5 Most Important Lessons from High School

What they don't teach you in high school
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Right off the bat, high school does not do a great job of preparing you for the real world.

There are some skills that are so life-altering that you would think that 10+ years in formal education would teach them to you. Unfortunately, that’s a solid no.

So here are 5 lessons that you really should learn in high school to give yourself an impactful edge in life.

But first, some history

Question: why does school fail to prepare us adequately?

It’s actually pretty complex and after working closely with schools and teachers for the last several years, I can tell you that it isn’t from a lack of trying. The truth is that the entire system is not designed to deliver the right outcomes.

Think about this.

50 years ago, prior to the technology boom, almost every industry in the world operated very differently. Some of the most sought-after jobs today didn’t even exist 20 years ago.

To put that in perspective, that means that you may end up working in a career that was born after you were.

Unfortunately, education is very slow to change.

We still use the heavily outdated strategies that we know are not designed logically and, ultimately, the school system of today prepares you for a future of yesterday.

A photo of modern schooling (www.rodriguez9-2.pbworks.com/w/page/10300293/Education)

You probably can’t choose what education system you go through, but you do have a different choice.

Will you choose to carry on and hope for the best, or take control of your learning and progress your life by design? In other words, what do students really need to succeed?

There are countless factors that influence your likelihood to “make it” – no matter what that means for each individual. But, some of these factors are definitely more influential, and more importantly, more foundational.

So what does foundational mean?

Foundational means giving rise to more; something to build off.

Here’s a relevant example:

The time management system you use might greatly aid your productivity, but it’s really the product of years of good reflective practice. Even without being taught, being a good thinker and planner can give rise to an efficient and organised system.

Therefore, we can view reflection as being more foundational to great time management, and similarly that it would be difficult to become super organised without lots of reflection. An example of the latter occurring would be like randomly waving your shoelaces around and making a perfect knot. It is possible, but you’d waste a whole lot of time.

Intuitively, you know that foundational attributes are far more important. Would you rather know what a genius knows, or just be a genius yourself? You would probably choose the latter, which proves the point.

“Would you rather get A+ this one time, or actually be smart?” // “Um… is this a trick question…?”

The following are the 5 most foundational factors for success

These are incomparably more important than the actual topics you learn. After all, if you have these down, your academic ability should shoot through the roof.

Note that this is an opinion piece, albeit opinions shared by many experts in the educational field.

1. Be good at things through Critical Thinking

What is Critical Thinking?

(Adapted from the Foundation of Critical Thinking)

Critical thinking is the self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason. People who think critically consistently attempt to live rationally, reasonably, and empathically. They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.

It is a disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualising, applying, analysing, synthesising, and/or evaluating information as a guide to belief and action. It entails the examination of elements we normally deem to be implicit in all reasoning, such as purpose, problem, assumptions, implications, and consequences.

It is the foundation for all higher-level thinking in professional disciplines.

Monkey see, monkey critically evaluate

There is a global trend toward specialisation. Jack-of-all-trades is frequently picking up his unemployment benefit.

To remain competitive you need to be good at your field and capable of tackling a wide range of problems. You need to know your craft deeply.

Sure you will still find a job even if you don’t, but don’t expect to get very far with it! The most efficient way to pave each step on your journey through learning is to perceive more than your peers, then do more with that information. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the definition of critical thinking (or at least part of it).

And that’s only the beginning – critical thinking is such a profoundly important skill that it can literally change your life.

Luckily, you can actually train your critical thinking. We even have a course on it. Either way, heads up: it will take a little while.

P.S. It’s worth it.

2. Be Productive and Reliable with Solid Work Ethic

As an employer myself, I can confidently tell you that someone with a poor work ethic is the worst type of employee.

A track record of work ethic, demonstrated and shown through actions, is the basis for trust. Unless you have a Nobel Prize in your CV, you will never find career success through sheer ability alone.

Imagine using a pen that only works 70% of the time. Maybe when it does work, the ink is so beautiful that it makes you cry. Regardless, you probably aren’t going to take it to your exam.

Not only does it make you more dependable for others, but the habit of hard work and diligence will translate directly to helping you knock-out your goals.

Don’t be the inkjet printer of employees.

3. Be Resourceful

From this point onwards, unless humanity self-destructs, you will always have the internet at your fingertips.

A lack of information and resources will almost never be a limitation for you. However, with an overflowing volume of information at our disposal, we are now starting to see a new limitation in students, professionals, and all types of learners. I call this…

Information Inertia

For the less physics-inclined of you, “inertia” is that initial resistance when you try to push something. It’s why something heavy is harder to get moving, but easier to keep moving.

We suffer chronically from information inertia; whether it’s due to our pride or laziness, we often tend to make work harder for ourselves by not actively seeking out the resources that can help us find a solution.

A great example is if you suck at assembling furniture, but you don’t look at the instructions anyway.

