An inclination to learn from life – the value of college

College presidents used to be the influential, ‘thought leaders’ of their time, consulted by heads of state and corporate CEOs. It’s the rare college leader who steps out today and takes a stand amid the conflicting pressures of donor interests, state legislatures and government regulation.

In 2007 Michael S. Roth became president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Five years later he wrote an opinion in The New York Times with the title ‘Learning as Freedom’. In it he borrows heavily from the writings of John Dewey, an early twentieth century philosopher and leader in education reform.

At this time of year when students are deciding where to attend college amid a growing conversation on the value of college, it’s refreshing to take a step back into history and revisit the ideas of those who defined American higher education.

President Roth asks the question, “Who wants to attend school to learn to be ‘human capital’ ? Who aspires for their children to become economic or military resources?”

Why do we attend college? For Dewey “…schools first and foremost should teach us habits of learning…these habits included awareness of our interdependence; nobody is an expert on everything. He emphasized ‘plasticity’, an openness to being shaped by experience: “The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling.”

President Roth concludes,“Dewey’s insight that learning in the process of living is the deepest form of freedom. In a nation that aspires to democracy, that’s what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society…Higher education’s highest purpose is to give all citizens the opportunity to find ‘large and human significance’ in their lives and work.”

For high school seniors, this is an important message. For the past twelve years of education your struggles are about to be rewarded with an invite to attend the college of your choice. But what about life after admission?

Frank Bruni gives voice to the concern that it’s all about the process in his article ‘How to Survive the College Admissions Madness’. “College is a singular opportunity to rummage through and luxuriate in ideas, to realize how very large the world is and to contemplate your desired place in it. And that’s lost in the admissions mania, which sends the message that college is a sanctum to be breached – a border to be crossed – rather than a land to be inhabited and tilled for all that it’s worth.”

Look beyond the letter and imagine who you’ll be a year from now. Where will you best exercise your inclination to learn from life?

When did we start ‘shopping’ for college’?

When did college become a commodity? When did the decision of the best place to go translate into a monetary return on investment? When did we start shopping for college as we would for any other ‘big ticket’ consumer purchase?

I’m guessing it started when the average cost of college exceeded the average annual income of the majority of Americans.

Add to that a financial aid vocabulary that includes terms similar to those we use when we buy a car: ‘sticker price’ (tuition without room and board and books and lab fees) and ‘discounting’ (need-based institutional grant aid and discounts granted in an effort to increase the probability that particular students will choose to enroll).

Unfortunately price has become the determinant where ‘fit’ and values should predominate.

This week high school seniors will log on to websites to learn if they have been admitted to the college of their choice. For some, the financials will limit the choice, but for all it’s time to commit to a plan for the next two to four years.

In recent years there has been a trend to vocationalism in the choice of college and major. At the top schools business and economics departments are growing while humanities shrink. And why? Because parents and students are ‘buying in’ to a belief that the highest ranked schools with majors closely linked to employers are the best choice.

I disagree.

There are no guarantees. In a past life I would meet in large auditoriums where parents would arrive with the ‘ten questions you should ask when visiting a college campus’. One was always: How many students were employed at graduation? Does it matter? If your child does not have a job when he or she graduates and the other 99% of the Class of 2019 does, it doesn’t matter. Given the volatility of the job market and the ever changing complexion of entry level opportunities, can we really project out four years? That didn’t work out so well for the Class of 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Here are three things I would consider above all in selecting a college today: faculty, location and internships.

You should select a place where the faculty is expert in their field, but also accessible. It’s important to spend time with professors outside of the classroom to truly optimize the academic experience. Too many students take a class and never meet with their teachers outside the classroom. For those of you in the ‘vocational view of higher ed camp’, faculty provide an underutilized professional network.

Next, location. I recommend a location near a large city, with a strong international presence for study abroad. If you are funding your education, you want to earn money during the summer months. In an urban area there will be multiple opportunities to acquire internships and work experience along with your class schedule during the academic year. Global experience is also critical. Students should study at least one semester outside the US, preferably in a country where english is not the spoken language.

Finally, internships. A few years ago employers visiting college campuses began to regard internship experience as a more important predictor of success than GPA. Internships are no longer an option. It’s equally important for a student to test their interests in the workplace as it is for an employer to preview the talent of the intern.

I haven’t mentioned major, because I think you should sample courses in your first year before you commit to an area of concentration. Interests change over time and students should explore a variety of academic areas.

Over the years I have asked hundreds of students why they selected where they attended college. Almost unanimously, the answer is about a ‘gut’ feel that this was a place were I ‘fit’ and could be successful.

