5 Real World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident)

Things that were never contained in a textbook or a lecture but made painfully clear to me simply by my four-year immersion in a little community that would help me predict the real world to come.
5 Real World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident)

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column called 5 Ways College Accidentally Prepares You For The Real World that went on to be one of my more popular pieces before being optioned for a Lifetime miniseries starring Channing Tatum as a dissatisfied youth who learns some life lessons at a New England private school. (OK, that second part is totally made up, but according to equally invented reports, Channing was "totally bummed" the project didn't happen.)

5 Real World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident)
Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

"I absolutely never said that."

In any event, although that column contains five life-tested, college-influenced wisdom nuggets, I realized I'd learned more than five things at college. Things that were never contained in a textbook or a lecture but made painfully clear to me simply by my four-year immersion in a little community that would help me predict the real world to come.

Crafty Is Better Than Smart

I was raised in a very idealistic home. I'm still a very idealistic, if not naive, person. And when I was 18, I was only more so. I thought college would be a magical place filled with modern-day wizards of knowledge, imparting pure learning into my unadulterated brain. I thought my mind would fill to the point of bursting and visiting academics would gather around the shining luminosity that was my cranium. (I also thought I'd be having sex with bipolar, bisexual, goth girls nonstop, which, as it turns out, was only slightly less realistic than the preceding sentences.) Basically, I imagined a non-magical Hogwarts where the people with the purest minds were the most greatly rewarded.

5 Real World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident)

My college fantasy (minus the magic, plus deviant sex).

But when I got to college, I soon saw that the people who achieved the most were typically not the smartest but the craftiest. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about deceit or cheating. I'm just talking about practicality. There are those students who know how to find copies of old exams to get a sense of what's to come, who seek out the advice of professors' prior students, who make a point of asking pathetic questions like, "Is this gonna be on the test?" every time the professor makes a point.

And Keep This In Mind For When You Leave College, Because ...

While this behavior always seemed unseemly and undignified to me, it's effective. Figuratively speaking, it didn't matter that I considered myself a true artist creating rock operas, while these kids were merely record company A&R men listening to music only to find that hit single. It didn't matter that I turned my nose up at them, because while I did well in school, they did better. They were right.

The working world is filled with countless hacks who are merely competent at their job. There are only a few geniuses out there with the time, inclination, or desire to see a new or better way. An employer has the right to get what he or she wants, and most of the time it's not divine inspiration but mere, unproblematic functionality out of the work force. So being the kind of person who seeks out prior work product to copy or who snoops around asking what kind of sports or TV shows or whatever the boss is into often will give you an edge. And these employees will no doubt be rewarded for such behavior in their jobs (at the soulless, irritating prick factory, or wherever they work).

Money Talks

Y'know, many people don't need this lesson. Indeed, for many of my classmates, it was money that helped get them to universities in the first place. But a good way to figure out what universities value is to see who they name things after, and wouldn't you know it, they name buildings after the people who fund them. I know that's not earth-shattering news to anyone. That's the whole point of funding building projects, so that you can name it after yourself, but, I dunno, it still seemed so gross to my teen mind. I mean, shouldn't astronomy buildings be named after Carl Sagan or English buildings be named after alumni poets? Aren't these buildings testaments to learning?

foctsa Dinherste ancva -ivesicy Pavillon des diplomes Alex Trebek Alumni Hall
ottawacitizen.com/wayne cuddington

"I'll take 'Weird things to spend a million dollars on,' Alex."

And Keep This In Mind For When You Leave College, Because ...

But that is the way of the world. All the projects around campus were named after filthy-rich capitalists instead of scholars. And that makes sense, because, y'know, capitalists are the ones with money. Although there are exceptions, for the most part, the pursuit of academia will not make you rich. IQs don't build buildings; money does. Well, technically, construction workers do, but they're hired by the people with money, so you know what I mean.

Of course, intellectuals are required to draft the plans for the most ornate, beautiful buildings, but without some cigar-smoking boilermaker suit d-bag to fund the project, those drawings will remain on paper. (Also, in 2015, the cigar-smoking boilermaker suit might be a Palo Alto dude in flip-flops and jorts - but still probably a d-bag.) After college, capitalists get things done, because for the most part scholars make a helluva lot less money unless they have TV shows. Hey, like Alex Trebek!

Bigger Is Better (For Freaks)

For anyone reading my stuff for the last how many years, it probably will come as no surprise that I'm a freak. I suppose I could have rushed a fraternity (if I liked being like 30 other guys and the taste of ass-crack-infused hazing beer), but I didn't want to. I'm not sure about now, but back in the day, Cornell was about 45 percent fraternity, 40 percent hippies, and 15 percent other. I wasn't Greek or hippie material, which meant I had to exist in that 15 percent other, but the good news is Cornell had about 9 million students, and 15 percent of 9 million is ... um, hold on, I was an English major ... well, not sure, but the point is: a lot!

