Why you go to school

With a headline like “why you go to school”, you’re just waiting for the common answer of “to get a good job!” to be exploded, aren’t you?

Well, if you’re a regular reader of Personal Due Diligence, you probably are by now.

In this morning’s Globe and Mail, Kevin Lynch, Vice-Chair of BMO Financial Group (and former Clerk of the Privy Council, Canada’s top civil servant), cited “literacy, numeracy, creativity, adaptability and entrepreneurship” as essential to success.

That’s why you go to school. A career that sustains you flows from that.

Now think for a moment what those five require of you.

Are you going to get that by rushing your way into some programme or other that promises “a good job” at the end of it? Probably not.

Robert A. Heinlein, in his book Time Enough for Love, took the view that “specialization is for insects” — in other words, that we need to bring many different skills to the table in order to deal with life. His quoted list is longer than Lynch’s, but unsurprisingly contains those five elements — but with the possible exception of “die gallantly” isn’t longer.

The problem with any educational programme that’s geared to “job gaining” is twofold. First, it will necessarily be more narrow than you’ll need in the long run. That’s because most of the jobs that exist today won’t exist forty years from now (just as a fair few number of those from forty years ago are on the rubbish tip of history now).

On 16 January 1974 — forty years ago — I started work as a computer operator in a data centre. Of the four manufacturers of computers in that data centre only one remains in business today. My first jobs there included mounting tapes (robots do it, to the extent tape exists now), running a burster/decollator (we no longer print on carbon-paper multi-part forms that have to be stripped apart and have the sprocket holes sliced off before using), running the “scanning” computer (which was started up by feeding in a program on paper-tape, no longer in use), sorting card decks pre-input (we neither keypunch card nor use machines programmed via plugboards) and running an all-batch workload environment (very little processing is done in an offline, batched way any longer).

Good thing I wasn’t “trained” to be “job ready”, eh?

Of course, forty years in and around IT work (my degrees are in philosophy, not computer science) have taught me one thing. Every technological evolution in the IT industry has actually led to its “professionals” dumping all their hard-earned experience of how to do things well in the dumpster in a mad dash to “the next new thing”. I’ve earned more than a few dollars over the years by having a memory for how we solved a problem the last time and being able to communicate that history in the language of the new paradigm.

Seems my literacy, studies in history, and reasoning classes have served me better than any amount of technical training might have.

Here on PDD, we’ve repeatedly said “pay cash to go to school”. If literacy (the humanities) and numeracy (maths and the sciences) are one part of the puzzle, the “pay cash” part turns to the “adaptability” and “entrepreneurship” part.

Here’s the nasty thing about coming out of school in debt: you have to pay it back. (Indeed, if you do that in the United States, you’ll find that the one debt you can’t, by law, discharge in bankruptcy is your student loan. You can dump your credit cards, kill your mortgage, even stiff the IRS — but you can’t wipe away the enslavement of your university years.)

Having to pay it back, in turn, forces you to take a job — any job — rather than explore your options.

You see, for every hour spent in a classroom, you need to spend at least another one in “the school of life”. There are those who are happy, for instance, being a barista (they like people and enjoy serving them; they have another career they’re working on and this is the extra money needed to close the gap; they’re studying how the shop works with an eye toward maybe starting their own one day — three different baristas at my favourite local independent coffee house fit these to a “T”). Then are those who are pouring coffee because they’ve got loan payments to make: the sort that, in the words of Daffy Duck in Beanstalk Bunny, say “it’s a living”.

Trying your hand at something new, or something entrepreneurial, when you’re a newly minted graduate is likely a little easier than having to gear up and do it for the first time in your late 40s having just been dumped out of the corporate career ladder with no easy way back in. Doing it with no prior obligations is, of course, even easier.

What’s more important is that the move to self-employment — with a business, or as a consultant — isn’t as much of a one-way trip at 25 as it is at 50. At 30, having your résumé read by someone with a job to offer showing you spent five years working in a not-for-profit, or trying your hand at business, merely translates as “lots of useful skills”. Doing the same thing twenty years later translates as “not our sort of person” and is binned long before the interviews start.

So, when it comes to your education, take the long view. Arm yourself with a diverse, useful background — something that can fill a good part of Heinlein’s long list of “a human being should be able to…”. A good understanding of history, your culture, maths, at least one science, will serve you well in many different endeavours. Do that without risking a penny of your future earnings. None of that education will be replaced by the march of progress — and it frees you to then give yourself the “school of life” lessons needed to succeed in the long run.

In the meanwhile, learn to think long term, as Lynch suggests. Periodically that may mean investing in a year or two of “professional grooming” (what else can you call a professional Master’s degree or certificate program?) because where you need to be next needs what that offers. But by then you’re earning, and again, can pay for it, cash on the barrelhead.

Maximal flexibility to seize opportunities — minimal ties holding you back from doing so — it all adds up to a life with you in charge, not the whims of some “boss” whom you have to put up in a desperate quest to keep the money flowing to pay the bills.

Getting there involves more than good luck, though — it involves planning. That’s where the advisors at PDD come in.

3 thoughts on “Why you go to school

  1. Pingback: We live in an era where Renaissance Man must live again | Just a Jump to the Left, and then a Step to the Right

  2. Peter Rawsthorne

    Outstanding Post! The one item I would add to the five above is “grit”… believe in your vision, believe in your next step (as long as it makes sense). and stick with it, success will come…


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