You can’t shop for ‘fit’. Values are not for sale. Choice of college is about growth, transforming from the high school senior to a contributing member of a global community.

The week@work March 23 – March 29

In this week@work we considered the decision to leave work before work goes away. Why? We change as our workplace changes and although we may love our job, we need to trust our gut and control our future. We highlighted the importance of paying attention to our surroundings as a hint to our future. And finally, in a national book award nominated novel we listened to a conversation about work and the danger of sleepwalking through your career.

Three stories about work captured headlines this week covering themes of aspiration, commitment, bullying and gender discrimination.

On Friday, Astronaut Scott J. Kelly began his adventure on the Space Station where he will live for the next year, the longest duration for any NASA pilot. Think about that. A business trip away from friends and family for twelve months. Imagine not being able to step out into the fresh air to clear your head after a heated conversation with a colleague. Part of the NASA experiment involves comparing his health in space with that of his twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who gets to leave work at the end of each day.

It seems a very long time ago that Americans first walked on the moon. A commercial currently running during the NCAA basketball tournament imagines a Mars landing, with people glued to their tablets watching the first steps by man onto the planet. Where is the reality that will capture our imagination for discovery and allow us to aspire beyond our global limits?

In London,’Top Gear’ presenter Jeremy Clarkson was fired by the BBC for assaulting a producer a couple of weeks ago over a missing steak. The internet lit up in the ensuing time before the BBC formalized his termination. Amazingly, people thought it was ok to punch a college in the workplace and keep your job. And now the head of the BBC, Tony Hall and his wife are under guard due to death threats over the decision.

Much has been written about the value of emotional intelligence in leadership. However, the workplace still has a significant population of bullies that believe leadership is an entitlement and not a trust. The BBC acted and by doing so demonstrated a no tolerance policy for violence at work. We are all entitled to be safe, to be productive where we work.

In San Francisco, Ellen Pao, a former partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, lost her gender discrimination suit against her former employer. The case highlighted the continuing issues women face in technology and venture capital firms.

Writing on The New York Times site, ‘The Upshot’, Claire Cain Miller reported “…venture capitalists have said that the trial has already put the tech industry on notice: It can no longer operate as a band of outsiders, often oblivious to rules that govern the modern workplace — even if that has been a key to its success.”

Finding a conversation about work in a post-apocalyptic novel

I’m reading National Book Award nominated ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St. John Mandel. I’m about half way through this story of a post-apocalyptic world and in a ‘flash back’, we encounter a conversation about corporate life.

One of the characters, Clark, conducts 360 degree assessments with corporate leaders who are too valuable to an organization to lose. His job is to ‘fix’ them by providing feedback from co-workers. If you’ve spent any time in a corporate environment, you’ve either been the target or a participant in one of these exercises.

Clark (think George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’, but everyone gets to keep their job) is meeting with Dahlia and the ‘target’ is Dan.

Dahlia starts with: “These people you coach, do they ever actually change? I mean in any kind of lasting notable way?”

Clark responds: “They change their behaviors…some of them..

A bit later Dahlia asserts: “Here’s the thing…I bet you can coach Dan, and he’ll probably exhibit a turnaround of sorts, he’ll improve in concrete areas, but he’ll still be a joyless bastard.”

She continues: “No, wait, don’t write that down. Let me rephrase that. Okay, let’s say he’ll change a little, probably if you coach him, but he’ll still be a successful-but-unhappy person who works until nine p.m. every night because he’s got a terrible marriage and doesn’t want to go home, and don’t ask how I know that, everyone knows when you’ve got a terrible marriage, it’s like having bad breath, you get close enough to a person and it’s obvious. And you know, I’m reaching here, but I’m talking about someone  who just seems like he wishes he’d done something different with his life, I mean really, actually almost anything – is this too much?”

The conversation goes on until Dahlia further illustrates her point: “I’m talking about those people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s one of them.”

Clark: “You don’t think he likes his job then?”

“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”

When he leaves the interview and walks out on the street, Clark realizes he has been one of those sleepwalkers himself. “…moving half-asleep through the motions of life for awhile now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work? When was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything? When had he last felt awe or inspiration?”

(This conversation takes place on pages 162-164 and we know that our characters are only three weeks away from the pandemic that will set off society’s collapse. The only thing we are missing is Clark passing the guy with the sandwich board and microphone in Times Square announcing “The end is near!”)

Here’s the thing. We read business books, professional journals. We attend conferences as we progress through our careers. But it’s on the weekend, on the beach, when we are reading a novel that we come upon a dialog that incorporates the key questions about our life at work.

This is why we read. At some point in the narrative, we enter the world the novelist creates and then she throws us a link to the world we live in and for a minute we are shocked by it’s relevance.

