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16 Things I Wish They Had Taught Me in School


I am 28 now. I don’t think about the past or regret things much these days.

But sometimes I wish that I had known some of things I have learned over the last few years a bit earlier. That perhaps there had been a self-improvement class in school. And in some ways there probably was.

Because some of these 16 things in this article a teacher probably spoke about in class. But I forgot about them or didn’t pay attention.

Some of it would probably not have stuck in my mind anyway. Or just been too far outside my reality at the time for me to accept and use.

But I still think that taking a few hours from all those German language classes and use them for some personal development classes would have been a good idea. Perhaps for just an hour a week in high school. It would probably be useful for many students and on a larger scale quite helpful for society in general.

So here are 16 things I wish they had taught me in school (or I just would like to have known about earlier).

1. The 80/20 rule.

This is one of the best ways to make better use of your time. The 80/20 rule – also known as The Pareto Principle – basically says that 80 percent of the value you will receive will come from 20 percent of your activities.

So a lot of what you do is probably not as useful or even necessary to do as you may think.

You can just drop – or vastly decrease the time you spend on – a whole bunch of things.

And if you do that you will have more time and energy to spend on those things that really brings your value, happiness, fulfilment and so on.

2. Parkinson’s Law.

You can do things quicker than you think. This law says that a task will expand in time and seeming complexity depending on the time you set aside for it. For instance, if you say to yourself that you’ll come up with a solution within a week then the problem will seem to grow more difficult and you’ll spend more and more time trying to come up with a solution.

So focus your time on finding solutions. Then just give yourself an hour (instead of the whole day) or the day (instead of the whole week) to solve the problem. This will force your mind to focus on solutions and action.

The result may not be exactly as perfect as if you had spent a week on the task, but as mentioned in the previous point, 80 percent of the value will come from 20 percent of the activities anyway. Or you may wind up with a better result because you haven’t overcomplicated or overpolished things. This will help you to get things done faster, to improve your ability to focus and give you more free time where you can totally focus on what’s in front of you instead of having some looming task creating stress in the back of your mind.

3. Batching.

Boring or routine tasks can create a lot of procrastination and low-level anxiety. One good way to get these things done quickly is to batch them. This means that you do them all in row. You will be able to do them quicker because there is less start-up time compared to if you spread them out. And when you are batching you become fully engaged in the tasks and more focused.

A batch of things to do in an hour today may look like this: Clean your desk / answer today’s emails / do the dishes / make three calls / write a grocery shopping list for tomorrow.

4. First, give value. Then, get value. Not the other way around.

This is a bit of a counter-intuitive thing. There is often an idea that someone should give us something or do something for us before we give back. The problem is just that a lot of people think that way. And so far less than possible is given either way.

If you want to increase the value you receive (money, love, kindness, opportunities etc.) you have to increase the value you give. Because over time you pretty much get what you give. It would perhaps be nice to get something for nothing. But that seldom happens.

5. Be proactive. Not reactive.

This one ties into the last point. If everyone is reactive then very little will get done. You could sit and wait and hope for someone else to do something. And that happens pretty often, but it can take a lot of time before it happens.

A more useful and beneficial way is to be proactive, to simply be the one to take the first practical action and get the ball rolling. This not only saves you a lot of waiting, but is also more pleasurable since you feel like you have the power over your life. Instead of feeling like you are run by a bunch of random outside forces.

6. Mistakes and failures are good.

When you are young you just try things and fail until you learn. As you grow a bit older, you learn from – for example – school to not make mistakes. And you try less and less things.

This may cause you to stop being proactive and to fall into a habit of being reactive, of waiting for someone else to do something. I mean, what if you actually tried something and failed? Perhaps people would laugh at you?

Perhaps they would. But when you experience that you soon realize that it is seldom the end of the world. And a lot of the time people don’t care that much. They have their own challenges and lives to worry about.

And success in life often comes from not giving up despite mistakes and failure. It comes from being persistent.

