Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Education comes from within

"Education comes from within; you get it by struggle and effort and thought." - Napoleon Hill

Today I suppose I'm meandering in a strange direction for a career college dean to take.  "Education comes from within," Mr. Hill said.  The rest of his quote sounds much like the sorta cliche comment you'll occasionally hear me toss out: "experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted."

So yeah--struggle, effort, and thought.  Experience.  Not college textbooks.  Not sitting in the classroom.  Not listening to vibrant lectures presented with detailed graphics.  Strange direction for a college dean to go, indeed.

I suppose, though, that first I should clarify what I'm talking about when I use that word.  The dictionary's not much help; Merriam-Webster defines education as the act of educating.  Thanks, guys.  And the verb "to educate" merely means to provide schooling for or to train.  That shallowness of the definition is probably why the deeper meaning of the term has been confounding educators and legislators for decades.  When I say that I'm in the business of educating, does that mean I ensure that students receive the skills and knowledge necessary to obtain employment, or that I work on more important concerns such as critical thinking, citizenship, and intellectual pursuit instead of delving into the mundane topics?

Yeah, that's a tough one.  That question is gonna have to wait for a later post.

See, here's the thing.  I've been conversing with employers for years, and believe it or not I've been listening for most of that.  It started during my days at the Arizona Technology Incubator, when I listened to what the president of the company thought made good entrepreneurs and good team members for building a company. Later, as a senior IT instructor, I attended advisory councils for that program and listened to dozens of local employers talk about our grads' successes and shortcomings.  Now, as a dean, I attend and run advisory councils for all programs.

You know what?  The surprising thing, at least early on, wasn't what they were saying.  It was that they were all saying the same thing.

I mean, I wouldn't have assumed that an accountant and an entrepreneur and an information technologist and a medical assistant and a construction manager would share the same keys to success.  It's not intuitive.  But they do.  Everybody requires skills, of course, and those skills are different as you go from one field to another.  Skills are also trainable, and the reason that many practitioners of higher education turn their noses up at mere skills is that people can, in fact, often learn them through on-the-job training.

Knowledge, too, is vital for success, and I differentiate that from skills because I'm talking cognitive gain rather than psychomotor gain.  Skills are about doing things; knowledge is about understanding why things are done the way they are.  In a medical assisting classroom, a skill is taking blood pressure, while knowledge is understanding why you put the stethoscope head where you do.  For an IT person, a skill is knowing how to delete your boss's user account; knowledge is understanding why you probably shouldn't do it.

That leads, then, to the similarities between the requirements for success in the fields, which I was fascinated to find were usually more important in senior managers' minds than the differences.  They're also dang hard to teach in a classroom.  Yes, I'm talking about "soft skills," which are, in the above examples, the ability to talk to the patient and explain why you're wrapping something around his arm and squeezing it tight, or the ability to discuss account management concerns with users who really only want to be able to get to their e-mail and files.

We educators and managers often talk about "soft skills," but where do we learn them?  Communication is a biggie, for example, but most programs at career colleges don't have a course called "communication."  Granted, some of ours boast a course titled Communications, but students rarely learn how to actually communicate in that course; instead, they learn the fundamentals of rhetoric and other heady theoretical stuff that does you no good when staring down a toddler who's destined to receive a shot in the butt. That's why we career college educators often have to approach soft skills obliquely, sometimes even tricking the students into learning them.

All that said, then, what is it that really makes a difference between succeeding or not?  Is it having an appropriate skill level?  Is it obtaining a certain amount of knowledge--after all, they (whoever "they" is) are always telling us that knowledge is power!  Or is it the soft skills helping you get through life's tough situations?

Frankly, I think none of the three, my meaning being what Napoleon Hill was getting at in the words I quoted above.  Granted, all of the three are (usually) necessary in order to make success a possibility.  It's just that they're the kickoff, not the touchdown (there--can't have a success talk without a sports analogy).  In other words, they're the start line.

The finish line is what I've been talking to my students about at orientation and then later on in a success-themed class they all take, but I'm never sure how many of them really get it.  I speak of skills and everyone nods--it's what they're there for, after all.  Then I speak of knowledge, and they wince, knowing that I'm talking about such enthralling topics as Anatomy & Physiology.  Then I discuss the soft skills and receive some grudging nods.  Sure, okay.  But when I talk about personality traits that lead to success, I often get a lot of blank stares.

Into the bucket I call "traits" I lump things like professionalism and reliability, because that's really where I want my students to focus, but that container also includes things like stick-tuitiveness and sound decision-making.  That's the stuff that makes for a success story, no matter which story you read.  And it's stuff that, as Mr. Hill points out, you gain through experience, through life, through struggling and pressing through.  The May 2012 issue of Entrepreneur magazine held an opinion piece that made a strong case for would-be entrepreneurs right out of school to start off by working for someone else.  In the July 2011 Fiscal Times there is a similar article--different author, same point.  Young people aren't as prepared to succeed as older ones who've been through the battlegrounds and fought the good fight a few times (and there's my war analogy--I'm batting a thousand today!). 

It's not that young people can't succeed.  The business world--and the writing world--are alive with success stories of young Mark Zuckerbergs and Amanda Hockings.  It's just that they're the exception rather than the rule, and for a good reason.

On a related (believe it or not) note, I never did learn to play the guitar.  When I was younger, I received one as a present because I'd been telling everybody that was what I wanted.  It's easier and cooler to whip out a guitar than a trumpet to play a song in most social gatherings, you see.  But then I started trying to learn to play the darn thing, and--well, it hurt.  It's supposed to, apparently.  In order to play guitar you have to build up small calluses on your fingertips that allow you to grip the strings, I was told.  Building calluses requires pain, though.  It requires frequent abrasion to the skin.  Learning the guitar wasn't important enough to me to go through the pain, so I didn't. 

Success in life is like that.  You have to build up mental, emotional, and psychological calluses that will shape your interactions with other people--not in a "callous" way, but rather in an experienced and thoughtful way.

So.  All that said, if you're going through some of life's pains right now, rejoice!  You're building up the calluses of success.  Soon enough you'll be scoring the touchdowns of success while taking the hills of the business world.


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