School is rubbish, but it also prepares us for real life

Published October 5, 2016   Posted in How to Think

I need to level with you, kids. The large majority of the stuff that you learn in K-12 will never apply to your life. You won’t need it. It’s rubbish. There, I said it.

Pinterest: Does school prepare us for real life?Heck, the reason why I’ve “never been much of a reader” was due to school. In school, we read uninteresting, sleep-inducing drivel. Yes, Mr. Shakespeare, that includes you. I have no interest in reading your tales of romance or emotional decay. Deciphering your words isn’t fun. In fact, it’s work. I appreciated Cliff Notes more during our Shakespearean torture lessons than perhaps any other time during school. Yet, we were forced to read this man anyway, against many of our wills.

And school taught me that reading wasn’t fun; that it was a chore. Reading is an assignment, not something to be done for pleasure or enjoyment. Reading includes book reports and presentations, letter grades and tests. Just like virtually every other subject.

No adult remembers the quadratic formula unless they happen to use that specialized knowledge on a daily basis. We all know textbooks are biased. Teachers, too. Worse, teachers know their schools get funding based largely on exam scores from completely arbitrary standardized tests that all kids must conform too, adding another level of excruciating pain to the process of K-12.

Half of the “history” that you learn in school will be “re-learned” as you grow up. Textbooks do not teach the realities of life. Those lessons are learned by experience. Can anyone honestly tell me that they remember Charlemagne?

Yeah, me either.

School vs. reality

I know that school is your reality right now, but soon it won’t be. Soon, reality will be your reality. In a world that doesn’t give trophies for coming in 4th, it might be a big shock. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes, you don’t get what you deserve. Other times, you get more than you deserve. It happens. Revel in the good times, kids!

At the moment, if you do well on a test, you get an A. But out here, you can do everything right but still not get ahead. You may struggle, and that is okay. It may seem like everything and everyone is against you. But don’t worry, because school has supposedly prepared you for real life.

But in reality, it hasn’t.

The controlled structure of education is missing in the real world. Memorization of facts no longer propels you through life like it once had. Did you read my commencement address? If not, read. I promise it’s better than anything Shakespeare ever dreamed up.

By now, you may be wondering what the point of this article is. Simple.

Learning is questioning



The educational process does not teach us to question. Quite the opposite, it teaches us to accept what is taught to us. We read a chapter in a history textbook, memorize facts and figures, then regurgitate those figures on a test. Boom, done – now on to the next lesson. But, here’s a remarkable loophole in the reality of education: You’re required to recite approved answers for letter grades, but that doesn’t mean that you must accept them.

If you are a naturally curious person, then you are one step ahead of the game. Like water, life often follows the path of least resistance. Momentum builds and societies emerge. Strong forces of momentum begin to form standard operating procedures that pull society into itself and people begin to fall right in line. Like a snowball, it grows into a giant. A self-propelled ball of fire.

Naturally, it is easier to follow the lead of those before you than to create your own path.

But to those who do trudge through the thicket and blaze a new trail are often rewarded with tremendous advantages. Even if that new trail leads to nowhere, lessons can be applied to another attempt. A shortcut to success, perhaps. Or, maybe a path that leads in the opposite direction of the one built by societal momentum.

Very few famous or accomplished individuals followed society’s path. They tried something else, and they kept at it. Through ceaseless waves of negativity, they continued to push. They might fail, but failure is a springboard on which to try again. Only next time, you’re plowing a new trail with the knowledge gained from before. You’re smarter. You’re more experienced.

And, you’re better prepared.

School teaches us about life

Wait, what? I spent almost 700 words attacking the educational process, and now I argue that school teaches us about life?

Well, yes.

School teaches us about the process of doing things, especially things that we may not enjoy. Lamenting to my dad the classes I had to take in college that were required (aka: completely irrelevant to my degree), he said, “Those classes prove that you can get through it”.

He didn’t say, “Now son, you’ll need that information some day. You might not understand that now, but you will later”. Hell, I was a college student, not a second grader. His honesty shocked me.