In this case, you might just enjoy the puzzle-like adventure of assembling furniture blindly. But some people almost seem allergic to following instructions, as if seeking help would undermine their whole sense of self.

Most of us are not in this extreme, but it is important to get into the habit (see above) of seeking ways to speed up our processes, and to do so… well, habitually!

“Ugh, sorry – must be instructions in the air”

As a member of a team, it makes a huge difference. An employer doesn’t want to see you struggling around and flailing when you could find the right information to expedite your own process. Obviously, that’s also not what you should want either.

Obviously, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel

But the trick is to do a quick Google search to see if this thing called a wheel already exists. After all, if you did reinvent it, you probably didn’t do it deliberately.

There are plenty of things you will inevitably need to spend your time and energy to think through carefully and critically (see above), and if you get too stuck on making your DIY-Wheel blueprints, you might miss the fact that wheels were invented over 5000 years ago and we have jet engines now.

Jet Engine v 0.1 (Dreamstime.com)

4. Seize Control by being Proactive

Do you remember in your early years how kids would get bullied and name-called as “try-hards”? Maybe even you were that “try-hard”.

It turns out those try-hards (possibly you) had the right idea. Again, from an employer’s point of view, a proactive employee is a divine gift. And, for you as well, can be one of your greatest strengths.

To see how it only takes a quick trip to critical thinking land.

Being proactive is essentially the act of seeking out your own opportunities. It removes the inevitability of time, and places the unfolding of events in your own hands, at a pace that you define. With more opportunities, even if you don’t seize all of them, at least you had the option. These options, repeated endlessly, quickly deviate the path closer and closer towards your goals.

People would kill for a missed opportunity to turn their lives around; literally, murder someone. The secret is that it isn’t about the big 180-degree, life-turning opportunity; it’s about one-degree, seemingly insignificant opportunities adding to each other. You don’t have to go to prison either.

Trying hard zone (www.safetysign.com/products/3909/bully-free-zone-sign)

5. Grow Continuously with Active Reflection

Finally, to the surprise of no-one, life gets harder. Naturally, if you want to succeed – you’ll need to get better.

But here’s another secret: it isn’t about how hard you try.

Even an insect will try to fly through a window pane repeatedly until it dies.

When the answer to “but did you die?” is “yes“, there’s really no lack of effort there.

Maximum effort fly
(https://www.colourbox.com/image/dead-fly-image-7590638)

The more life-compatible approach for the fly here would be to fail once or twice, then take a big step back and evaluate the situation and strategy.

How easily you can get through life is going to depend a lot on how dedicated you are to develop this habit. Fortunately, your life is full experiences to practice with!

Solutions to challenges are experiments; trial and error through focused evaluation. This process of thinking, thinking about thinking, asking questions, hypothesising answers, and incrementally getting closer to the truth, is a conscious process that required critical thinking as a foundation.

This is why it’s called active reflection.

A dog can see its reflection by walking past a mirror. But it doesn’t correlate to the dog:

  1. Wanting to look at itself
  2. Deliberately intending to have walked past the mirror
  3. Understanding what a mirror is
  4. Recognising itself
  5. Doing anything about what it saw

Maybe once in 1000 reflections, the dog will notice something and make a change, but I think we can agree that 0.1% is a sub-optimal success rate.

Then how can we take it up a few levels?

Simply do each step above, actively:

  1. Want to reflect on yourself and your behaviours, actions, and emotions – this is the fuel for your self-improvement, and it can happen in the safety and privacy of your bedroom
  2. Intend to reflect – schedule time for reflection – e.g. in the morning when you look at yourself in a real mirror!
  3. Understand the process of reflection – ask questions, hypothesise, treat it like an experiment, and think critically
  4. Recognise parts of yourself that appear throughout your reflections – what are the trends? This is the real you!
  5. Do something about it by setting one or two focus points for you to work on – something to experiment with and reflect on for your next session

Educationalists may recognise this from Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle because it’s derived from it.

Some of you might struggle with this, in which case the problem might be to do with your attention and focus.

So, if you keep doing the same thing, and conclude that the solution is to do the same thing, but harder, you probably need to go back to 1: Critical Thinking.

Unfortunately for the fly, this level of higher cognitive processing isn’t possible as flies lack brains and operate mostly through primitive reflexes instead. The same could be said for a lot of humans, but I won’t say that as it may be politically frowned-upon.

What do you think?

Agree? Disagree?

Think I’m missing a key point? Share your thoughts in the comments – we’d love to read what you have to say!

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About the author
Justin Sung
Justin Sung
Justin is a medical doctor, University of Auckland graduate, published research author, certified teacher, and founder of JTT. He has assisted thousands of students into healthcare careers since 2011, making him New Zealand's individually most experienced medical entry expert. He regularly works with schools and organisations to help students and professionals learn more effectively.

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