10 uncommon lessons I learned in college (Part 1)

Common: Doing everything or nothing under the label of “student” – often leading to either burnout or dropout.

Uncommon: This week marks an important milestone in my life. I am no longer a full time student of conventional education. Elation abounds. It’s back to business full time.

Anyone who knows me or reads my blog will know that I often wrestle with the concept and quality (return on time and money) of conventional education. Looking back, however, I did learn some key things – it just so happened that the majority of my most valuable “education” took place outside of the traditional curriculum.

Despite having a full class load (and sometimes more), I spent the majority of my time managing my businesses and engaging in extracurricular activities. This heavy load was a blessing in disguise. While overwhelming at times, it forced me to reexamine and scrutinize my approach to school – seeking maximum efficiency for time invested.

I never set out to get perfect grades, but I was somehow fortunate enough to maintain my position on the coveted Dean’s List while preserving my sanity. However, based on the following lessons, if I were to do a repeat run I would likely approach things differently. Below are 5 of my top 10 uncommon life lessons learned from college (part 2 will feature the next tips in the 3 Part series).

1) You don’t need to do “everything” to succeed.

Through middle school and high school many overachievers relentlessly attempt to fill their schedule with various activities that will compliment their college application. While this technique may turn some heads in the university admissions process, I believe it’s a flawed strategy for college students.

College is not only about studying, checking items off of a to do list, and maintaining a look-what-I-did-mom GPA. College presents an opportunity to explore the social, financial, and libertarian constructs of life to discover what you enjoy, what you’re good at, and what might be a logical next step outside of college. This cannot be accomplished when you’re overcommitted academically or constantly stressed about flawlessly executing every project or extra credit opportunity.

Constant, rote work is not sustainable. It’s stressful to the body and stifles creativity. It’s important to accept the fact that we cannot do everything, nor do it all well (yes, opportunity cost is very real).

A big part of effectiveness and efficiency is prioritization. Happy and productive students take a moment to identify tasks and activities that warrant the greatest return. This means declining a lot of seemingly necessary, helpful, or alluring things.


2) The minority matters more than the majority.

Take a look at most grading rubrics (and job responsibilities) and you’ll find the majority of how the end result is accomplished and assessed comes down to just a few key things. In other words, about 10 – 30% of the project’s components beget 70 –90% of the results.

Even more interesting is that it’s often the project’s little components that usually absorb the most time. As a personal example, formatting the Work Cited page on essays would take me quite a long time. After realizing this was a very minor part of my overall grade I accepted a “good effort” in order to focus on other more important things (knowing that the formatting was not perfect).

Always seek to discover the points of maximum return and avoid the points of minimum return (school is full of these). As writer, Scott H Young states, “For me, academics have always been a problem of minimization. My goal has never been to get perfect grades or score the top mark in all my classes. Instead, it’s been about establishing minimums to both reach my goals and get a comfortable tradeoff between effort and rewards.

3) Engage at your peak state.

Studying when tired is a complete waste of time. Retention is painfully low. If you’re not fully engaged in what you’re doing, you are most often better off doing something else.

With that said, always do everything possible to be fully engaged at the right times (sleeping patterns, exercise, life balance all bare effect here). But sometimes, you’re simply “off.” And investing more time will not make you more effective either.  In fact, time invested should NEVER be the metric used to determine the quality of output.

Towards the end of college, I completely stopped doing study-session-marathons. Again the ROI, I found, was not worth it. Instead, I prepped myself to be in a peak mental state roughly 3-4 hours before exams, eliminated all distractions, and fully immersed myself in the material at hand working like a caged monkey on amphetamines (minus the drugs, of course).  This, as it turned out, was the most effective method of study and the best use of time. Surprisingly, my long-term retention also improved.

Everyone is different (and so is each subject), but the problem with elongated periods of preparation is the substantial drop in efficiency. No matter the work being done, people always perform best when fully engaged. Discover what works best for you and plan your schedule accordingly.

4) Crowd-sourcing and collaboration is paramount.

Web 2.0 has offered us so many unprecedented opportunities to collaborate. And this can mean better quality results with a fraction of the workload.

When study guides were handed out, I’d often cringe at the review and preparation required.  However, I would be the first to set up a collaborative document and recruit the most motivated, capable students in the class to participate and contribute. Divided amongst us, our prep time was about 1/8 the time it would take a diligent student working on their own.

With the right software (see below) you can pose specific questions to certain groups of students and even hold ongoing discussions via private wikis that result in new and important insights.

Today especially, personal intelligence means utilizing collective intelligence. Part of becoming educated (a very underrated aspect) is learning to borrow the intelligence of others. This is, in essence, the spirit of resourcefulness. To quote Woodrow Wilson: “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.”


School or not, some excellent collaboration tools for many types of projects and goals are: Google Docs, Google Wave, DropBox, Vyew, stixy, project2manage, and Dabbleboard.

5) Cluster classes (and like projects).

For the most part, I believe people work best in bursts. Not only may we enjoy the benefits of mental rhythm and flow, but we also minimize unrelated interruptions. At school and in the professional world, interruptions and transitions are costly and/or stressful.

I experimented with different types of schedules – some with classes spread out and others tightly grouped together. The verdict? Hands down, I was far more productive when clustering classes. This way I had more focused time during the week. By the end, I did everything I could to set all classes on a M/W or T/Th.  This allowed me to engage more fully in other unrelated projects and achieve maximum efficiency and performance.

Now, in all areas of life, I cluster all tasks, activities, in projects in ways that minimize interruptions and the transitions between them.

Note: Part 2 will feature the next 2 life lessons in the 3 Part series.

Your thoughts?

What have you found works best for you – as a student and/or professional? Post your comments below.

Stay uncommon,

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