When you first learn to ride your bike you may fall over and over. Bruise a knee and cry a bit. But you get up, brush yourself off and get on the saddle again. And eventually you learn how to ride a bike. If you can just reconnect to your 5 year old self and do things that way – instead of giving up after a try/failure or two as grown-ups often do -you would probably experience a lot more interesting things, learn valuable lessons and have quite a bit more success.

7. Don’t beat yourself up.

Why do people give up after just few mistakes or failures? Well, I think one big reason is because they beat themselves up way too much. But it’s a kinda pointless habit. It only creates additional and unnecessary pain inside you and wastes your precious time. It’s best to try to drop this habit as much as you can.

8. Assume rapport.

Meeting new people is fun. But it can also induce nervousness. We all want to make a good first impression and not get stuck in an awkward conversation.

The best way to do this that I have found so far is to assume rapport. This means that you simply pretend that you are meeting one of your best friends. Then you start the interaction in that frame of mind instead of the nervous one.

This works surprisingly well. You can read more about it in How to Have Less Awkward Conversations: Assuming Rapport.

9. Use your reticular activation system to your advantage.

I learned about the organs and the inner workings of the body in class but nobody told me about the reticular activation system. And that’s a shame, because this is one of the most powerful things you can learn about. What this focus system, this R.A.S, in your mind does is to allow you to see in your surroundings what you focus your thoughts on. It pretty much always helps you to find what you are looking for.

So you really need to focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want. And keep that focus steady.

Setting goals and reviewing them frequently is one way to keep your focus on what’s important and to help you take action that will move your closer to toward where you want to go. Another way is just to use external reminders such as pieces of paper where you can, for instance, write down a few things from this post like “Give value” or “Assume rapport”. And then you can put those pieces of paper on your fridge, bathroom mirror etc.

10. Your attitude changes your reality.

We have all heard that you should keep a positive attitude or perhaps that “you need to change your attitude!”. That is a nice piece of advice I suppose, but without any more reasons to do it is very easy to just brush such suggestions off and continue using your old attitude.

But the thing that I’ve discovered the last few years is that if you change your attitude, you actually change your reality. When you for instance use a positive attitude instead of a negative one you start to see things and viewpoints that were invisible to you before. You may think to yourself “why haven’t I thought about things this way before?”.

When you change your attitude you change what you focus on. And all things in your world can now be seen in a different light.

This is of course very similar to the previous tip but I wanted to give this one some space. Because changing your attitude can create an insane change in your world. It might not look like it if you just think about it though. Pessimism might seem like realism. But that is mostly because your R.A.S is tuned into seeing all the negative things you want to see. And that makes you “right” a lot of the time. And perhaps that is what you want. On the other hand, there are more fun things than being right all the time.

If you try changing your attitude for real – instead of analysing such a concept in your mind – you’ll be surprised.

You may want to read more about this topic in Take the Positivity Challenge!

11. Gratitude is a simple way to make yourself feel happy.

Sure, I was probably told that I should be grateful. Perhaps because it was the right thing to do or just something I should do. But if someone had said that feeling grateful about things for minute or two is a great way to turn a negative mood into a happy one I would probably have practised gratitude more. It is also a good tool for keeping your attitude up and focusing on the right things. And to make other people happy. Which tends to make you even happier, since emotions are contagious.

12. Don’t compare yourself to others.

The ego wants to compare. It wants to find reasons for you to feel good about yourself (“I’ve got a new bike!”). But by doing that it also becomes very hard to not compare yourself to others who have more than you (“Oh no, Bill has bought an even nicer bike!”). And so you don’t feel so good about yourself once again. If you compare yourself to others you let the world around control how you feel about yourself. It always becomes a rollercoaster of emotions.

A more useful way is to compare yourself to yourself. To look at how far you have come, what you have accomplished and how you have grown. It may not sound like that much fun but in the long run it brings a lot more inner stillness, personal power and positive feelings.

13. 80-90% of what you fear will happen never really come into reality.