You may never read ‘Station Eleven’, although I recommend it – a great story. There may be another ‘great book’ on the shelf that resonates. In the end, to be our best at work, we need to be awake, not sleepwalking through our career.

‘Spent’ Poetry in Music by Amy Speace & Nielson Hubbard

Amy Speace is a songwriter. A graduate of Amherst College and a former touring member of the National Shakespeare Company she now lives in East Nashville, Tennessee. In The New York Times article, ‘A Singer-Songwriter, Just Trying to Make Do’, she describes the economic impact of gentrification on the lives of artists and the inspiration for her new song, ‘Spent’.

“…many of us working-class musicians, painters, artists and writers live a precarious financial existence of our own choosing. When I got together with Neilson Hubbard, a writer and producer, to write a song about a financial turning point, it was easy for us to look around at ourselves and find our subject matter.”


Come take my hand let’s walk to the end of this rainbow

Do you think that we’ll ever know

Where to find all that gold

Once I heard someone singing a dream we could have and hold

Something of our own

A place to call home

We’re head over heels

In over our heads

We borrow and steal to pay the rent

How we gonna save any money when it’s already spent

Years keep rolling the houses keep falling like dominoes

They’re throwing up condos

The for the old

It’s not enough to hear your own song on the radio

When your credit is far below

What they need for a loan

We’re head over heels

In over our heads

We borrow and steal to pay the rent

How we gonna save any money when it’s already spent

Can we stay or do we have to go

Could this be the end of the road

How we gonna save any money…

We’re head over heels

In over our heads

We borrow and steal to pay the rent

How we gonna save any money when it’s already spent

Amy Speace/Nielson Hubbard 2015

What your surroundings tell you about what you really want to do with your life.

You go to work every day. You engage in the work, interact with colleagues, manage your social network and maybe check your ranking in your NCAA bracket. At the end of the day you head to the gym, a class or home for dinner. You are so immersed in the dance of work/life balance that you may be ignoring clues ‘close to home’ that hint at your next career move.

I was following one of those compulsive tangents the other day, you know the one where you read a classic novel and then you check IMDB to see if there was a film and then you are looking at trailers and watching interviews with directors and cast. Before you know it, time has passed, but you really have come away with a nugget of valuable information.

The book I was reading was ‘A Passage to India’ written by EM Forster in 1924 and I found that the movie had been released in 1984, which then brought me to an interview broadcast on the TODAY show in the early 90s with the film’s director, David Lean.

He describes his father’s ambitions for him to be an accountant. But a visit from an aunt and her observations changed his life. “I went back to visit my mother and an aunt who was visiting commented,”I see heaps of film books here, but no accountancy books. Why doesn’t he go in for the movies?” Why not? It was a tremendous barrier broken. And I went to my father and I said, “I’d like to go into the movies.”He was shocked. I just wasn’t done in those days.”

David Lean viewed his career in film as “a secret magic place”. It took an outside observer to connect the dots to his dream career. And it provided him with the courage to overcome his father’s objections.

Look around. Invite a guest in to describe what they see in your home or office.

Allow yourself time to follow a tangent and pay attention to your surroundings. Here lies the hint of your future.

Knowing when to leave…

One of the most difficult workplace decisions is choosing to leave a job you love.

This past week, Chris Borland, an American football player with the San Francisco 49ers announced his decision to leave the sport he loves after his first year in the NFL. This was probably the most public resignation from a dream job in recent memory. It reminds us that even if we love what we do, we need to constantly monitor workplace reality to maintain ownership of our career.

In an interview with CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ program on Sunday, Mr. Borland said, “The decision was simple after I had done a lot of research and it was personal. I was concerned about neurological diseases down the road if I continued to play football, so I did a lot of research and gathered a lot of information and to me the decision made sense.”

For some of us, dangers in the workplace to both our health and our well being are the catalyst for change.

Former QVC host, Lisa Robertson, appearing on Good Morning America, shared her history at the shopping network and her decision to leave after 20 years. Her visibility and celebrity resulted in multiple stalkers threatening her life outside her workplace. “I would just lock myself in my house and then go to work.” There was no quality of life outside work.

For most of us, it starts as a doubt, an observation, a sense that something is not quite right.

Financial guru, Suze Orman in a Linkedin ‘Pulse’ interview described her decision:

“About a year ago, something started to change. I woke up one morning, and I knew that it was time to end the Suze Orman Show. There was no external trigger; just a feeling that I had shifted, not the workplace.

Could I have ignored that feeling and just keep on keeping on? Sure. But that would have been so disrespectful. To myself, and most of all to the viewers. I never wanted to give less than 100 percent. And let’s face it, if you stay on for the wrong reasons, your eventual exit will likely not be on your own terms. I wasn’t going to fall into that trap.”

