10 uncommon lessons I learned in college (Part 2)

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

Uncommon: As I mentioned in Part 1, “This week marks an important milestone in my life. I am no longer a full time student of conventional education.”  Since the last post, final grades were announced, and it looks as though I will graduate magna cum laude.

This comes as quite a pleasant surprise considering the demands of my “extracurricular” commitments. Of course there are always students that make me look like an underachiever, but my approach and my goals differed from many students and valedictorians.

I never set out to get perfect grades. In fact, I clearly intended to place business and personal preferences as a priority. This was rather unusual in undergraduate school. My competitiveness kept me striving for good grades, but my lack of time kept me focused on effectiveness. Unexpectedly, this illogical amalgamation served me well.

Truthfully, I don’t believe I could have earned the grades I did following conventional college advice. In fact, I believe that doing less, studying less (see tips 1, 2, and 3 in Part 1) and applying these 10 tips, contributed most to the outcome (it certainly wasn’t a natural gift for academics). And perhaps even more satisfying is knowing that these lessons can be applied in the professional world very well.

Note: After drafting this post, I decided to transfer points 8, 9, and 10 into a third piece to give the detail each concept deserves.

With no further ado, the next 2 lessons (to read the first 5 tips, visit Part 1)…

6) Many “rules” and requirements are flexible.

The format of conventional education was originally designed for the masses – and many of the same instructional methods still exist today. For this reason, consensus and conformity are critical to the efficiency of the curriculum, the teacher, and the institution.  This is especially true through grade school.

The student, however, learns implicitly and explicitly to “follow directions” and stop asking questions because not doing so creates costly “interruptions.” Personally, I believe education begins with asking numerous questions, and one’s level of edification can be fairly accurately measured by the quality of questions asked… but this is a topic for another time.

By the time students enter college, most have learned to accept things the “way they are” and to “just get on with things.” This is a big disservice. Why? Because one must believe there are other options available before recognizing them – and other times, alternative options must be proactively created.

In grade school obedient, subservient students get rewarded with glowing teacher reviews; in university, however, the creative students benefit most. These benefits may come not as raving teacher reviews (and may actually aggravate some the more orthodox professors), but rather less busy-work and/or more engaging assignments.


Through college I made a habit of questioning nearly everything. This was always done respectfully, and I never intended to disrupt class, only to better understand why things were done and to reveal possible alternatives that were more appropriate for my educational needs.

The reality is, not every assignment benefits each student in the same way (hence mass education), so I figured I’d at least try to seek something that did. This led to some very minor disputes with professors at times, but in the end, it kept classes interesting and content relevant.  I was actually surprised to see how many times fellow students approached me after class with appreciation for my willingness to probe concepts, assignments, and requests that did not initially appear logical.

As TUL reader, Yuriy, commented on Part 1, “I avoided doing a big finance project (I hate finance and will avoid it in my career) and was permitted to work on a business plan instead. Simply put, one can get the most out of their class if they try and negotiate with the teacher.”

Yuriy describes this point very well. Negotiation expert, Dr. Chester L. Karrass also shares a good perspective on the topic: “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.” Many things in college (and life) are more flexible than we believe – especially for those bold enough to poke, prod, and propose alternatives.

7) Choose your battles wisely, but fully embrace the ones you choose to fight.

Every student knows what it feels like to disagree with their professor or TA and every professional knows what it’s like to disagree with a boss or business partner. Ergo, life gives many opportunities to enter the boxing ring. The knack is selecting which battles to pursue.

I suggest a pro/con analysis at minimum. This is worth the few moments it takes because any scuffle requires time, energy, and mental capacity. Fighting every battle won’t get you far as you’ll quickly become labeled as a hot head. But being a pushover backfires as well.

Some things are better left alone and dismissed. But for those that warrant a larger upside, it’s worth contesting your disagreements to work towards what you think is reasonable.


For example, suggesting grade changes and project alternatives on simple weekly tasks are not often worth the fight. But if I sincerely disagreed with the way a major test, assignment, or project was graded, I would schedule a time to meet with the grader (which often happened to fall upon an inconvenient time for both of us) and show up with a minimum of 20 thoughtful, analytical questions, crossing off each question asked as we moved through them.

Done thoroughly and methodically, I would gain important insights for future assignments, earn an adjusted grade, and establish a precedent with a clear request for extremely detailed margin notes about any critiques that might negatively affect my grade (or we’d be meeting again at 6:45am).

There is little point in entering the boxing ring if you don’t intend to win. This means preparing, strategizing, and rehearsing the process and outcome. This also substantially minimizes emotional overreactions from either side and increases the odds of a satisfying outcome.

Some things are most certainly worthy of taking a stand, so don’t be afraid to voice your reasoning and solution when it matters. But if you choose to go to battle do it right or don’t do it all.

Note: Part 3 will feature the final 3 life lessons. To read the first 5 tips, click here.

Your thoughts?

What have you found works best for you – as a student and/or professional?

Stay uncommon,

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