This is a big one. Most things you fear will happen never happen. They are just monsters in your own mind. And if they happen then they will most often not be as painful or bad as you expected. Worrying is most often just a waste of time.

This is of course easy to say. But if you remind yourself of how little of what you feared throughout your life that has actually happened you can start to release more and more of that worry from your thoughts.

14. Don’t take things too seriously.

It’s very easy to get wrapped up in things. But most of the things you worry about never come into reality. And what may seem like a big problem right now you may not even remember in three years.

Taking yourself, your thoughts and your emotions too seriously often just seems to lead to more unnecessary suffering. So relax a little more and lighten up a bit. It can do wonders for your mood and as an extension of that; your life.

15. Write everything down.

If your memory is anything like mine then it’s like a leaking bucket. Many of your good or great ideas may be lost forever if you don’t make a habit of writing things down. This is also a good way to keep your focus on what you want. Read more about it in Why You Should Write Things Down.

16. There are opportunities in just about every experience.

In pretty much any experience there are always things that you can learn from it and things within the experience that can help you to grow. Negative experiences, mistakes and failure can sometimes be even better than a success because it teaches you something totally new, something that another success could never teach you.

Whenever you have a “negative experience” ask yourself: where is the opportunity in this? What is good about this situation? One negative experience can – with time – help you create many very positive experiences.

What do you wish someone had told you in school or you had just learned earlier in life?

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  • Dave April 13, 2008, 1:23 am

    Sturgeon’s Law (paraphrased): 90 percent of everything is crap.

    Nearing 50 I can see no truer words were ever spoken.

  • Justin April 13, 2008, 1:03 pm

    Hey check out my web site with lots of wisdom :)

    http://www.twofrags.com/hub.php

  • mehmet April 13, 2008, 5:34 pm

    very good summary. but i wish i learned those 10 years ago

  • Prodnose April 16, 2008, 9:59 pm

    Lots of useful things here!

    Wish I could remember who said it, but I’ll quote it anyway:

    “As you get older, you realise that an awful lot of things don’t matter. And most things don’t matter at all.”

  • Harold April 18, 2008, 5:29 pm

    Reinvent yourself.

    You want to be that skydiver who loves to cook? Enroll in a cooking class and head out to the dropzone on Sunday.

  • Poor Yorick's Almanack April 18, 2008, 6:56 pm

    Great list. I would add:

    Learn to let go. It is natural to want to hold onto people, things, and situations longer than we should because most of us fear change. Change, however, is the one constant in the Universe. By learning to gracefully let go, we’ll be in a better position to welcome new people, things, and situations into our lives.

  • Paul @ Web Design Ireland May 5, 2008, 4:06 pm

    Great post, I particularly liked Parkinson law – I frequently find myself coming up with the best solutions for problems when time is tight to solve them.

  • Ian May 7, 2008, 7:22 pm

    Great post its the attitude that we have that makes the difference and i like your attitude.

  • Thad2000 May 8, 2008, 8:36 pm

    I loved most of this and it showed great wisdom. … But… I have a 16 year old son and geting him to work on anything is damn near impossible. I feel like the first one (the 80 / 20 rule_) just confuses the issue. In highschool years some avoid dances, clubs, sports using a blanket response of “too much trouble.” I know you cover not being afraid to fail later, but … # one could be used as an exuse. It’s not always easy to tell whats worth while at the time. Give it a shot. Keep an open mind. The blood and sweat never seems as bad post defacto.

  • Marla Oxley May 11, 2008, 4:50 am

    This is great stuff!

    I have a serious question for you:

    Our high school creates a Student Planner every year. I design the thing and I’m always looking for good information to include.

    Would you object to me including a shortened version of your list? I will, of course, give you proper credit and I wish I could pay you, but I don’t even get paid for designing the thing.

    Please let me know? Your list could help a bunch of high school kids.

    Thank you!
    Marla Oxley
    French Teacher
    Fairfield High School
    Fairfield, California

  • Henrik Edberg May 11, 2008, 10:05 am

    Hi, Marla! Sure, you may include a shortened version of the list in the Student Planner. I hope your students get something useful out of it.

