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How great did it feel to graduate from school? Like a huge weight was lifted off your shoulders? Congratulations, now you don’t have to study, plan, work so hard, and report to anyone, right? Nobody’s making sure you learn, do your homework, and best of all, asking to see your report card. Ah, the smell of freedom and success.
The Dirt: School’s out! I’m done. Finally made it.
What if the illusion that we’re out of school is why we spend the rest of our lives struggling to get past the 12th grade? Perhaps it’s not that we’re suddenly free, but that the subjects have changed, we’re no longer accountable to a report card, and we don’t have any idea how to graduate the school of life.
When was the last time someone asked about your report card? It’s probably been a while, but if you had to show it, what would be on your adult report card? Would you be an ‘A’ student and valedictorian or would you be heading to detention and summer school? Consider the importance we place on success and accountability when we’re young, yet the moment we leave the nest, we’re all of a sudden free to fail. It’s as if learning to be great stops and hoping for the best begins.
“If you were to write your eulogy today and spend the rest of your natural life becoming the person worthy of such a memorium, how could that be given any grade other than A+? “
In school, we have subjects that are deemed important enough that we must learn and then be graded on our proficiency and acumen in them. They are designed to help us not only learn about the world, but function within the world as well. This is not to imply that school is the only or the best vehicle to prepare us for life, but it certainly can play an important role. Given that our only job as a kid is to “work” in school, get good grades with the goal of graduation, what exactly is our job in life? What is the equivalent of class grades and graduation goals now?
Covey famously reminds us to start with the end in mind. In other words, what would be our ‘graduation’ as adults? What is the success that would allow us to look back and be proud of our life? How do we know we made it? Albeit an age-old debate, let’s define success as the progressive realization towards a worthwhile goal. This requires you first have a goal that has value to you, then you must spend your life moving towards it. I, nor anyone else, can tell you what these are, just that we must have them. Without goals, we’re nothing more than driftwood in the river of life, hoping we don’t get stuck, sink, or rot on the way to the edge of the waterfall.
Graduation – Write your eulogy
If you were to write your eulogy today and spend the rest of your natural life becoming the person worthy of such a memorium, how could that be given any grade other than A+? This is nothing more than the ultimate goal setting. All other goals in life are just stepping stones towards the final event, where society looks back at the legacy you left (or didn’t leave).
The challenge is to elevate your eulogy above just being remembered for being a nice person or having a great smile. Rather it’s the legacy you leave behind for your family, your community, and the world. It’s how you affected those around you and the undeniable impact you had on them. Will you be just another faceless name in the registry or will your spirit and purpose live beyond you?
Our Curriculum – Life’s subjects
How do we graduate each milestone? Let us define the content of our life courses. Allow me to propose five life subjects that if mastered, can supply the necessary knowledge and skill to accomplish our life’s work.
Finances are often our clearest measure of success. Not because it’s about the money, but money is a key ingredient to being able to do anything else in life. Building a strong financial foundation and plan is the one underlying concept that can support the rest of the curriculum. A misunderstanding of finance is like trying to learn another subject without knowing the language being spoken. It makes it incredibly more difficult to pass any other class.
The grade: Your financial statement. Is it in such good shape that it could stand on its own, even if we lose a job, the economy tanks, or a spouse dies? Is there anything worth leaving to your family as a legacy? Is it a source of stress or pride?
Health is a close cousin to finance. In fact, it is often directly proportional to it. Wealth tends to allow for good health, and good health is fertilizer for wealth. Health gives us the time (longevity) and ability (quality) to get things done. Poor health, physical or mental, is just another impediment preventing us from operating at our best. Since success is often challenging enough without additional constraints, health must be taken seriously in our life studies. Remember that when you feel good, you tend to do good.
The grade: Your vitals. How do you treat yourself physically and mentally? Are you leading a life of stimulation and growth, or are you stagnated and decomposing? It is well known that we are growing or dying, and that the key to growth is challenge. Hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, etc. are never the problem. They are the effects of our actions (or lack thereof) and environment.
Consider the amount of hours spent traveling to and from our career and all the time in between. This is precious time away from our family that we choose to trade for money, so that we can provide a nice life for them. The path we take here can cause a generous influx of health and wealth, or a severe lack of it. The 2000+ hours per year we spend (or invest) into our work is a major part of life. From being employed to make another person wealthy, to being the owner and operator of your own enterprise, how well you use this vehicle to reach the longer-term goals is crucial to reaching them.
The grade: Is it worth it? Consider a 3 hour commute time in gridlock traffic to show up to a unfulfilling job, to work for a boss you may dislike, only to be underpaid and underappreciated, having no control on whether or not you even have a job tomorrow. And do this fo 40 years at least. What kind of toll does that level of stress have on you and your family?
