What Life Taught Me vs What School Taught Me

Every Q4, a few predictable things happen: people start planning their year-end holidays, companies start planning business for next year, and students start getting freaked out over exams.

You’ve been through this whole crazy exam thing, so you know what I’m talking about. And despite its questionable results, I don’t think our overemphasis on standardized exams is going away anytime soon. So students keep on cramming like it’s the end of the world if you don’t score an A.

But everyone knows that education is meant to be a lot more than just exams. Or at least, everyone wishes that it is.

So in honor of all my little brothers and sisters who are staring down the upcoming weeks of hell, here’s my take on things we should have learned instead. Things I had to learn by myself over the years — through painful tears.

And no, this one isn’t just for the students. This one is for everyone who ever wished they had a better education.

These are the life truths I wish they’d taught me in school.

 

1. Education Is Mostly Learned, Not Taught

When I was growing up, you were trained to think that “Teacher is the ultimate source of wisdom and knowledge.” But because she was underpaid and struggling with three kids at home, she messed up in class and failed your expectations. And you laughed at her.

10 years on, now you’re struggling in your career, trying to juggle work and personal life, and failing your boss‘ expectations. Who’s laughing now, bitch?

Karma lessons aside, I think there’s something very ancient about the idea of teacher giving and students receiving. So I’d like to propose a better idea: All responsibility for learning should lie on the student, not the teacher.

Yeah, this would be difficult to implement in our education system (imagine the public uproar: “If I’m paying taxes, why are teachers not taking responsibility?!” And maybe it wouldn’t work for kids below 12.) But I’m talking to you as an adult person; an individual.

And if there’s one principle that’s served me well, both in school and life, it’s this: Teachers, mentors and tutors are only there to guide you when you have a problem. You’ve gotta learn things for yourself.

You’ve got to take responsibility for your own life.

Looking at the attitudes of some young graduates today, “How does boss expect me to do this? I wasn’t trained for it!” I wish this is the very first thing they’d teach you in school.

 

Pretty schoolgirl daydreaming in class
“Is it really education if they don’t teach me how to talk to boys?”

 

2. Everything Gets Democratized (Like Education)

“But how the f*ck am I supposed to learn things by myself?”

This is where we lean upon the ancient wisdom of Twitter:

“Library is free.
Websites are free.
Podcasts are free.
Wifi can be free.
Content is free.

Your reasons for not learning?
All bullshit.”
– @AJA_Cortes –

Yeah, initiative. But there’s something else interesting about the tweet above:

It wasn’t always this way. 

It really wasn’t. You likely grew up with the Internet, so maybe you don’t realize this. But go back 25 years… when the Internet was just going mainstream.

Back then, your access to knowledge was limited by your parents’ ability to buy good books for you. Or how well stocked your local library was. And how good… you guessed it… your teacher was.

Today, you don’t need anyone to be a gatekeeper anymore. You have direct access to whatever kind of information you want on your smartphone. As long as you’re curious enough.

The Internet democratized knowledge.

I know, democratized is a big word. It means to give many people access to something. Like how AirAsia democratized flying — allowing millions of people to travel cheaply.

How did we start from school and end up in a concept like democratization? Well because what you see with the Internet, information, and how it changed learning will spread to other aspects of our lives.

Human ingenuity will continue to remove roadblocks, whether it’s in education, finance or transportation. To give more and more people access to good things. Try as they might, no one can stop this from happening. It’s in our human nature.

It’s also why there are so many Internet millionaires.

 

3. The World Changes (All the Time)

You’ve seen how Uber and Grab changed transportation within cities. You’ve seen how AirAsia and Airbnb changed international travel.

Yet, we are taught as if knowledge is a static thing. “Syllabus. A, B, C. That’s it, bam! And it’s gonna be this way, forever.”

Here’s another example. And parents, you’re gonna love this one:

  • In the 80s and 90s: “Don’t eat fat and cholesterol. Go easy on the eggs. That stuff will kill you!”
  • In the 2000s: “Don’t eat so much carbohydrates. Go easy on the rice. That stuff will kill you!”
  • Recently: “Don’t eat sugar. Go easy on the drinks. That stuff will kill you!”

Nutrition is supposed to be science, mind you. And yet it has changed significantly over the decades, with no one still able to tell you 100% which stuff actually kills you.

My point here isn’t that science is flawed. My point is that if even something like science (which is thoroughly researched) can be updated from time to time, what more the other aspects of life which don’t depend on scientific laws?

Which is why our minds need to be flexible; open to new ideas. Take whatever you’re learning today with a pinch of salt: adaptability is more valuable than absolute certainty. Because the world changes all the time.   

And those who stubbornly stick to ideas of the past will get left behind.

 

Meme with Keanu asking if oxygen is poisonous

 

4. There Are No Right Answers

Every once in a while when I hang with old timers, I hear the words “I miss my student days. Things were simpler then.”

