5 Real World Lessons College Teaches (By Accident)

A couple of years ago, I wrote a column called 5 Ways College Accidentally Prepares You For The Real World that went on to be one of my more popular pieces before being optioned for a Lifetime miniseries starring Channing Tatum as a dissatisfied youth who learns some life lessons at a New England private school. (OK, that second part is totally made up, but according to equally invented reports, Channing was “totally bummed” the project didn’t happen.)

                             Michael Buckner/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
“I absolutely never said that.”

In any event, although that column contains five life-tested, college-influenced wisdom nuggets, I realized I’d learned more than five things at college. Things that were never contained in a textbook or a lecture but made painfully clear to me simply by my four-year immersion in a little community that would help me predict the real world to come.

#5. Crafty Is Better Than Smart

I was raised in a very idealistic home. I’m still a very idealistic, if not naive, person. And when I was 18, I was only more so. I thought college would be a magical place filled with modern-day wizards of knowledge, imparting pure learning into my unadulterated brain. I thought my mind would fill to the point of bursting and visiting academics would gather around the shining luminosity that was my cranium. (I also thought I’d be having sex with bipolar, bisexual, goth girls nonstop, which, as it turns out, was only slightly less realistic than the preceding sentences.) Basically, I imagined a non-magical Hogwarts where the people with the purest minds were the most greatly rewarded.

                                                                                                      harrypotter.wikia.com
My college fantasy (minus the magic, plus deviant sex).

But when I got to college, I soon saw that the people who achieved the most were typically not the smartest but the craftiest. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about deceit or cheating. I’m just talking about practicality. There are those students who know how to find copies of old exams to get a sense of what’s to come, who seek out the advice of professors’ prior students, who make a point of asking pathetic questions like, “Is this gonna be on the test?” every time the professor makes a point.

And Keep This In Mind For When You Leave College, Because …

While this behavior always seemed unseemly and undignified to me, it’s effective. Figuratively speaking, it didn’t matter that I considered myself a true artist creating rock operas, while these kids were merely record company A&R men listening to music only to find that hit single. It didn’t matter that I turned my nose up at them, because while I did well in school, they did better. They were right.

The working world is filled with countless hacks who are merely competent at their job. There are only a few geniuses out there with the time, inclination, or desire to see a new or better way. An employer has the right to get what he or she wants, and most of the time it’s not divine inspiration but mere, unproblematic functionality out of the work force. So being the kind of person who seeks out prior work product to copy or who snoops around asking what kind of sports or TV shows or whatever the boss is into often will give you an edge. And these employees will no doubt be rewarded for such behavior in their jobs (at the soulless, irritating prick factory, or wherever they work).

#4. Money Talks

Y’know, many people don’t need this lesson. Indeed, for many of my classmates, it was money that helped get them to universities in the first place. But a good way to figure out what universities value is to see who they name things after, and wouldn’t you know it, they name buildings after the people who fund them. I know that’s not earth-shattering news to anyone. That’s the whole point of funding building projects, so that you can name it after yourself, but, I dunno, it still seemed so gross to my teen mind. I mean, shouldn’t astronomy buildings be named after Carl Sagan or English buildings be named after alumni poets? Aren’t these buildings testaments to learning?

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                                                                          ottawacitizen.com/wayne cuddington
“I’ll take ‘Weird things to spend a million dollars on,’ Alex.”

And Keep This In Mind For When You Leave College, Because …

But that is the way of the world. All the projects around campus were named after filthy-rich capitalists instead of scholars. And that makes sense, because, y’know, capitalists are the ones with money. Although there are exceptions, for the most part, the pursuit of academia will not make you rich. IQs don’t build buildings; money does. Well, technically, construction workers do, but they’re hired by the people with money, so you know what I mean.

Of course, intellectuals are required to draft the plans for the most ornate, beautiful buildings, but without some cigar-smoking boilermaker suit d-bag to fund the project, those drawings will remain on paper. (Also, in 2015, the cigar-smoking boilermaker suit might be a Palo Alto dude in flip-flops and jorts – but still probably a d-bag.) After college, capitalists get things done, because for the most part scholars make a helluva lot less money unless they have TV shows. Hey, like Alex Trebek!

#3. Bigger Is Better (For Freaks)

For anyone reading my stuff for the last how many years, it probably will come as no surprise that I’m a freak. I suppose I could have rushed a fraternity (if I liked being like 30 other guys and the taste of ass-crack-infused hazing beer), but I didn’t want to. I’m not sure about now, but back in the day, Cornell was about 45 percent fraternity, 40 percent hippies, and 15 percent other. I wasn’t Greek or hippie material, which meant I had to exist in that 15 percent other, but the good news is Cornell had about 9 million students, and 15 percent of 9 million is … um, hold on, I was an English major … well, not sure, but the point is: a lot!

But there is a lesson in all of this, and that’s if you’re not like the average bear, it’s a good idea to throw yourself into a place with lots of options. You might hate 85 percent of your classmates (as I most certainly did), but if you have enough people to choose from, you will find your friends. True, your friends might look like this, but you won’t be lonely on a Saturday night.

I’m the well-dressed one in the middle wearing my mother’s vest.

I can’t prove this is true, but if I had gone to one of those small New England universities, I fear I might have spent four years alone because I didn’t own the right kind of boat shoe.

And Keep This In Mind For When You Leave College, Because …

Even when you’re alone, you need to remember that the world is big. You might be the only freak in your family, your school, your town, but you’re not the only freak in the world. But, hopefully, as children of the Internet, you might have already learned this lesson. You’re used to being one of maybe two or three freaks in a small-town high school who’s super into Sabrina, The Teenage Witchcosplay, but you know you have a treasure-trove of like-minded weirdo friends on the worldwide ‘net. Maybe no one else in your town appreciates your “found object” artwork that’s based around discarded tampons and condoms, but, somehow, you’ve got 5,000 BFFs visiting your Pinterest page! Well, college is a lot like that. If the school is big enough and gives you enough options, a freak will find his friends. And even if your school is not big enough, I promise you the world is.

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