For people in the industrialized world, middle-class and above, the primary focus of our waking lives between the ages of six and twenty-two is—to a first approximation—grades. To a second approximation, the agenda also includes narrowly defined extracurricular activities, such as sports and music and volunteering, which look good on college applications and entry-level résumés. But if you ask, what is the primary thing parents, teachers, politicians, and society want us to focus on during sixteen years, roughly between the ages of six and twenty-two, the answer is plain and simple: get good grades.
Have you ever stopped to ponder how utterly bizarre this state of affairs is? How in the world did we all get so convinced that academic rigor constituted a prerequisite, necessary and sufficient training for success in life? How did we all get convinced that this one end merited devoting sixteen of the best years of our lives toward it? That we should spend almost our entire youth—potentially some of the most creative, enthusiastic, energetic, and fun years of our lives—in pursuit of little numbers and letters certifying our academic intelligence?
Sir Ken Robinson, author of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, has pondered this puzzling question a lot. In a video talk in the famous TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) series, entitled “Ken Robinson Says Schools Kill Creativity” (which became one of the TED.com’s most downloaded talks ever), Sir Ken says: “If you were to visit education, as an alien, and say ‘What’s it for, public education?’ I think you’d have to conclude—if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this, who does everything that they should, who gets all the brownie points, who are the winners—I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it? They’re the people who come out the top. . . . And I like university professors, but you know, we shouldn’t hold them up as the high-water mark of all human achievement. They’re just a form of life, another form of life.”
Libertarian critic of our current educational system Charles Murray makes the point another way in his book Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality: “We should look at the kind of work that goes into acquiring a liberal education at the college level in the same way that we look at the grueling apprenticeship that goes into becoming a master chef: something that understandably attracts only a limited number of people.”
These critics are saying, essentially: training to become a college professor and academic scholar is fine for those who truly wish to do so. But if you’ve already gone through college, you are now the product of a system and cultural norm that holds that, in order to prepare for success in life, you must spend sixteen years of your life training toward an ideal of academic perfection.
If you haven’t noticed already, this is a silly system. It’s silly for a very simple reason. For most fields you’d want to enter—aside from, say, research science—beyond basic levels of academic intelligence, developing additional academic intelligence will have virtually no impact on your life prospects and success. Developing your practical intelligence will have far more impact on the quality and success of your life.
In a core section his book Outliers: The Story of Success, for example, Malcolm Gladwell argues meticulously that, above a certain IQ (around 120, which is considered “above average/bright,” but not even “moderately gifted”), additional IQ points have little correlation to real-world success. Ditto for grades—beyond a middling level of academic achievement, there is little evidence that grades (the center point of our waking lives for almost the entire sixteen years of our educational track) bear any causal relationship at all to real-world results, success, achievement, or satisfaction in life.
(See discussion in Outliers of the the study “Michigan’s Minority Graduates in Practice: The River Runs Through Law School,” which found that minority students—despite being admitted with lower grades and test scores, as a part of affirmative action, and despite earning lower grades in law school—went on to have law careers every bit as successful as their white peers. “Being a successful lawyer is about a lot more than IQ,” Gladwell concludes, to explain the findings of the study.)
In one segment, Gladwell compares the lives of two men born with exceptionally high IQs, Chris Langan, known as “the smartest man in America,” with an IQ over 200, and Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project. The brilliance of their minds is comparable, yet one of these men (Oppenheimer) had a profound impact on world history, and another (Langan) has had very little, despite repeated attempts to get his work published.
What is the difference between these two men? According to Gladwell, the main difference is that, in addition to his rocket-high IQ, Oppenheimer also possessed exceptional practical intelligence in navigating his way through the people who could influence his success in the world, “things like knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect.” Langan in turn possessed little of this kind of intelligence, and thus was never able to gain much of a toehold in the world of practical achievement.
In his book, Gladwell shows that once a person has demonstrated passable logical, analytic, and academic skills, other factors have much more influence on real-world results—specifically, creativity, innovative thinking, and practical and social intelligence. To the extent that we develop these aptitudes in our lives, we tend to do so out in the real world, not in formal institutions.
(I should make clear that while I think certain of Gladwell’s points in his book support to the basic message of my book, my guess is that he himself would disagree with much in my book; later in his book, he argues that more hours in school training hard in academic subjects, not fewer hours, is essential for inner-city kids’ success. By the way, I don’t presume to tell anyone what they should do for their formal education; it’s not my place to do that. Here I merely argue that the street-smart skills in this book are a necessary addition to any formal education.)
This book is your guide for developing practical success skills in the real world. I focus on seven key skills that will be crucial if you want to succeed in your work and career. These practical skills are not meant to be a replacement for college. Indeed, a classic college education—in its most elite conception—is not meant to teach practical skills at all. That’s not its purpose. You can learn many wonderful things in college. You can be exposed to new ideas, broaden your perspective on life, learn critical thinking skills, and immerse yourself in the great intellectual and cultural treasures of the human mind and spirit.
But, even if you’ve already gone through college, one thing I’m certain wasn’t on the curriculum in school was how to translate these abstract, academic teachings into real-world results in your own life. Yet, this additional education around practical skills is not optional. Learning the skills in this book well is a necessary addition to a college education, if you want to achieve more success in your work and life. This book shows you the way.
I will turn to the seven key skills in a moment. But first, let me tell you a little about who I am and why I decided to write this book.
Next: My Shocking Realization