Life Lessons

by Barb, vacationing on the Jersey Shore with her extended family

Investing for Your Retirement (Boston Center for Adult Education, Spring, 2011): When you are young, you will work as a paralegal in the trust department of a big law firm and the single observation from that time that will follow you throughout your life is this: Widows and orphans who don’t understand their own money don’t make out so well. Because, honestly, no one cares as much as you do. This is an important life lesson that will also apply to your career, your writing, your writing career, your kids’ educations, and your elderly mother’s care when she is lying in a hospital bed. But specific to finance, for most of your life, you will have no money, so the lesson won’t matter. And then, unexpectedly, the little company you co-found will have a “good exit” and you will have money but will no longer have a job. So, you’ll spend a year reading the financial press and talking to people who speak about Warren Buffet in the reverent tones usually reserved for Bruce Springsteen. At the end of that year, you will decide that you are so bored that you will hire a guy to take care of your money for you. He won’t care as much as you should, but he cares some, which is more than you do.

English 101-102 (University of Pennsylvania, 1971-1972): This is the course you will have to take freshman year in college because you failed senior high school English when you were an exchange student in Colombia. They were diagramming English sentences using Noam Chomsky’s theory on the deep structure of language, and even though that is normally the kind of thing you love, you stubbornly resisted, and you flunked. So, your high school in the States will say you can’t have your diploma until you’ve passed two semesters of freshman college English. You’ve read all the books on the syllabus and the courses won’t count toward an English major, so you will be very annoyed. This is the experience you will come back to all your life whenever you are forced to run through bureaucratic maze to get some piece of cheese that other people think is important. Also, the spring after you pass these courses, your hometown will be wiped out by a devastating flood, and you never will get that high school diploma. Here is the difference that will make in your life: zero. So, remember that whenever someone leads you to the entrance to a maze and tells you to run.

Looking Put Together in a Corporate World for Women (Workshop, 1979): You will be absent that day.

Latin II (Wyoming Seminary Preparatory School, 1967-1968): This is the class where all the girls will warn one another that if the teacher drops a pencil next to your chair you must tuck your skirt around you and cross your legs tightly so he can’t look up your dress. You will learn a lot in this class, almost none of it about Latin. And really, it will not be as bad as it sounds.

Fourth grade, (Edgemont Elementary School, 1961-1962): This is the year your teacher will tell you that you are a very good writer, thereby dooming you for life. 

American Civilization 101-102 (University of Pennsylvania, 1971-1972): This is the course where you will learn everything you feel and believe about being an American to this day, even though, what with DNA and all, we now know that most you learned about the Norseman in Greenland, and the lost colony of Roanoke is absolutely not true. The erstwhile colonizers didn’t die out because they insisted on acting like Christians and Europeans in a hostile landscape. Some survived and bred with the local populations and their genes are with us today. But the point is the right one. Sometimes to survive or even thrive in this unique culture forged by an enormous, diverse geography and people from all over the world, you’ve got to be flexible, look around you, and adapt.

Adulthood 101 (This course is not given in your locality): You will have to figure it out on your own.

Introduction to Parenthood (Brigham and Women’s Hospital, 1981): The best you can do is prepare your children to live successfully in your time and place. You can in no way prepare them to live in the time and place they will ultimately occupy. However, there is a flip side to this. Some of the children who are unsuccessful in your time and place will thrive in their own. This is why Ulysses S. Grant could win the Civil War even though he graduated in the bottom half of his class at West Point. And why Benjamin Franklin, stifled and miserable in post-Puritan Boston, could move to Philadelphia and change the world. Keep this in mind both when you encourage and discourage your children.

Advanced Parenthood for Working Mothers (Company lunchroom conversation with an older, wiser mentor, 1982): No one can be with their child 24/7/365. He may take his first steps when you are at work, but you could just as easily have been at Target. Calm the heck down.

Quantum Mechanics for English Majors (School of Life, 1978-1996): A small group of people who take this course will understand the subject matter intuitively. The rest of us will discover it fights everything that feels logical and real to in the world to us. The small group that does understand will separate itself from the rest of us like a space capsule shedding its booster rocket. This separation will happen at some point in your life, even if you never take quantum mechanics. No matter how hard you work, the people in the capsule will move farther and farther away. The best you can do is watch in appreciation and awe.

Time Management for Procrastinators (Random conversation with a work colleague, 1992): Your problem is that you make your chunks too big, so you never feel you get anything done. Break all tasks into manageable chunks so you can cross them off your list and move on with a feeling of accomplishment. (See Management for English Majors). Don’t think in terms of writing a novel. Think in terms of writing a chapter, or a scene, or a paragraph. This is the most important life lesson you will ever learn. (See Adulthood 101).

