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?