6 Things You Learned in School that Don’t Apply in the Real World


If you’re a student, do you ever feel like what you’re learning in school isn’t relevant to the “real world”?

Or if you’ve already completed your formal education, did you have to unlearn some things from school in order to adapt to life after school?

I spend a lot of time working with students, parents and educators. I’ve observed that there’s a disconnect between what goes on in school and what goes on in the “real world.”

Please don’t get me wrong; you’ll learn plenty of useful things in school, but you’ll need to unlearn some things as well.

After all, you’ll probably spend 12 years or more in the school system. That’s a long time! During this time, it’s possible that you might pick up bad habits and incorrect ways of looking at the world.

I’ve come up with six things you’ll need to unlearn if you want to find long-term success.

1. Failure is disastrous

As a student, my biggest fear was failing a test or an exam. I even had nightmares about it.

What would my teachers say if I failed?

Would I have the guts to show my parents my report card?

Would I be able to make it to the next grade?

My fear of failure made me insecure and low in self-esteem. Many students I work with go through a similar experience.

But, in life, failure is seldom disastrous. In fact, given how complex the world is today, failure is often necessary if you want to succeed.

In my opinion, the highest aim of education is to teach students to fail intelligently. This means that schools should encourage students to dare to fail, to overcome obstacles, to surmount challenges, and to go at it again.

It’s through intelligent failure that students set themselves up for greater success in the future.

2. It’s better to work alone

Don’t you hate it when your teacher assigns a group project? There are plenty of reasons why many students dislike group projects:

  • The grading is subjective
  • Even if you try your best, you might not get an ‘A’
  • You might get stuck with one or more lazy group members (who will probably get the same grade as you, the hardworking one!)
  • It’s difficult to coordinate group members’ schedules
  • Interpersonal conflicts can arise

As such, students generally prefer to work alone. This applies to writing papers, completing homework assignments, and preparing for tests and exams.

In the real world, however, you can’t accomplish much on your own. If you’re working on a complicated assignment, building a business, or raising a family, you’ll need to function as part of a team.

It’s impossible to know or do everything, so you’ll be forced to work with others.

Schools should teach students how to get along with others, criticize constructively, disagree productively, and be a team player.

Equipping students with these skills will ensure that they’re prepared to face the demands and realities of life after school.

3. There’s always a right answer

Students like “model answers.” They believe that if they’re equipped with the perfect answers, they’re sure to do well on the exam.

But in life there’s almost never just one right answer. You can adopt numerous approaches to the same problem.

Just think about how different Yahoo! and Google are as search engines, yet they both serve the same function in different ways—and they both have millions of users.

In the real world, model answers don’t exist. Instead, you’ll need to conduct repeated experiments. You’ll need to experiment in order to determine if your assumptions, your business, your branding, your product, and your skill set are viable.

The unfortunate fact: When you experiment often, you’ll be wrong often.

But that’s completely okay, as long as you take precautions to guarantee that a failed experiment won’t result in a catastrophe.

4. Someone will tell you what you need to know

As students spend more time in school, they tend to become passive participants in their own learning.

Most students wait to be told what homework to do, what projects to work on, and what to study.

But this isn’t the way to achieve success in the real world. Being compliant and obedient can only get you so far. If you want to add value to your community or organization, you’ll need to take the initiative.

You’ll need to ask questions, not just follow instructions. You’ll need to go beyond what you’re expected to. You’ll need to do more than you’re paid to.

5. Education only happens in school

Just 10 or 20 years ago, if you wanted to get an education, you had to go to school. There were few alternative options.

But that’s no longer the case.

Today, there’s so much information available on the Internet—just at the click of a mouse button—that you can get an education outside of school.

School isn’t where you go to get an education. Instead, school should just be part of your education.

If you want to learn about a specific topic, develop a particular skill, or pick up a certain hobby, you can.

There’s sure to be a blog, online forum or YouTube video you can look up to get the information you need.

When you start to see that learning can take place anywhere, and that just about anyone can be your teacher, you’re on your way to becoming a truly educated person.

6. Only what’s in the syllabus is important

The school system emphasizes exam performance. This can cause students to associate learning with exams, and nothing else.

If it’s not going to be tested, why bother learning it, right?

But, in the real world, there are hardly any formal exams. Neither is there a “syllabus” that outlines the knowledge and skills you simply must possess.

Because of the mindset that only what’s in the syllabus is important, many people don’t read (I’m referring to books, not Tweets or Facebook status updates) after they leave school. This approach, however, won’t lead to success in the long run.

Whether you’re a homemaker, engineer, mechanic, nurse, teacher or CEO, there are always new things to learn and new skills to acquire.

If you want to be world-class at anything, it’s essential that you familiarize yourself even with content that’s “outside the syllabus.”