  • Tyler Clemens May 12, 2008, 3:23 am

    Never limit yourself to your immediate frame of reference. Anything is possible. Approach from an angle that will achieve what you want.

  • Bart H. May 12, 2008, 10:13 pm

    Nothing I learned in grades 2-12, nor my 3-odd years of college, have been of any use to me in 13 years of adult life. Instead of taking the nerd route in Honors Language & Math classes, I should have enrolled in the automotive repair courses – seriously! Personal Finance training is indeed the other HUGE thing lacking.

    All you need in life is knowledge of self, knowledge of money, and a passion to pursue as your vocation. The ability to deal with people is priceless.

  • Ethan May 12, 2008, 11:06 pm

    Save 10% of everything you earn. Over the years it will add up very nicely!

    The sooner you start, the more power compound interest will bring to you as the years pass by. The time you start earlier becomes more and more difficult to catch up with. Don’t assume that “when I’m X (say 45) years old, I’ll just put 20K in a savings account in one big move”.

    At retirement age, this can mean a difference of hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars… yes, you read that correctly!

    http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2006/05/26/pep-talk-pay-yourself-first/

    http://mutualfunds.about.com/cs/mutualfunds101/a/compounding.htm

    Let your money work for you basically. :-)

  • George May 13, 2008, 5:41 pm

    Great article!
    I was lucky to come across good books with success principles and meeting some people who practiced and taught these principles when I was 23 years old. Same as you I was upset at first why such important lessons were not taught to me in school. Later on I realized it was not only the schools who are responsible for that but mainly the grown-ups you grow up with, the parents. Parents have the children around for thousands of hours before the first teachers arrive on the scene. It is too easy to lay responsibility for lack of peopleskills/success principles/positive thinking etc. on the educational system. I’m now 50 years old, have successfully used many of the key points you talk about in your post. Also my wife and I have raised our kids in the same spirit, often having to battle with the other influences the kids came across while growing up. During their teen years our “positive influence” seemed to land in very unfertile grounds, when everything a parent says is considered old-fashioned, outdated and dumb. Still I noticed that when they reached their twenties many of the principles had taken root after all, when you hear how they interact with others, solve problems and go about their lives. So the title of your article should maybe read:
    16 Things I Wish They Had Taught Me at Home or in School
    Thanks for sharing your article with the (future) parents out there.

  • Miguel Marcos May 15, 2008, 8:55 am

    Here’s one, the trilemma or the art of trade-offs. (I never heard the word trilemma used to describe the principle but I learned it a long time ago and it’s a very useful tool to approach many (any?) projects.

    The classic example is managing a project where three major variables are time, cost, quality. Out of the the three you can only really choose two variables, the third one will be ruled out by virtue of the other two being present.

    Here’s a discussion of trilemmas:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trilemma

  • sue May 16, 2008, 8:11 pm

    Great article! I’m making a scrapbook for my son for his high school graduation and will include these ideas, along with some of the great additions I’ve read in the comments following.

  • NbN May 16, 2008, 11:32 pm

    There’s the other 80/20 rule, of course – 80% of the work will take the first half of the time, and the last 20% will take the other half. I used to underestimate the time I would need for EVERYTHING before I figured that one out.

  • acme May 17, 2008, 11:00 pm

    “they” are not real humans… how could’ve they forgotten how it was like?

  • Angie June 10, 2008, 10:12 pm

    Excellent article glad I came across it.I feel that everything we do and everything we are is a result of what we have thought into our lives positive or negative.That there are no mistakes we are here to learn. I believe we live in lets just call it a classroom, a very large classroom. That everystep of the way teaches us and everystep of the way we either learn it and move forward or we don,t and the experience will repeat itself maybe not in quite the same way, until it is learned.Here is a Clause I would like to share from the book The Secret excellent read,”That a man can change himself….and master his own destiny is the conclusion of every mind who is wide-awake to the power of right thought.”Christian D. Larson (1866-1954)