Feels strange, because I’m actually the weirdo who thinks life has gotten a damn lot better since graduation. But I’ve always been curious why people reminisce that way. Now I think I know why.

When you were a student, you operated in a limited space. Constraints were clearly defined for you: exams and social circle. Do well in exams, be popular with other kids, have enough money for the occasional McD — and you were a winner. There was a box, and if you ticked all the boxes with the right answers, you won.

Of course, in the adult world, the only constraints are those you set for yourself. Like, you might be comfortable with your RM 5,000/month job. But there’s nothing stopping you from setting up your own business to aim for RM 100,000/month.

F*ck thinking outside the box. There is no box.

And yes, I get it. There’s a reason why simple answers exist.

Because “right answers” are convenient. They’re a shortcut in life.

If we didn’t have them, we’d short circuit our brains figuring out how to deal with each and every situation. It’s exhausting. And scary.

But life is full of important questions with no easy answers. Take that challenging job, or remain secure in your comfort zone? Move to the city and swim with the sharks, or be the big fish in your small pond? Leave her, or try to work through your relationship problems?

We’re trained to look for the right answer, so we shed blood, tears and precious time trying to find it. But the truth is, ethical/moral questions aside, we’ll never know what’s the 100% correct thing to do in our lives.

All we have is wisdom and probabilities.

 

5. Cause & Effect Don’t 100% Match

“Study hard so you can get a good job. (And not have to work like the garbage man.)”

When you were a kid, your parents probably told you something along the above. It’s designed to lead to the ultimate Asian parent wet dream: “My son is a lawyer at a prestigious multinational corporation!”

It’s also why every year without fail, some top scorer will write an emotional letter (or tweet) to the minister of education — saying he deserves a spot in Universiti Malaya to study medicine, because he scored all As and was president of the chess club.

Welcome to the harsh reality of the world — where people often don’t get what they “deserve.” Not because the world is unfair, and only rich people win. But because our expectations are wrong in the first place.

We’re taught over-generalizations: “Do A, then B will happen.” And much like how exams make us think there are “right” answers, this leads to false assumptions:

  • Study hard and get a good degree, then you’ll get a good job.
  • Be a nice guy and treat her well, then she’ll like you.
  • Earn lots of money and buy lots of things, then you’ll be happy.

Yeah, of course there’s correlation between effort and success. If you’re nice to people, people will probably be nice to you too.

I’m just telling you that it’ll never 100% match. Maybe you need to go for 15 interviews and 14 rejections, before you land a job you love.

Maybe you need to talk to 10 girls, before one will like you back.

There are probabilities but there are no guarantees. We can only try our best.

 

– – –

 

It’s been 12 years since I took an academic exam. And if I’m being honest with you, I was actually a good student. I was a winner in school.

Now, life kicks my ass — sometimes on a daily basis. I’m still trying to figure this whole thing out, where there are often no rules, and even if there are, they’re always there for the breaking. No marking scheme which if you follow — you know you’ll win.

We live in this world where uncertainty rules. School may not have taught us everything we need to know. But at least it laid the foundation for us to think and learn.

As long as we stay humble enough to be students of this great teacher called life, I think we’ll be okay.

 

– – –

 

Pics from Pexels, Pexels & Imgflip.

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8 comments

  • What has been lost is the joy of learning. We’ve been fed facts and figures but not to question them. Teachers, parents and elders answer to a kids question mostly ends in “I am the authority here, do not question me”. Even we ourselves look down on people perceived to be “wrong” and impose on them our views instead of exploring logically how we came to a particular conclusion. There has to be more exploration and less blowbacks against someone questioning.

  • Nietzscheanism. i think this is what i feel when i read this article of yours aaron. you are the only one over here in malaysia who says go against the grain to find yourself. takes a lot of guts. but thats what i feel every generation is about. to push the boundaries. to the unknown . to seek that new frontier. dont just play safe submit to the status quo,
    for you are not truly living until what you do makes you come alive. all else is drudgery. peace n love bro . tc

    • Thanks briga,

      Really big kind words from you. But I think there are many brave ones everywhere, and everyone is fighting a battle. May we fight bravely. Much peace and love to you too.

  • Hi Aaron,

    Loved this article. I share a lot of the same sentiment. I still find it difficult to break out of the result-oriented mentality, especially when it’s so ingrained. It’s an easy way to do things mindlessly. Sometimes, I catch myself sliding right back into the “If I did this, then That will happen” because the unknown can give lots of headaches. Half the time, that causality doesn’t even add up, so I will still have headaches anyway! But I think the secret nobody lets on is the headaches are part of the learning process of life. So gotta learn to enjoy them and work through them.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Thanks Nicole. Yeah, it’s a constant battle that I struggle with too. I think the important thing is to regularly take a deep breath, step back and look at our situation with different perspectives. Looking forward to you sharing your thoughts in more articles!

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