In closing…

Even if you’ve completed your formal education, your learning journey isn’t over.

As Alvin Toffler noted, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Heeding this advice, let’s learn the important, unlearn the redundant, and relearn the essential.

Our future—both as individuals and as a society—depends on it.

Image: RunRockPrincess

About the Author: Daniel Wong is the bestselling author of "The Happy Student: 5 Steps to Academic Fulfillment and Success". He blogs regularly on topics related to education and career at www.Daniel-Wong.com. Download his popular FREE ebook, "The Unhappiness Manifesto: Don’t Do These 150 Things If You Want To Be Happy".
  • Dwayne

    Excellent blog post!

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Glad you like it!

  • Charlene

    Needed this! Thanks! :)

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      You’re welcome :)

  • Anna

    LOVE this!

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Thanks for the enthusiasm!

  • JadePenguin

    Totally agree! I’ve learned a lot of these things not from school but the hard way. Especially about fear of failure and taking initiative (btw it feels great once you’ve learned to apply this!) Unfortunately, even university is pretty similar to school, with some exceptions. We do do groupwork but only on certain projects. Everywhere else they always say “Work individually or you might end up plagiarising each other’s work!”

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      I completely agree with you. The real world is all about working in teams, so I think that schools should really emphasize that more.

  • Wouter

    Liked it a lot even though the content wasn’t new to me. Thanks for sharing!

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Thanks for the encouragement, Wouter.

  • Viraj

    Some of the most widely accepted myths have been busted intelligently. It creates awareness more than anything else. Thanks for this !

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      You’re very welcome, Viraj! I hope we’ll be able to bust more myths :)

  • http://tinnitusassist.com Margaret

    Daniel this is an absolutely excellent post because it touches on some of the things that I experienced going through school. Particularly the idea that failure is disastrous because I was stretched by one parent to get top grades all the time. I recently watched a TV program that discussed just that aspect of raising children. If we let them avoid failure we are not preparing them for the real world. Failure is part of life. Not everyone will get a ‘prize’ every time.

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      I completely agree with you that failure is a part of life. I like to think of failure as “iteration” :)

  • http://21stcenturymonk.net Craig Coggle

    Great post.

    It’s interesting, a lot of my students actually say that they prefer to work in groups (I often co-create their curriculum with them).

    But that could still be for the reasons that you give, but flipped on their head ie. Even if you suck you might get an A, even if you’re lazy things will get done. Now I know!

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      That’s a very interesting point about working in groups… I’ll need to think more about that, although it’s really rare that I find students who like group work! Thanks for bringing up that point.

  • Dror

    I recently read a book that my coach published, it is called “Your Personal Superpower – The Secret to Lasting Success in Everything You Do” (it is on amazon), and he writes there about how schools don’t teach you what is important – to understand and use your own unique strengthes. He wrote something about how no school ever set out to create a Mozart, or a Donald Trump. Kind’a like what you say.

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Thanks for sharing, Dror. I’ll find out more about that book!

  • Bryan

    I really liked this article. #1,3,4 and 5 really hit me hard because I still find myself acting under those pretenses. Having read this I think its time in unlearn and relearn what is necessary though knowing i’ve started applying these aspects in my life before reading this gives me comfort knowing i’m on the right track. And even if i weren’t failure is always a good teacher ;)

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      I’m glad to hear that you’re on the right track, Bryan. Keep up your good work!

  • http://www.aboutsymptomsblog.com/bronchitis-symptoms/ Elle

    There were so many things that I learned in school that aren’t applicable in the real world or the job world!

    Reading #1 on your list was really impacting. Failure always had such a negative stigma attached to it, while I was in school.

    But how else would we learn if we didn’t fail at things from time to time? I think think failing is where we learn best.

    I also agree with #4. We have to go above and beyond. Doing the minimum is just not good enough. I can only how imagine it would be if I were the employer having to tell the employee every little thing that needs to get done.

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Thanks for sharing, Elle. I completely agree with you– we definitely need to encourage students to be more proactive when it comes to their own education.

  • http://becomeabetteryouin365days.com/ Erial

    Hi Celes,

    I absolutely love and agree with your latest post about education. Unfortunately the 6 rule of thumb applies here.

    Thank you for sharing Daniel Wong as I believe education as wide-spread as it, is very limited and primal compared to the universal information available in our own backyard. I believe the system is keeping us uneducated, uninformed, repressed as beings and keeping has bound to the limits of their satisfaction ie: rich vs poor.

    I am glad I love outside the box and follow my own guidance system. Where would we be if no one believed that anything is possible..? No electricity… That’s a scary thought!

    Ciao! x

    P.S – Great post btw and thank you again!

