What I learned in university

In this post, we’ll have a discussion on the most important thing I learned in university.

School is one of these things that just like a politician, depending on the time most people are either for or against. It’s not so much about the tangible effects of it in one’s ability to become successful in life, but more about what kinds of things going to school the common mind thinks will allow you to do/have. In the past going to school was the dream for both the ones who could/couldn’t afford it. Being accepted, let alone being able to pay for it was a representation of the clear line between the now we don’t like so much, and the tomorrow we’re used to dreaming about even when we’re awake. In the past going to university was the closest thing to a sure win in life, in the sense that after the grueling years of assignments and quizzes, one was almost guaranteed to have a well-paying job, for which one would work for the rest of its life until retirement.

Today, the faith in such a path to life has lost more and more credibility, partly because the young adult of today, inspired by its favorite artist now wants retirement before retirement, and figures that school followed by a corporate job is more like taking a turtle to the rabbit race of life.

There is definitely some seed of truth to the idea above, but the problem begins when we not only conclude that our way of seeing life is partially incorrect but that everything that goes along with it is fully incorrect, even what’s not wrong. Today, going to school is one of these discussions that there are people who believe 100% to be the wrong thing to do. The reasoning behind it is that it prepares no one for life, the job after it is not guaranteed, and even if you do manage to get a job that there is still the possibility that you will get laid off. So, in essence, the ones who don’t believe in going to school make the point that going to school is the same as paying lots of money for nothing. Because you learn nothing. This post is about how that’s not true.

What I learned In university

For starters, just like with any kind of learning opportunity you only really learn anything of value if you want/have to learn. If you go in assuming that what the teacher will teach will have no value to your life you’ll be entering a losing battle between the wise you and the you that urges you to not do what you’re supposed to do. Even if you still understand how valuable it could be to watch a lecture, your other you will be managing the attention, energy and motivation resources.

This is a point to the fact that the fact that one person takes something meaningful away from going to school and some other person doesn’t is mostly due to the first disposition and intent with regards to the learning process of the first, than it is to do with school’s uselessness in teaching the student anything of value. It’s true that most of the things we learn in school we can hardly find a use for, but to say that none of it can be useful enough to have an impact on one’s life is just inaccurate.

The biggest lesson/practice I learned from going to university

So, what lesson is that? To put it simply is the ability to think critically about the outer world, and the inner universe of my own thoughts and beliefs. We live in a time in which people are encouraged to have an opinion and stand by it regardless of whether some powerful entity doesn’t like it. So most of us go through life taking their own beliefs as gospel not because they are justified in believing in what they believe in, but because they are the believers of these beliefs and not someone else. It’s that old bias to thinking anything we own in any way is automatically better/the best.

If you’ve lived in this planet for long enough you might have stumbled into the conclusion that regardless of whether you believe in something with your soul, the truth will remain the truth. This is why going to university, to be more specific taking several math courses was so beneficial to my mind in retrospect. When you think about how challenging the subject is, or how many assignments the professor gives, the easy conclusion to come up with is that it’s all useless. You don’t believe in that because everything you’re being forced to learn is useless, but because thinking it gives us a guilt-free ticket to quitting on it. Through these courses, I learned/acquire the difficult practice of only allowing myself to believe in anything if I can prove it. Bringing back memories, the kind of assignments I would get on a weekly basis was of some form of mathematical proof. The professor would assign the class a set of mathematical statements known to be true, and our job was to come up with valid proof for each.

To be honest, at first, I not only hated the assignments but was also convinced they would never be of value to my personal life/career. Over time however it became more and more clear that after dozens upon dozens of exercises of the kind my new adopted way of looking and thinking about life was dramatically changed. Now, I have a different view of the word “certain/certainty”. Now my view is that it’s just plain hard to be certain of anything even when it comes to the things we feel very certain about. The prevalent question is always: if you’re so certain about x where is the proof?

Learning

When you think like this two things will happen: 1) You’re likely to be a bit more insecure about your own bold statements and 2) It will be much harder to be swayed by people who are nothing more than ideas salespeople who have nothing of content to give to the world, and all they can do is to convince people of their ideas no matter how wrong they might be. Their ideas might be wrong/impractical, but they are for whatever reason believable.

This strategy of always asking for concrete proof from someone else’s statement is probably the best way to protect yourself from believing in ideas not worthy of belief. Now ideas are forced to go through an incubation period in which their veracity is put to test, and where often few of the submitted are accepted. Ideas/beliefs worthy of space in your memory are hard to find. There are many false positives disguised as content gold. This new practice forces the mind to take some time before accepting a statement, and over time the concentration of truly good ideas/beliefs is increased in such a way that their combined effect starts to have true impact in your life.

Evaluating criticism

They say that trough criticism we grow. The inability to take negative feedback can and should be thought of as a disability, of the kind that can be cured when one puts its mind to it, and outright dangerous when neglected. The problem with criticism is that often it’s hard to distinguish the difference between true constructive criticism and a malicious attack to one’s work disguised as constructive criticism.

Knowing which is which is difficult, but there is a  way to have a rough idea, and that is to ask the source of the criticism why they think what they think. When the criticism is just to make you feel bad about yourself/insecure with no drop of constructivism, chances are that the answer to this question is not any concrete way you can improve yourself but something like “it’s a gut feeling” kind of answer. True constructive criticism tends to come with a clear suggestion for improvement. The eye of the critic caught something in you that could be improved in some concrete way that perhaps through experience became familiar to them.

Plain old attacks, on the other hand, are weak castles that when looked up close have nothing of value to give. The source of the attack might say it’s all an attempt at honesty, and that any feelings of anger from your part are an example of your ability to take criticism, but at the bottom of their weak point is not necessarily fact, and truly useful advice, but nothing more than some need to make you feel inferior.

There is also the rare cases in which the critic wants you to feel bad about yourself, but the criticism is based on something real. For these cases the best solution is that described in the book The obstacle is the way by Ryan Holiday: see the gold through the negative. In other words, look through the obviously malicious, and be grateful for the opportunity to improve yourself. Remember that if you are all about improving yourself, one of the worst things that can happen is for you to not know where you have to work more one. And when that information should be cherished, even when it comes from the enemy.  

It is all about knowledge and experience 😉

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