But there is a lesson in all of this, and that's if you're not like the average bear, it's a good idea to throw yourself into a place with lots of options. You might hate 85 percent of your classmates (as I most certainly did), but if you have enough people to choose from, you will find your friends. True, your friends might look like this, but you won't be lonely on a Saturday night.

5 Real World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident)

I'm the well-dressed one in the middle wearing my mother's vest.

I can't prove this is true, but if I had gone to one of those small New England universities, I fear I might have spent four years alone because I didn't own the right kind of boat shoe.

And Keep This In Mind For When You Leave College, Because ...

Even when you're alone, you need to remember that the world is big. You might be the only freak in your family, your school, your town, but you're not the only freak in the world. But, hopefully, as children of the Internet, you might have already learned this lesson. You're used to being one of maybe two or three freaks in a small-town high school who's super into Sabrina, The Teenage Witch cosplay, but you know you have a treasure-trove of like-minded weirdo friends on the worldwide 'net. Maybe no one else in your town appreciates your "found object" artwork that's based around discarded tampons and condoms, but, somehow, you've got 5,000 BFFs visiting your Pinterest page! Well, college is a lot like that. If the school is big enough and gives you enough options, a freak will find his friends. And even if your school is not big enough, I promise you the world is.

5 Real World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident)

It Only Counts When Someone's Watching

So a few times throughout the year, I couldn't help but notice that my campus got nicer. Workers and landscapers were out, and suddenly the place started smelling funny with fertilizer-infused sod and like two weeks later, bam, it was alumni weekend or visiting day or homecoming or whatever it was. The takeaway message is, schools doll themselves up when someone other than their students is watching.

5 Real World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident)
DC Productions/Photodisc/Getty

For the purpose of proving a point with a blatant photographic lie, let's pretend this is the "before" picture
of my dorm prior to its parents' weekend overhaul.

As a kid, I remember being pissed off -- for some reason. I guess I was like, "Sure, sure, Mr. Administration Man, you don't give a crap about the dying lawn for the rest of the year, but when the parents come you're like, 'Look at our fucking lawn!'" I'm dying of embarrassment even typing that now, but that's how we all felt -- like the administration was perpetrating a fraud. It seemingly didn't occur to any of us that we didn't really care how the landscaping looked the rest of the time anyway.

And Keep This In Mind For When You Leave College, Because ...

There will always be someone more important than you are, and sometimes they come to visit. It can be the company CEO, it can be the shareholders, it can be a food inspector. I once worked at an office that would revoke the business-casual policy on those few days during the year when a major client was on location. At first, that seemed disingenuous. I was annoyed that I had to put on a suit to sit at a desk and felt part of a larger fraud. And then I remembered parents' weekend back at college. Yes, sometimes things change when people more important than you are coming for a visit. But also, it usually doesn't matter. You can see sporadic landscaping or suit-wearing as a form of deceit because it doesn't happen 24/7, or you can just relax and say, hey, if you're doing it to make guests more comfortable, maybe it's just being polite?

Knowledge Is A Luxury

My father grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. He volunteered for the Army and put himself through college on the G.I. Bill while still helping to support his parents. After school, he got his degree and had three kids who he put through college and grad school. And in order to do that, he had to take a train every single day into the city to work in an office with what I presume was a squawking collective of ginormous fuckbags, and do whatever else he needed to do to pay his mortgage and sons' educational expenses. And when he was over 50 and looking for extra work, he drove about an extra four hours a day to teach accounting as an adjunct professor at a small college. My father was a working man through and through, and he bore no resemblance to the Ivory Tower professors I had teaching my classes.

5 Real World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident)

My dad shortly before college in 1951. Compare that to the candy-assed loser bearing his DNA in the earlier photo.

As I went through college I saw all kinds of professors, and none of them reminded me of my father. They were softer than he. They were lighter -- in the sense of almost being ethereal. I could see them in a lecture hall or a coffee shop or a cocktail party, but I could not see most of them in an office or a coal mine. "Good!" I can hear them say, even now. "Sounds dreadful!"

And Keep This In Mind For When You Leave College, Because ...

What those academics would say, lovely as some of them were, is not the point. The point is, academia is a privilege. Living the life of a scholar is a privilege, and if you find a way to make it a career, God bless you. That is valuable. But it is no more valuable than men and women who put on business suits or hard hats and go to work in tedious jobs in which they do not get to explore the life of the mind. And for me that was the biggest and most indirect lesson of college: showing me many of the people who don't exist in the real world of set business hours and direct supervisors. For four years, I got to be like them, existing only in academia, and it was a lot of fun, especially because I knew it was finite and wholly unlike the world I'd come from and would return to.


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