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Thanks for sharing, Erial. It’s obvious that you’ve done a lot of thinking about education yourself :)

      No electricity would be pretty bad indeed!

      • http://becomeabetteryouin365days.com/ Erial

        You are welcome and thank you again for this awesome eye-opening post!
        Knowledge is freedom from the chains of limiting beliefs. :)

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      (Hi Erial! This awesome post is by Daniel Wong — just want to clarify as you were thanking me for the post.)

      • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

        Erial is still right to thank you, though, Celes since you gave me the opportunity to write the article in the first place :)

        • http://becomeabetteryouin365days.com/ Erial

          Hi Daniel! Hi Celes!

          Well said! I believe I was thanking YOU both for bring this forward to the medium of viewers here. I think it’s absolutely paramount we understand ourselves as individuals but as also as a society. We should be looking at ways to encourage, help and inspire others to seek education outside the normal ie: thinking outside the box and doing our 10,000 hours of self investment. I believe this was the point being made here but also highlighting what our educational system is universally. I hope this clarifies my response and thanks to you Celes and Daniel.

          (I hope I don’t tread on too many toes as this is not what I meant to encourage!)

          Ciao! x

  • Pat

    Grades alone don’t measure intelligence.

    • http://personalexcellence.co Celes

      Don’t think that was a contestion point for this post Pat. :)

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Without a doubt, that’s true!

  • Michael Agyapong

    This is extremely great.In fact,it is very educative and you have schooled me exceedingly upon reading you blog.God will bless you until all and sundry call you blessed.Kudos.

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Thanks, Michael. You’re very kind!

  • http://personal_growth_project.com David Goettsch

    Amazingly accurate article. School has its purpose in life, but in some areas college can be especially poor at preparing you for the real working world. I have my degree in criminal justice and I work full time as a police officer and I can’t even begin to explain how many concepts I was taught in school that are just plain not true in my daily work.

    As you mentioned, nothing is as clear cut as it is in the classroom at real work. There isn’t always a right answer, in my profession more often than not there is no correct answer at all, we just do the best we can with
    the information we have.

    I also liked your point about everyone will tell you what you need to do. My number one piece of advice for being successful in a career is knowing how to ask good questions, and plenty of them. Awesome article, I write a personal development blog from a police perspective and this article really caught me eye. Keep up the good work!

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      Thanks for sharing, David. And that’s a very cool idea– writing about personal development from a police officer’s perspective!

  • http://www.anxioustogrow.com Alex Rogers

    Having just graduated, this resonates deep within me. Every one of these points is true, but the one that hit me the hardest was the idea that it is better to work alone. In almost any workplace, you are going to be teamed up with a number of different people and departments. People working well together is essential to a company’s success. In school, I tried best to avoid team assignments. Usually because you just couldn’t count on people to get things done. Building up the trust to work in teams takes time, but is absolutely necessary, especially if you want to rise to a high level position.

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      I was the same way, Alex. I avoided team assignments as a student, and I’m learning to embrace them in the working world!

  • Nele

    Reading your blogs has helped me to overcome my own fear of failure and even more important, has helped me to become, I believe, a better parent, because I now look upon my children differently. They do not have to succeed at everything, failure is alowed as they will learn important lessons from it and school is merely part of their education. This blog-post is again heart-warming and inspiring. Thank you so much!

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      You’re welcome, Nele. It sounds like you’re a very reflective parent :)

  • http://traduiresanslimites.com Julie

    From your second point I do totally agree. Last week I was wondering why school hasn’t yet scheduled a sociological / pyschological course since nursery school and all along the education system as its part and parcel of everyday life and real life.
    Interpersonal relations are so complex that every human being should have access to several lessons about how it works.

    • http://www.daniel-wong.com Daniel Wong

      I completely agree. The world has changed a lot, but the education system hasn’t changed fast enough to keep up.

  • http://traduiresanslimites.com Julie

    I think it’s a great challenge to make heard another point of view on the education system.
    Make a comparison from several countries on what is and what should be :)

  • FugYoo

    Fer chrissake’s. Get over yerself and land a real f**king job. Then see how “working in teams,” that is – nothing gets done till YOU do it (and then get blamed for it by that fat, lazy S.O.B who gets the promotion; not you who dun done it). Try getting help from that fat-as slob!

    Yeah, he’ll help you out – the f**king door, a**hole.

    Kick dat MF in the shins and grab credit! Tell your boss YOU dun did it – not fat-a** lazy puke-boy! Get that SOB fired TO-DAY!

    Then go on to conquer space, numbnutz.

More in Studies
How To Be a Top Public Speaker (Advice From a 5-Time Toastmasters Champion) [Video]

After terrific reception for the first episode of Celes.TV (interview with learning & education expert Daniel Wong on How To Score...