Category Archives: unlearn from school

Writing writing writing

As a professor, I generate, oversee, edit, review, and comment on a lotta, lotta writing. I may be an academic, but really, in an important sense, above all I am a writer, with all the attendant neuroses, fears, freezes, and inspirations that implies.

Recently, having added this book writing project to my (naw, not full at all!) plate, I’ve been reflecting on what it takes to keep that writing going.

A dear friend used to get up at 5 a.m. to work on her (done! published! successful!) book, to get in clear thinking before the flood of minutiae hijacked her day. That wasn’t going to work for me, so I turned to another trick I learned in graduate school: write for 15 minutes a day.

This sounds silly, I know. How can you get anything done in 15 minutes a day? you ask. You might be especially puzzled when I tell you that you don’t even have to write something “good” or “meaningful” as part of that 15 minutes. You’re  just supposed to write 15 minutes of anything related to your topic. Maybe you’ll just write, “Gah, I am so stuck on this section about the integrated implementation of utilizing schema to further provide advancement to the functionality of the relevant mechanisms…” (j.k., I don’t really write like that).

Or maybe you’ll write, “Oh book on school / you are so cool. / You will teach me not / to be a fool.” (no comment)

But actually, writing for 15 minutes a day is positively transformative. The short version is, it works. Try it.

The long version is my theory about why it works*: I believe that accessing the parts of your mind, focus, and energy that are associated with the writing you’ve tasked yourself with a) provides practice in spending time in that “writing space” in your head; b) lowers the fear/stress-based barriers to being productive on the project because it’s such a low-level commitment; and c) getting anything done at all, even 15 minutes of blather, makes you feel damn good (resulting in Happy Thoughts getting linked more and more with writing).

writingPicI urge my stuck graduate students to follow this advice, and if they’re really struggling, I make them go buy the book that taught me this. The advice is valid, I’ve found, for any kind of writing, not just academic stuff.

So if you’re on the hook to write, try writing something on it, anything on it, for 15 minutes a day, rain or shine, hell or high water. Be unrelenting! Never skip a day, no matter how uninspired, cranky, frustrated, terrified, annoyed, or overwhelmed you feel. It’s only 15 minutes. You can do anything for 15 minutes, right?

I promise it will make a difference.


*Note: These reasons why I think it works are Not Science, just my little theory.

Unlesson: You’ll need this later.

School world: Advance your skills and use them

For many people, the secret to a good high school and college education is selecting the classes that are The Most Useful. For much of today’s student body and its parents, that means picking a major that teaches skills, not philosophies, that produces articles, not essays, that trains you to work in concrete, not concerts.

Calls of “You can’t get a job doing that!” echo throughout parental advice sessions, as students contemplate literature, history, philosophy, religion, Greek, Latin, or French. No permutation of “but those are the classics!” will convince a worried parent (or student) staring down the barrel of mounting college debt that majoring in English is more expedient than engineering.

As a result, it’s a lot easier to bring home a nice, buttoned-up skills-based major to meet the parents than any leather-jacket-wearing, slick-haired, motor-cycle-riding rebel like Philosophy with a Cause. “I love to write,” my students tell me. “But my parents wanted me to major in something useful, so I’m in journalism, not English.”


“I love theater,” they say. “But my parents want to be sure I get a job when I graduate, so I’m studying event planning, not plays.”

“Architecture, not art.”

“PR, not political science.”

“Computer science, not comparative lit.”

You probably aren’t surprised to learn that the percent of graduates who hold traditional humanities degrees like English, history, or philosophy is indeed dropping (although other “useless” humanities degrees like art and music are on the rise).  But even though skills courses may be winning Most Likely to Succeed every year, the jump from classroom to workroom may not be quite as simple as it seems.

I’m not saying parents are wrong, but I am saying there may be some missing links in this logic. For example, it may seem obvious that knowledge of software is a lot more appealing to employers than critical analyses of Much Ado about Nothing. And there is no doubt employers are clamoring for college graduates with more demonstrable skills.

But what is less obvious is that it might not be your skills that land you a job. What’s more, aside from the fact that the software you learned so diligently in sophomore year is most certainly outdated by the time you graduate, what you think of as “skills” and what employers think of as “skills” might not be quite as similar as you (and your parents) assumed.

