The two things I learned in college

“The discipline of Zen consists in upsetting this groundwork once and for all, and reconstructing the old frame on an entirely new basis.”

D.T. Suzuki

I was talking to a friend the other day about what I learned in college, and I came to the conclusion that I learned two major things.

1) Learning how to learn

First, I learned how to study, learn, and take tests. By throwing a lot of work at you, you’re forced to learn a lot about how you learn. Some people learn things very naturally, and others, like me, have to go to other lengths to get things into our brains. For me, a terrific approach was to combine studying on my own along with studying with others at certain times, and I learned specific techniques that really helped me in both situations. (I found out that I learned best by writing things down with a pen and paper, talking about problems with friends, and using flashcards for memory-specific needs.) So without going into more detail on this topic, I’ll just say:

I learned how to learn.

2) Learn what the “game” is, and how to play it

Beyond this, the biggest thing I learned in college is that certain things in life – school life and business life – are a game. More importantly, if you’re going to play these games and win these games you need to know what the rules are.

For instance, when I was at William Rainey Harper College in Illinois, I eventually got to be one of two people that could get A’s on our lab reports in a very difficult Physics class. Actually, this lesson took two semesters. Despite a lot of work in my first semester (Physics 1), I got B’s, and near the end of the semester I began wondering what the heck it would take to get A’s. So I learned from the one person who did get the A’s, and I modeled my work after his. (The teacher wanted his reports written in a particular style.) Then in the second semester (Physics 2) he and I were the only students to get A’s on our lab reports. So out of a class that started with 34 students and ended up with only 13 students by the end of the second semester, I learned how to play the game and got the highest grade.

Is that the end of the story? No.

Next I went to Texas A&M University and took another class in the Aerospace Engineering Department that also required us to write lab reports. Of course I thought this was going to be easy, since I just beat everyone else and had a good formula for doing so: I’d just use that same formula here. So I did that, thought everything was great, and I got an ‘F’. Fortunately almost everyone else also got an ‘F’, as the instructor was a maladjusted human being trying to teach us some type of lesson. I was pissed off, and everyone else was too. What I learned from this maladjusted lab instructor was that I wasn’t going to get a good grade unless I adjusted to him, because he certainly wasn’t going to adjust to me (or anyone else in the class). I don’t remember how I did this, but eventually I did, and began getting A’s once again, and I never forgot this lesson.

The lesson

In summary, the lesson is simple:

When someone is holding a grade over your head (the teacher in school) or is offering to give away large amounts of money (your employer or client), it’s your responsibility to understand and adjust to what they want.

As a final point, you don’t have to adjust, do you? You only have to adjust if you want to get the good grades, win the project, get the raise, etc. You do have the option of not adjusting — that’s up to you. It just depends on whether you want to win “the game.”

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