Congratulations, Class of 2015! You’ve completed your higher education journey and graduated from college! Sure, you may be the most indebted in history (until 2016, that is), and there’s a good chance you’ll be employed in a position that doesn’t actually require a degree, but you went for the gold that was expected of you for success and are now ready to take on the world! If you haven’t applied yet, you are probably thinking over what kind of position you want as your first job. You may anxiously peruse “Required Skills” lists and think of ways you can twist those all-nighters popping between Facebook and your required Intro to 15th Century Basket Weaving of the African Diaspora textbook into “SMB Prospecting” and “Strong Verbal and Written Communication.”
Regardless of the job you apply for and its required skill set, you will need to do one very important thing if you want to succeed as a young professional in the 21st century: deschool yourself.
Unless you want a job that discourages innovation, entrepreneurial thinking, an efficient mindset, and the ability to strive towards goals without getting distracted on resume-building credentialing and fluff, deschooling yourself is the best single thing you could do in the professional development arena to set yourself apart from your peers.
To understand what deschooling yourself entails and why it is so important for success as a young professional, first look at what being schooled means.
After 16 years of sitting in classrooms, turning in assignments, working to deadlines established weeks in advance, planning out your path semesters-early, and jumping through hoops to move to the next level in the game (i.e., jump through the hoops to get from middle school to high school, high school to college, college to your graduation), the idea that what matters in the world is the value you produce for other people comes as a shocker to many.
It doesn’t matter how much time you spent sitting in meetings, on conference calls, working on that quarterly report late at night, if you don’t actually create more value for your employer or for your customers than they are willing to pay you, you won’t be successful with them (let alone rise through the ranks to the next level in the game like before).
Even worse, you won’t have a rubric or a syllabus set out in front of you to explain how you can create this value. You won’t have office hours. You won’t have a tutor you can pull aside and ask for advice. You will have to figure out through a process of complex and oftentimes-conflicting signals what your supervisors, friends, colleagues, and customers want.
You may get passed-over for a promotion for the guy who comes from a considerably worse school or hasn’t been at the same company as long. You may find that even though you followed your B-school textbook down to the tee, your business is floundering.
You may find yourself killing the assignments you get for work but not being able to find value to create in between, sitting around waiting for the next assignment to come your way (think back to high school when if you finished your in-class work early you could read your book or daydream until the end of the period).
And employers notice. One of the biggest hurdles of training a new employee is getting them out of the schooled mindset. Getting them to realize that there is no assigned reading, there are only occasional assignments, and it is up to them to figure out how to get to the next step in their career is burdensome for employers. An employee who just sits around waiting for the next thing to do is an employee whose habits are hurting the team.
The fact that you have these little habits — waiting for assignments, looking for obvious rubrics and the way to the next level, feeling a tinge of resentment to those who get ahead when you are the one who has put in more time/work/has more credentials — doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s to be expected after spending the entirety of your memorable-life thus far in a set of institutions that reward this kind of behavior. What you have to figure out now is how to do away with them and cultivate habits to succeed at navigating the open systems of profit and loss and value creation in the marketplace*.
Deschooling yourself is cultivating these habits. It’s moving from a mindset of “when’s the due date?” and “what’s on the test?” to “what other projects can I undertake and complete with the time I have?” and “where can I add value?”
This process can differ between individuals, but it starts with one simple truth:
The world owes you nothing except for the value you create within it.
You are not owed a promotion because you have been at the company longer than your colleagues. You are not owed profit because you opened a business. You are not owed page views because you put a lot of effort into your tumblr.
Start with this truth and work from there. When you find yourself lagging behind your goals and expectations, look to where you can create more value. Look to where you can hack the systems set up in a thoroughly-schooled world.
Learn a skill set you didn’t study in school. Just because you didn’t study coding doesn’t mean you can’t learn it. You don’t need an English degree to learn how to write better.
Read books you didn’t have time to read. You don’t have to wait until summer to read about what interests you. Pick up a novel and enjoy it alongside a book that helps you at what you do.
Do things that aren’t assigned to you. The biggest secrets are those that nobody knows how to design assignments to find. Go find them.
Don’t expect syllabi and finals. Every day is a final.
Know that the hoop-jumping of your student years only goes so far. If you want to really get ahead, you have to tear down the hoops entirely.
* “The marketplace” isn’t something just for entrepreneurs and businesspeople. It’s something for all of us. Given that people exchange not only money but also time, favors, and energy when they see themselves as being able to get something of equal-or-greater value out of the exchange, “the marketplace” can refer to navigating relationships with investors, entrepreneurs, and business people, but it can also refer to landing your poetry to be featured in a magazine, or how to barter with a local during your next big bike trip, or any number of things that involve interacting with people outside of a schooled setting.