Management for English Majors (Corporate workshop, 1985): During this workshop you will learn that “Happy people are not productive people. Productive people are happy people.” Most people crave satisfying work and a sense of accomplishment So, your job as a manager is not to make people happy, since this is an impossible task, but instead to focus on removing barriers to your employees’ productivity. If you internalize this lesson, and apply yourself to ruthlessly moving obstacles out of your employees’ way, you may be pretty successful (See Investing for Your Retirement). Or, this advice may not apply at all, especially if your employees are robots (see Introduction to Parenthood). In that case, you are on your own (see Adulthood 101).

Readers: Do you have any life lessons you’d like to share?



39 Thoughts

  1. Barb, I love this so much! I have taken a number of those course myself. Well, not the one about selling a company and having money…

    “Live life so you have no regrets” is one I heard early on and took to heart. Now, with my age getting up there, I do have a few, but they are very minor ones.

    1. I know exactly what you mean. Bill and I said, “No regrets!” and it was true for a very long time. But it seems it’s impossible to get to our age without some.

  2. Marvelous piece, Barb! I’d say put the whole thing up on the Facebook page. Here’s an addendum to English 101, taken from my mother’s life experience. If you are not going to get your high school diploma, the really fun way not to do it is to get your college acceptance and then get expelled from your prep school for being caught shinnying down a drain pipe at midnight to meet a boy.

  3. Introduction to Marriage: in this course you will learn that the romantic books and movies about forever smoldering love and marriage are just a primer. After 35 years of ups and downs, highs and lows, boring predictability and routine, you’ll learn that most of that coursework was off kilter- it should have included advanced curriculum of teamwork, inside jokes, knowing glances, historical importance of random silly objects and the importance of breathing together.

    1. That is a good one. I also like, “You are never too old to be what you might have been,” which is attributed to George Eliot, though no one can find the original reference.

  4. I love all of this, plus Carla’s addition.

    I will take this opportunity to lodge my complain that Introduction to Parenthood did not come with assigned course materials – not that they would have helped (practically speaking).

  5. Great stuff, Barb! My contribution would fall under Horticulture 101. Be as flexible as a tree limb. Life will throw everything at you. It’s better to bend with the wind until the storm passes. Cheers!

  6. Introduction to Marriage from Kahil Gibran: But let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. The whole poem is fabulous. I read this not long before I got married. I’ve always loved this and after 30 years and eleven months, still believe it.

  7. Wonderful post!

    Life lessons. Go with the flow, adjust creatively, and never take yourself too seriously, fighting the river will lead to drowning and a sense of humor can save you.

  8. I tried to teach my kids this and I hope I have succeeded. If you have done something wrong or hurtful, apologize as soon as possible. Don’t put it off as it makes it seem insincere. Address the one who you have hurt or done something wrong to directly. Do not use email or text – it should be in person or over the phone so they can hear in your voice that you are sorry. They are much more likely to forgive and understand if you own up to what you did right away.

  9. I love all of these life lessons, especially the “calm the heck down”! Probably ones I’ve learned are to slow down, and you can’t control anyone’s actions but your own, so let go of the guilt.

  10. Loved your post. Could identify with many of the lessons. One thought, after having twins and juggling multiple careers and volunteer activities — acknowledge that you never know when you are going crazy because if you did, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

  11. I’m going to argue a bit with the Happy people are not productive people lesson. I get what you are saying: “people who are productive feel happy and ready to dig in for more.”

    However, I am dealing with lots of frustration at work. It’s not so much that I’m not productive as it is that my productivity is being micromanaged. This micromanagement makes me so frustrated that I am unproductive. It could be this is a just a barrier to being productive, so maybe I am looking at it wrong.

    But I am so tired of being micromanaged.

    1. I 100% believe that “removing barriers to productivity” includes removing micromanagement if it impedes productivity. I am in general not a supporter of micromanagement, but I always worked for small entrepreneurial companies (less that 250 employees) so micromanagement was pretty much impossible. Hire good people and trust them to do their jobs. A lot of the people I managed knew their jobs WAY better than I did anyway.

  12. One of the life lessons that I hang onto in the ups and downs of life is: This too will pass!
    Great post Barb, thank you! And, I like all the comments here, too.

  13. Lot’s of good ones, Thank you for sharing them. Life Lesson – “Always do the Best you can in Everything you Do”. And also “Never Give Up” Have a Great week and stay safe.

  14. While vacationing with your extended family on the Jersey Shore is always a happy event…a life lesson we’ve learned with our family is to schedule Maine for an August get together —- it seems to be always cooler there.

  15. You will never be able to please everyone. Someone will love what you do. Someone will hate what you do. Don’t try to please everyone. Just be yourself. For the people who don’t like you … so what? That’s their problem.

  16. Health and happiness are more important than money. Friends are more important than things. If you can accept what you have and be content with it, you’ve already won and don’t need to compete.

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