In a society where we survive and thrive with the help of others, having a solid support system of people with whom you can rely and who can rely on you is critical to success. Sharing a loving relationship with a partner and kids provides not only encouragement when you need it most, but is also a way to give that love back to others. This releases the neurochemicals that lead to good feelings and good attitude. Similarly with friends, having trust and credibility with others can help all ships rise and provide a structure for greatness in the world. What if we all win together or lose together?
The grade: Propensity to help others. How eager are you to see others win? Do you see giving as losing or do you believe the pie is infinitely large? Does others’ success leave you envious or do you genuinely wish to see them do well, knowing that if they can do it, so can you? Do people trust you and do you lend trust to others or are you always looking for the angle?
It is said that the quality of our life is made up of the quality of the emotions we experience every single day. There are many things we can control in our lives, and many things we cannot. For those that we cannot, we can at least control our reaction to them. In other words, does a rainy day really have to make us sad, and an insult make us angry? When we lose control over how we respond, we lose the ability to improve the situation. Emotional Intelligence is the study of this principle and is worth its weight in gold to learn.
The grade: Your daily emotions. If your day is filled with joy, excitement, fulfillment, appreciation, gratitude, and love, then you are experiencing a level of happiness commensurate with success. If you are inundated with despair, fear, depression, doubt, and worry, then life may be a failed experiment for you. What if you didn’t get too high on the highs or too low on the lows?
What grade are you in?
With this in mind, failing the school of life follows from not having a goal and not taking and passing the right classes. For if we don’t know where we’re going, what chance do we have to get there? From our eulogy, we can then determine the milestones necessary, akin to grade levels as a child, that let us know we are heading in the right direction to realize our legacy. These are our 30 year to 30 day plans. Working backwards, we can even determine what must be done today to die with our desired honor.
Consider every milestone you accomplish to be another grade passed. Just like school, your grade is results-based. If you pass the test, you move to the next level. If not, you must repeat. Does not life operate in the same way? If we can achieve a goal, we can move to the next. Falling short and saying ‘we tried’ just doesn’t hold much water in life.
Your Report Card
Your grades provided a wonderful thing, whether or not you would have agreed at the time. The report card was a primary tool for evaluation and accountability. Not only did you and your parents know how you were doing, it was dreadful to think we’d bring home a bad grade. If nothing else, we didn’t want to get that stern whipping, so we worked harder than we ever would have had we not had a report card. Now that we are adults, what happened to the evaluation and the accountability? How do we know how well we are doing and who’s making sure we are doing well enough?
As kids, our grades (evaluation) were based on standards. Even if you didn’t agree with them, everyone was graded to the same standard. As adults, we don’t seem to have a universal standard. Our standard, if you can generously call it that, is the environment around us. Namely, the 5-7 people with whom we spend the most time, the TV we watch, the radio that plays on the way to and from work, and our social media feeds. We’re not going to delve into where the bar is set with each of these, but have you ever asked yourself how well you are doing compared to anyone else other than your immediate environment? You might be the big fish in the small pond, but there’s a big sea out there with much more challenge and success.
Grades also served to hold us accountable. There’s a special magic in accountability. If we are held to a standard, the shame, embarrassment, and disappointment of falling short of that standard is often enough to motivate us to do our best. This is especially true when our success or failure would be publicly known to the school, our parents, and friends. Whether our parents used the punishment system to keep us away from bad grades or the reward system to entice us to good ones, we always knew somebody was watching and counting on us to do well.
We either choose to learn, work, and excel in the school of life or we get schooled by life.
Suggestions for not being schooled by life
- Set up graduation requirements – Start with the eulogy, but add milestones along the way. Know which direction you must head, else stay in summer school forever.
- Announce it publicly – When you make it known, you will find supporters that want to help you and naysayers that will motivate you.
- Find the curriculum – Learn from books, audios, and mentors. Be sure to find competent sources and be curious.
- Find a few classmates– Just like a gym partner, who will make sure you keep your word to yourself, even when you don’t feel like it? Start a study group.
- Do your homework – Do the small things daily and consistently that move you towards passing the class. Action should be immediate and massive.
- Reward system – Celebrate getting to the next grade, achieving each milestone.
- Don’t drop out – Never ever ever quit on yourself, your dreams, or your family. Quitting is the only sure way to fail.
The good news is that if we know what we want, how to get it, we measure our progress, and climb the ladder of milestones that will get us there, we can literally rule the school. Otherwise, it might be an endless session of summer school for us. When the successful are outside having fun, we’re going to be working hard wishing we had just done the work when we had the chance.
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
I dare you to share this with 8 people whose adult report card indicates tutoring required. It just might save their life. I appreciate our time together. Please meet me at the top, because the bottom’s much too crowded.