When I was 10 years old, my family took its annual trip to the Hawaiian islands. Typically, we’d go during the last few weeks of August as a last-minute respite before school started.
But for some reason, on this particular occasion we went during the winter.
I remember glaring out the window 30 stories above downtown Honolulu, watching cars zip past the hotel. My father was settling something at the front desk as my little brother sat watching TV.
My mom was quietly unpacking our things, grateful for the intermission from the little performance I’d been putting on since our arrival.
It was 75 degrees in January, we were literally steps from the ocean, yet all I droned on about was how I’d no longer have perfect attendance at school.
My earliest memories of school are mostly found. There were plenty of victories and defeats, some more notable than others.
I forged meaningful relationships with mentors and friends, learned the importance of sportsmanship, and have only started to appreciate the invaluable contributions teachers have made in my life.
Teachers provide a profoundly important and noble service. It’s a type of praise I think needs to be sung far more often.
But in many ways, the American school system is obsolete. It’s an institution, at least in my experience, that rewards compliance and conformity.
Following the rules, regardless of context or reasoning is not to be questioned. We learn skills that don’t transfer to the real world, and can even hinder our ability to think collectively.
We’re taught to remember dates that have no context, or meaning. We’re pushed through the next cycle of classes without fundamentally understanding the preceding one, forcing us to memorize algorithms and methods we don’t know how to apply.
And any semblance of contrarianism is singled out and censured. Thoughts or ideas not in harmony with those of the majority makes you a “weirdo” or a “daydreamer.”
The truth is, enforcing this conformity places boundaries on our imaginations. We then grow into adults with stifled creativity, afraid of what the cost of daring to express more, think more, and be more will be.
Our spirit ages faster and we fear expanding our best ideas.
In other words, our formal education can stifle our wisdom.
It’s taken me literally years to unlearn much of what I was taught by well-meaning mentors who likely knew no different.
I’m in my late 30s now and only beginning to understand that the “real world” rewards those who have the courage to think flexibly and cling to their ideals no matter how unpopular or lonely it can be.
In fact, I make a very conscious effort to push my students to think independently. Even if it’s the only thing they take away from my class.
“Question EVERYTHING.” I tell them. “Even what I’m saying!”
I remind them that school provides many terrific resources and an environment where one can cultivate meaningful relationships, fail with relatively low stakes, and possibly stumble upon a calling.
But I also want them to reframe how they look at institutionalized learning. Specifically, that school is not the end but rather the beginning.
The vast majority of one’s education, the kind that really matters, happens after school. Only it doesn’t occur without a deliberate effort to cultivate an insatiable curiosity and a desire to know a little about a lot.
“People admiring iconic Mona Lisa painting in Joconde, Louvre” by Eric TERRADE
Here are 8 lessons I learned long after my school days were over:
For years, I read nothing but plays. I was a one-dimensional person. But in time, I discovered I had to diversify my knowledge. I started reading about history, philosophy, psychology, science, finance, and leadership.
The more I learned, the more I realized how ideas cross-pollinate. Chemistry informs biology which informs psychology and so forth.
And perhaps nobody understood this principle better than Leonardo Da Vinci.
The most famous painting in the world is a byproduct of integrating different arenas of knowledge.
The Mona Lisa was painted by a man who didn’t particularly like being called an artist. Da Vinci preferred to think of himself as an engineer and a scientist.
And because he was obsessed with optics, how light created different shades, and anatomy he was able to blend those disciplines into a masterpiece.
He spent his evenings peeling the skin off cadavers because he wanted to see how tendons and muscles worked, how a person furrowed a brow, or smiled.
He was a man who simply had to know.
There’s nothing like visiting a foreign country, but you don’t need your passport to explore. Each place, near or far, will offer you a chance to challenge the assumptions you have about people and the world.
There’s nothing quite as humbling as realizing you’ve been clinging to an idea, or worldview that hasn’t been stress tested and is just plain wrong.
But by illuminating your own ignorance you also plant the seeds for self-evolution. You learn to become more deliberate in making your thought process more pliant and available to the world.
Whether you’re serving food at a homeless shelter or tutoring at an after school program, society works best when we all help each other out a little bit.
It was while volunteering I discovered the best way to put my problems in perspective was to try and alleviate those of another.
There will always be someone worse off than you. And the more time you spend with people who have less the more you grow to appreciate that poverty is often a result of injustice or circumstance.
That knowledge alone alters any mental hierarchy you may be holding onto.
Lastly, helping people help themselves gives integrity to your ambition.
Avoid Toxic People
Anybody can complain. Choosing to focus on possibilities takes courage. Your life is flying by. Don’t waste another second with people who refuse to get out of their own way and want to take you down with them.
Before you know it, your life will begin to mirror the people you spend the most time with, so pick your brain trust wisely.
And remember, YOU DON’T HAVE TO SHARE YOUR DREAMS WITH EVERYONE. Share them ONLY with like-minded people who want to see you step into the best version of yourself.
Photo by bill wegener
Define Success on Your Own Terms
I’ve learned it’s not my job to be a molder of consensus or a seeker of validation. Instead, it’s my responsibility to share my creativity with those who need it most.
True success is becoming great at something YOU love to do.
If you live in accordance with your principles and pursue work and relationships that are personally rewarding, you won’t have time to care if others approve of the path you’ve chartered for your life. (by the way, they’re not thinking of you anyway)
Finally, attainment of your goal is not the point but rather who you become in its pursuit.
Create Your Own Opportunities
With the remarkable technology available at our fingertips, we have no excuse to not get started. Today, all we need is a smartphone and an idea.
We can get our voices out into the world. And as long as we focus on the satisfaction we gain from starting and finishing something important to us rather than the number of hits or followers we receive, we’re on our way towards inspiring others to do the same.
Cling fiercely to a childlike wonder of the world.
Protect your inner tourist at all costs.
Ask questions unapologetically.
Deepen an insatiable need to know.
Seek knowledge for its own sake.
It all begins with paying more attention.
Allow for Change
What you want at 25 will be different than what you want at 45. It doesn’t mean you’ve quit a dream, it simply means you’ve evolved and what you value most in life has too.
Keep your poise if the winds unexpectedly start to blow from another direction.
Just be open to where it takes you.
Photo by rawpixel