My dad was right. Those classes taught me how to do things that I didn’t want to do. Quite frankly, much of life is like that, especially if you’re stuck in an office for 40 or more years of your life. Taxes. Grocery shopping. Sitting for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles for something that you wish could be done online.

Just, natural “life stuff”. School proves that you can get through it.

And standardized testing proves that the more you question, the more you learn. And learning is the spice of life. It really is.

Question whatever you think you know.

For example, if you don’t read, try it. I recently took up reading fiction at night – something that I would never be caught doing as a kid – and I now thoroughly enjoy it. I enjoy it because I found an author that I like. He writes by using regular English. His books are written on topics that I enjoy.

Who knew that I liked reading after all? I had no idea by reading Shakespeare.

The key was to find something that I connected with. Real life gives us options. We can choose to pursue virtually any career path, read any book…believe any political philosophy.

Letter grades do not exist in real life. Take advantage of that!

We track our net worth using Personal Capital


31 responses to “School is rubbish, but it also prepares us for real life”

  1. Even though I was always good at school, a lot of it seemed pointless. Like you said, real learning happens through questioning, digging into a subject of interest, and trial and error experiences.

    The funny thing is I may be getting hired on to teach part time at a university soon. I’ve been thinking about ways to make the material relevant and not just rote memorization. It’ll be an interesting balance.

    I’ve also recently rediscovered reading and it has been awesome!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks DTG for your comment. Wow, interesting turn of events! Yeah, making the information relatable to real life is definitely something that appreciated as a youngster. It was easy to tell what teachers tried to do that…and which ones did not (aka: Mrs. Warren’s 7th grade history class).

  2. I can’t say I always enjoyed school, and at times you could have found me complaining that it was pointless and useless, but looking back I see how foundational it was. I always tried to do my best at school (at my parents urging) and what I found out was that having a positive and optimistic attitude and a good work ethic were habits that have carried through to real life and helped me be as successful as I have been.

    • Steve says:

      Amen to the positive and optimistic attitude, Green Swan! I found that a little bit later in life, but I agree – it makes a world of difference.

  3. I 100 percent agree. In general I view college as a test. It’s not a test of relevant information as most of it is not. As you said part of it is teaching you to do something you don’t enjoy. The other part shows you can do what is asked without someone standing over you as they would in high school. These are truly the things employers most value, everything else can be taught. The disservice of such a training is so many come out with an idealized view of the world. You’ll fix all wrongs, make the perfect system, and attack every task at work. In a few years as Steve mentions you will learn that’s not how things work. Politics and practicality drive everything and success is 50 percent of the right solution. I leave one final thought, the two most useful college classes I had were theory classes. Not because they taught me a subject applicable to work, but because they taught me how to learn the topics at work easier. Focus on the skillsets that allow you to learn new things rapidly. You’ll need it.

    • Steve says:

      That’s a good point, Full Time Finance, about learning how to…well, learn. I’m sure that the skills we picked up studying for all those tests, in many ways, has influenced how we tackle new subjects today. Naturally, it won’t be the exact same process, but the way we try to retain information probably has a lot to do with school in our younger years.

  4. Justin says:

    School’s kind of like oxygen. Pretty boring stuff but life without it might not work as well as we would like. I’m in the middle of understanding this on a very personal basis since I just found out my 6th grade daughter basically blew off the first month of math class (ie stopped doing homework after the first couple weeks; failed first test).

    I’d say understanding exponents and solving basic expressions and equations is pretty important if you’re ever going to develop a FIRE spreadsheet worth a damn! 😉 But seriously, I explained to my daughter that what she skipped is kind of the foundation for the next dozen years of her academic life if she ends up in a STEM course of study and career (aka “where the money is”).

    I tend to agree that a lot of other stuff in school is mostly fluff. If my kids get a B or C in reading it’s no big deal – they can still read well enough.

    • Steve says:

      Hey Justin – agreed, the basics of math, science, problem solving, reading…those basic life skills are something that our nation’s youngsters need to know. Although, I would say that homeschooling can be equally as effective, the kids still need to learn somehow.

