Where there is no path

Chapter 2: Unlessonsdo not go where the path my lead

Unlesson 1: Take the required classes

School World: A set path to success with predetermined checklists

When you were about 5 years old, you started following a very specific, pre-determined path. You were tested on particular ideas and activities, slotted into a particular location, and provided with particular things you would do to move forward on that path for the next 12 to 16 years of your life. All that you were and all that you did were focused around that path – your identity was defined by where you were on it: 3rd grade reading, 2nd grade math, motor skills at the 4th grade level. Maybe you were “advanced,” and had math lessons from farther along the path than your classmates. Or maybe, like one friend of mine, you were held back in kindergarten because you hadn’t quite mastered hopping on one foot. Extra-curriculars were side journeys you could take, but school was the main road.

The path you were following had been carefully mapped out to traverse the landscape of standards and knowledge and competencies. Someone – your parents, your teacher, your school district, your state, your country – told you what forks and branches would advance your journey, and which were impractical. When you arrived at each rest area, your achievements were marked with pomp, circumstance, and, quietly likely, a loose, musty robe and archaic flat-topped hat.

This clear, well-defined path is one of the best things about a school curriculum.

In school, the tasks we have to do to get to the next dot on the map are handed to us in workbooks and textbooks and notebooks. Do the task, learn the ideas, and progress to the next milestone.

This way of learning is very clear, and, for all the controversies around which vehicles get you to the next milestone most effectively, the map itself is very well-assessed and well-researched. A lot of smart people spend a lot of time telling you where you’re supposed to go next. Leave the path, and it’s still there waiting for you.

The path gets more flexible as you get older – in high school you get to pick more of your classes, and in college you’re even allowed to pick what topic you want to focus on. But even though you can choose your major, you probably had a long list of general requirements courses to give you a “well-rounded” college education. There was probably a pretty long checklist of classes you had to take to complete your major, too. Your choices, as important as they were in deciding how to get to Graduation City, were still within a constrained system that lead you to the destination you were told was the Right Place to Be.

But that brightly-lit, clearly marked path is also one of the worst things about a school curriculum.

Not just because you might not be so well-suited to the path that was handed to you, and not just because you might have preferred to take your path through the mountain instead of over it as you were instructed.

That path becomes a problem because it comes to an end. And once you reach the end, all your nice, clear training in how to get the most out of traveling the school path becomes obsolete. Now, you have to map out your own path. And that’s one thing school doesn’t really do a great job teaching you.

Work World: Find your own path

It might seem as though stepping into the world of work is like stepping into uncharted wilderness, and in some ways it is. There aren’t nearly as many clear, comfortable roadways for you to trundle along. It’s a morass of confusing, chaotic communities, ideas, and activities. School gives you some tools to tame that wilderness, but ultimately you have to clear your own way through the underbrush.[1]

Outside of school, there aren’t required lessons and well-marked milestones everyone agrees are the Right Place to Go. Instead of being given checklists, you’ll have to cobble together your own list of things to learn. Instead of big, brightly-lit accomplishments anyone can recognize, you’ll have small landmarks that might not mean much to people outside your one little corner of the work world.

Finding your own path is hard. You weren’t really trained for that. The way that school defined the world of learning and progress and achievement for you no longer applies – or at least, it no longer applies in the same way. Sure, you can go to graduate school, join an apprentice program, or become part of an organization that provides some paths for you as you go. But once you’ve arrived, once you have that job you’ve been training for, that’s when the path gets hazy.

So you’ll need to unlearn what the school system taught you about success, failure, advancement, knowledge, and ignorance. You’ll need to redefine “smart” and “dumb” –what you thought they mean probably isn’t what they will come to mean to you out in the wild, wild work world.

And sorry, but this book isn’t going to give you new definitions for any of that stuff. Once you’re out here in the wilderness, you’re building your own curriculum.

The bad news is, you don’t get a roadmap telling you where to go and what you’ll find along the way.

The good news is, there are no more required classes for you to take. Your path is your own now.

[1] Maybe this why some of us went to graduate school.


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