is where I found I can pull all-nighters, dance fifteen hours a week, read Proust in French (though again, remembering very little). I’ll always know going forward that feeling the edge of my limits is scary but also exhilarating.

3. You’ll learn how to write. You might not remember what In Search of Lost Time was all about (what was it about?) but you’ll use your writing skills every day for the rest of your life.

4. You’ll learn how to talk to people. It surprises me now to look back at just how painfully shy I was at 17. But school will teach you (in classroom and out) to be expressive of your ideas, and to become interested in others, as well.

5. Someone is always going to be better than you. Most likely you’ll meet people who are smarter than you, prettier than you, more athletic than you, more popular than you, richer than you, and even funnier, more motivated, and more generous than you. At first this will be a huge blow to your ego–but then you’ll realize that you don’t have to be the best at anything to be incredible and lovable. That is the start of a really amazing and loving relationship with yourself!

How about you? What did you learn in school, and what did you learn in the real world?

More life lessons: 5 Lessons from Having an Eating Disorder

4 Lessons from Inspiring Women Athletes

20 Things I Wish I Knew in My Early 20s



Photo: Sprinkles cupcakes via Instagram



Juhea is the founder and editor of Peaceful Dumpling and the author of bestselling novel Beasts of a Little Land. Follow Juhea on Instagram @peacefuldumpling, @juhea_writes and Pinterest.


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