Work world: Get hired because you’ll be good at learning/love the work

A recent study found that the top three things employers are looking for in freshly-minted college grads are not about software, equations, or business plans. Instead, HR professionals of 2014 reported that hiring is all about personality. They’re looking for a positive attitude (84%), communication skills (83%) and an ability to work as a team (74%).

No, I’m not suggesting that want ads are going to start advertising for history majors. But I am suggesting that especially because the technologies of work are changing so quickly, whether it’s in social media marketing positions or digital rendering for landscaping projects, few employers expect new workers to walk in with the exact skills they’ll need every day.

As a result, employers say the most important things on your resume are more nebulous and confusing qualities, like “cultural fit” (43%), along with “relevant courses” (21%) and “internship experience” (13%). What that means is that the major listed on your resume is really most useful for expressing your interests and what you know how to learn, not precisely what you have learned. In other words, employers are usually looking for someone who will be interested and quick in learning the specific software, devices, styles, or techniques that company uses every day. Even if you have the best training, you’ll still have to learn to do it their way, not the way you learned in courses.

Extend out that logic, and it makes sense that an English major who took classes in science writing and had an internship in a medical center writing reports is going to be a better candidate than a medical services major who worked retail for four years.

Don’t take this idea too far, though. If you want to be a computer programmer, it really makes the most sense to major in some kind of computer programming. But the truth is, if you’re a philosophy major with demonstrable programming skills, you probably have a good shot at that job, too. Believe it or not, employers are just as worried about not finding the right person to hire as you are about finding someone to hire you.

At the end of the day, what employers want more than anything else is someone who can identify problems and solve them. Figure out how to let them know you can do that, in their business, really well, and you’ll be miles ahead of the game.

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.

Party, splurge, and play: Unlessons book contents

Keep calm and party onHere is the draft Table of Contents for my unlessons book. In addition to the sections here, each Lesson chapter will have tools like lists of resources and exercises like quizzes and worksheets.

Subsections aren’t really in order, although the chapters and unlessons are in the order I’ve got for the moment. Subsections are listed as notes on what the content for that section will be, but I’m working on the actual subsection titles.

Have a thought? Am I missing some key, core idea? Comment away!


Introduction: Unlearning the rules

1. Chapter 1: Success
1.1. Grit: what it really takes to succeed
1.2. Goals, dreams, plans – make them big! (thank you, Avery)

2. Chapter 2: Unlessons
2.1. Unlesson: Take the required classes
2.1.1. School world: A set path to success with predetermined checklists
2.1.2. Work world: Find your own path
2.2. Unlesson: You’ll be graded on this
2.2.1. School world: Everything you submit gets graded
2.2.2. Work world: You often get very little direct, specific feedback
2.3. Unlesson: Only the best work gets an A
2.3.1. School world: Meritocracy
2.3.2. Work world: Done is better than great
2.4. Unlesson: Get the right answer
2.4.1. School world: Regurgitating what prof told you = right
2.4.2. Work world: No “right” exists; Good = persuasive arguments (& fulfilling expectations/needs)
2.5. Unlesson: Content matters
2.5.1. School world: What you’re thinking / effort matters
2.5.2. Work world: Whole context & presentation/sell matters
2.6. Unlesson: Show your work
2.6.1. School world: Write /present more to demonstrate quality
2.6.2. Work world: Shorter is better (and harder)
2.7. Unlesson: Close the book and work independently
2.7.1. School world: Individual assessment and projects vs. rarer group work
2.7.2. Work world: All work is group work
2.8. Unlesson: Don’t fail
2.8.1. School world: Failures don’t count/get you nowhere
2.8.2. Work world: Learn from failure; Taking risks is the only way to achieve greatness
2.9. Unlesson: You’ll need this later
2.9.1. School world: Advance your skills and use them
2.9.2. Work world: Be good at learning; Find a way to fill a niche and make yourself useful

3. Chapter 3: Lesson: Show Off
3.1. Promote yourself: Resumes and portfolios
3.2. The line between arrogance and self-promotion
3.3. While you’re showing off, ask questions. (learn about others, industry, job, etc.)