  5. Haha I just graduated college so this basically sums up what I thought most of the time in college. It really is more about just getting the job done than what you learn because quite frankly I do not remember half the things I learnt. Luckily I was always good at school and I always tried to question why we are learning certain things that seem pointless. Sometimes teachers gave a good answer sometimes they were honest and said you will never need it, just part of the course. The mentality to always give my best and question is what will carry me through life not the information.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Stefan. Sounds like you have the right attitude about all of this and know what the true lessons of school *should* be. 🙂

  6. Really good point about how school teaches you the process of doing things that you might not necessarily want to do. It’s not necessarily the specifics of what you learned that matter.

    One thing school does teach us pretty well is how to be an “employee.” We sit in assigned seats (like our cubicles), have a “boss” (our teacher) and take orders from the boss (our teacher). Whether or not that’s necessarily a good thing is another story I suppose. But, we’re not all meant to be entrepreneurs either.

  7. I completely agree. As a kid, school was my life. As an adult I learned that real life doesn’t revolve around book reports and math equations! No one cares that you got a medal in the science fair, as long as you get your work done on time.

    I do think it’s important to test your boundaries in school (ie. reading horrible Shakespeare against your will), but overall I question the basic model that our educational system is using. And don’t get me started on our colleges! I feel like there’s something in institutional education that squashes children’s natural enthusiasm for learning, and that is so sad.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mrs. Picky Pincher. I think you’re right about squashing natural enthusiasm, and that’s probably due to the “one size fits all” approach that I suppose our schools need to take. 🙁

  8. Lady Locust says:

    This is part of the reason employers and colleges are increasingly seeking home-schooled young adults – they tend to not only have better work ethics but also have practical knowledge and problem solving skills. I would recommend the book (either hard copy or audio) “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” It really does show how our society is comprised of sheeple. It is questioned why the lead from HS to prison is so strong, yet school lessons are actually scripted – really, teacher says:ABC, children respond:XYZ. I worked in the school system for about 12 years and am glad to be out. I love teaching and working with children, but that’s not what is happening in our schools today. It’s now about behavior rather than education.
    Note: I know there are some good teachers, but the system prevents them from being as effective as they could be. Likewise, I know of many teachers who obtained their position due to connections and should not be influencing children.
    I mean no offence, but if I had it to do over again, my children would not partake in the public school system.
    Also, I’m glad you found what you enjoy reading. Everybody has a reading niche; it’s just difficult to identify sometimes. Great post.

    • Steve says:

      Very interesting! I hadn’t heard of that book but will look it up. I’m sure that you’ve seen enough over your 12 years of working with kids to recognize the problems that we’re facing from an educational standpoint. In fact, I’m sure you could probably write a fairly complete blog post on the subject! 😉

  9. There’s a lot of things we learn in school that we absolutely DO use all the time…like reading, and mathematics, basic computer skills, certain science concepts.

    It’s not all a waste of time. But yes, a lot of it is just memorization of facts that we quickly forget.

    I’ve always said that school gives you the basics, but the real learning you have to do on your own.

    • Steve says:

      Yup, there is no question that our kids need to learn how to read, math, science, etc. Though, I would argue that our schools aren’t even doing THAT very well. Some areas of the country are better than others, of course, but it’s *amazing* how many young people graduate from college with incredibly low reading comprehension abilities.

  10. The modern school setting can be ineffective for many kids, both the high achievers and the struggling ones. Personally, I hated just about every day of school after 5th grade or so (until university, where I enjoyed having a lot more control of what I studied). I excelled at school, but I definitely didn’t want to be there. In that way, you’re right that it teaches a lot about real life and persevering through things we don’t want to do!

    As the other commenters have pointed out, the basics of history, math, science, and language are important foundations for kids to learn — but that’s not to say that a motivated parent can’t do at least as good a job as a school. I used to be skeptical of home-schooling, but the past few years reading about families with ER-style lifestyles (long-term travel with kids, especially) changed my perspective. Travel is full of new learning experiences, from cultural exposure to history. Not sure if I’ll ever have kids, but I would definitely consider that option, at least for some period of time.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Matt. Like you, I really hated school. Although I excelled when I hit college, I still didn’t care much for the whole educational process. It just felt like I was going through the motions to get some degree so I can actually begin doing what I *thought* I wanted to do.