4. Chapter 4: Lesson: Gossip
4.1. Gossip about yourself: Online presence, Personal branding
4.2. Show AND Tell: Use SNS to promote your work/self
4.3. While you’re gossiping, listen (to others pov, ideas, thoughts, reactions)

5. Chapter 5: Lesson: Hang Out & Party
5.1. Come early, leave late (face time)
5.2. Go to events and dinners: Social bonds make work bonds/networks
5.3. While you’re hanging out, take notes. (keep track of what you learn, who they are, etc.)

6. Chapter 6: Lesson: Play
6.1. Hobbies, and how important it is do have other activities that matter
6.2. Spend time on non-work activities, “unproductive” things – especially those!
6.3. While you play, do your homework (invest in non-work people, relationships, causes)

7. Chapter 7: Lesson: Road Trip
7.1. Go places outside your comfort zone: Learn from people different than you
7.2. Read news/blogs/books by people who disagree with you
7.3. While you road trip, be respectful

8. Chapter 8: Lesson: Splurge
8.1. It’s only money: Managing it is more important than earning it
8.2. Spend less anyway: Reduce the Stuff
8.3. While you splurge, take care of yourself (insurance, good choices, etc.)

9. Chapter 9: Final Thoughts and Advice
9.1. Work your network
9.2. Develop resources and skills continually
9.3. Do it anyway (even if you don’t have a job doing it)
9.4. Remember the power (and perils) of EGO
9.5. Call your parental unit(s) and [clever phrase for siblings that encompasses friends]

Unlearn from school – Preface

This is the start of the preface of my book about unlearning from school, beginning with the book-jacket bio. And a little gift for S.*


Rosa Mikeal Martey has been studying work and job-seeking for over 20 years. She has a Master’s degree in labor economics and a Ph.D. in communication, both from the University of Pennsylvania. After working as a strategic planner for the international advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, she spent some time as an entreprenurial development director for a non-profit in the northeast United States. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University.


You’ve been in school pretty much your whole life. And in school, you learned a lot of things about what success is, what it feels and looks like, and how to get it. Sure, you may not always have followed those lessons exactly. Maybe you skipped a few classes, or maybe you did an assignment not quite the way the instructor asked you to. Maybe breaking the rules worked for you sometimes, maybe it didn’t. But the world you were living in, a school world, was your point of reference. It set the boundaries, defined the Good and the Bad, told you the Right Answer, and gave you a system to work in or fight against. Whether you loved it or hated it, from the age of 5 you were taught a set of rules from school that helped you survive – maybe even thrive.

Now it’s time to unlearn those rules because – sorry – most of that stuff is useless now.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that school taught you useless rules for school. And not everything school taught you is useless by any means. Some pretty helpful things are in those rules. Ask questions. Listen. Take notes. Do your homework. Be respectful. Take care of yourself.  The school rules you learned did a pretty good job of laying out what you needed to succeed back then.

But the work world is a different world, with different rules, and most of the rules school taught you about success don’t work on the job market. That’s why you’re reading this book.  You need to unlearn those old rules.

I’m going to tell you that there is no clear path of progression from grade to grade. That what you did in school, internships, and summer jobs isn’t why people will hire you. I’ll break it to you that the most successful work isn’t about quality. That getting to the page limit actually means you didn’t work hard enough. I’ll explain why you shouldn’t close the book and work independently. I’ll let you down easy about the fact that getting the right answer isn’t the point. And I’ll tell you what you already know: failing isn’t actually a sign you’re doing the wrong thing.

Okay, well, I’m a professor. I can’t just leave you like that. So after you unlearn the old rules, I’ll talk about a few things you can learn. And yes, they will be on the test. But I promise you can get an A if you try. It just might not quite be the A you were thinking of.

* If I  were  extraordinarily clever, I would write a book about how going from school to the work world is like playing WoW, but that might be a little too clever.

Unlearning School

victorianGradI have recently started working on a book for graduating college seniors about that confusing and oft-overwhelming transition from the World of School to the World of Work.

I’ve decided to post segments here for your thoughts and feedback as I write. These are drafts, so any and all of your insight is welcome.

The book focuses on what school teaches us about how the world works – about how school defines success, failure, progress, achievement. It explains that those rules – the school rules – look pretty different in the work world.

And to go from the world of school rules to the world of work rules takes some getting used to – and some un-learning of lessons.

I still don’t have a title, but my hope is that students will find some ideas in these pages that will make moving into the world of work a bit less daunting.