      And as I look back at my experience, that’s exactly what it was…going through the motions. Ugh! 🙂

  11. There’s a quote that Robert Herjavec from the shark tank that I remember from reading this post. In business, you don’t get a bad grade if you do something wrong, you lose money. School gave me the impression that putting in the hours gave me the results that I wanted but now I’m realizing more that smart work is what matters. Working hard to learn and understand the concept is step one, step 2 is figuring out how to do it more efficiently!

    I also agree with reading Shakespeare.. They weren’t even speaking the same language (ok same language, different grammar structure) as us and the teachers expected us to analyze it the text?! I didn’t realize that I love learning until college came and I found out I could read stuff that I want to read about outside of my classes. I see the world a lot differently now because I found that out, ha!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Finance Solver. And yup, SMART work definitely trumps hard work, especially as you get older. I don’t care how hard to work…if that work isn’t benefiting your life in a significant way, it may not be smart. 🙂

  12. chad carson says:

    Way to bring the heat, Steve! Kids in school do need to hear that. Independent thinking is certainly beat out of them before they graduate from high school. Curiosity for it’s own sake is nice but not required in school.

    I love reading Joseph Campbell who talked about each of us going on a hero’s journey (FIRE is kind of like that). But what he said was where there is path already, it is someone else’s path. We have to go into the forest at the darkest point where no one has gone before.

    Social norms do not teach that kind of independence. But it is as necessary for a fully functioning, fully alive human being as math and science. As a parent I’m not giving up on the STEM education. My kids certainly need it. But I am more concerned about the things you talked about Steve – curiosity, independence, character, drive, grit, and emotional intelligence. Those will serve them in any situation in life.

    Thanks for the morning challenge!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Chad! I think you hit the nail on your head with your concise explanation of TRUE learning, “curiosity, independence, character, drive, grit, and emotional intelligence”. Appreciate the read!

  13. Had parent teacher conference for our first grader today, and it was interesting. The things the teacher talked about our daughter doing were related to her ability to do group work, problem solve, navigating her peer relationships, mediating disagreements, etc. There was a tiny bit on the act of getting her ideas down on paper and creating narratives, but most of the conference was about her social skills, and not in the “it’s a problem” kind of way.

    Now it’s first grade. They aren’t learning tons of useless facts yet. They’re still doing the basic building blocks of reading, writing and arithmetic with some good citizenship training thrown in. I’m hopefully optimistic for this year, but understand that as she goes through school there may be more of “You have to learn it because you have to prove you can get through it.”

    • Steve says:

      Hi Emily! I do think that education early on in the developmental years can (and should) be far more effective than education later in our schooling careers. Like you said, navigating relationships and working well with others, along with figuring out simple problems and generally just acting like a functional person are very important concepts to learn as well as grow into.

  14. Jim Wang says:

    The transition from academics to real life can often be hard because you go from running a race to running in a field. Gone are the rules, the lines, and the predetermined goals… but I found that school, especially college, taught me two very important skills: perseverance and confidence I’d succeed.

    The actual coursework… not as important. 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Hey Jim – fair enough, I can definitely accept those two qualities as something that we all learn going through college. Especially the first one for me. 🙂

  15. […] Considering that most of what we learn is school never applies to real life, is going to school worth it? Steve from Think Save Retire tells us why even though school is rubbish it kind of  prepares us for real life. […]

  16. Felicity says:

    Loved this post. 😀 “Letter grades do not exist in real life” really resonates with me.

    The hardest thing I learned when entering the workforce (and in general when making difficult life decisions) is that there is no answer key, and you almost never have all the information – but you have to figure out a solution anyway. It might not be the best solution, but you just have to soldier on.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Felicity, appreciate the comment. It’s true, there is no answer key. Things aren’t nearly as simple and cut-and-dry as they might be in school, no doubt about it!

Leave a Reply