Something had ‘shifted’. As we mature along our career paths, we are changing as the workplace changes. We revise our definition of success and dream fulfillment over time. If we are true to ourselves and ‘respect’ our calling, we have to know when to leave.

External realities can erode the dream until you arrive on a Monday and find you are living in a career nightmare. For Chris Borland and Lisa Robertson the consequences of pursuing their dream jobs far outweighed the benefits. For Ms. Orman, her experience reflects a process of transition that resonates with many. It was just time to go.

Her advice to trust your gut and let go offers the promise of transition.

“I can think of no more important career advice than to listen to your gut and to own the power to control your future.”

I am so excited to see what the future brings — I almost cannot wait to go to sleep at night just so I can wake up the next morning to see what gifts lie ahead.”

You may love your job. You may love what’s next even more.

The week @ work March 16 – 22

This week@work invited us to broaden our thinking with ideas from TED and SXSW, a suggested reading list from Mark Zuckerberg and a David Remnick pick from The New Yorker archive on the creative life. Using a variety of online resources and social networks we can construct an individualized professional development curriculum based on our interests and career aspirations.

On Friday The New York Times included a continuing education ‘special section’ in their print edition. In the lead article ‘That’s Edutainment’ reporter Greg Beato described the growing phenomenon of “the academization of leisure: casual learning propelled by web culture, a new economy and boomers with money.”

In a companion article, Peder Zane asked the question, “If you can know it all, how come you don’t?” He goes on to report on Jonathan Haber, a “52 year old from Lexington, Massachusetts” who is attempting to “meet all the standard requirements for a bachelor of arts degree in a single year.” And he is doing it by selecting from a menu of online offerings from Harvard, Yale and Stanford, chronicling his experience in a book and of course, online.

This past week folks came together to discuss ideas at the annual TED conference and celebrate music, film and interactive at SXSW.

You may categorize all these formal and informal experiences as ‘edutainment’, but I would suggest that lifelong learning, often promised, is finally here. And the topics discussed are widely relevant to today’s workplace.

Visit the TED website and access presentations recorded at the conference. One of the most compelling, Monica Lewinsky on our ‘culture of humiliation’. The Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza summarized the key point of her talk: “For nearly two decades now, we have slowly been sowing the seeds of shame and public humiliation in our cultural soil. Gossip Web sites, paparazzi, reality programming, politics, news outlets and sometimes hackers traffic in shame. Public humiliation as a blood sport has to stop. We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy.”

And on the SXSW site, you can view film maker Ava DuVernay encouraging her audience to pay attention to their intention. She takes the audience on a narrative of her early success and then cautions from experience: “The dreams were too small. If your dream only includes you, its too small. If that dream is just about the thing you want to accomplish and you don’t even know why you want it…it’s to small…When you win awards and the light is on you, that’s not gonna be enough. If we limit our visions to those things outside of us to validate us, we’re making an intentional error that might very well bring the outside thing you want, but will bring hollow in the end.”

Online, lifelong learning allows us to make connections beyond our comfort zone, sparking new ideas and important conversations.

The availability of a variety of content online in a global economy where the majority does not have access to the innovators and great thinkers is a good thing. It’s a source of career inspiration for the young, professional development for the worker and sustained intellectual engagement for the retired.

Closing the week, David Remnick in his ‘Sunday with the New Yorker’ email recommends a selection of stories from The New Yorker archive on ‘The Creative Life’ including a 2007 profile of the British graffiti artist Banksy.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Year of Reading Dangerously

Most of us have given up on our New Year’s resolution as the calendar turns to spring. But Mark Zuckerberg is well on his way to keep his promise to read a book every two weeks with the announcement of the sixth book in ‘A Year of Books’‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. This is not Oprah’s Book Club. Aspiring entrepreneurs who one day hope to achieve Mr. Zuckerberg’s success are quickly learning that the content of his choices is not for the faint of heart.

Professor Kuhn argues in his book “that transformative ideas don’t arise from the day-to-day, gradual process of experimentation and data accumulation but that the revolutions in science, those breakthrough moments that disrupt accepted thinking and offer unanticipated ideas, occur outside of normal science.” 

Disruption? Didn’t a couple of Harvard professors invent that idea a few years ago? This is why we read books written 53 years ago. It humbles us with the realization that we are not the inventors, but actors in a greater historical narrative.

The other books picks have been published more recently and are thoughtful meditations on our humanity, creativity and change. I’m sure many are attempting to decode a pattern in the book selection rather than accepting that Mr. Zuckerberg is seeking a better understanding, as a reader, of the challenges we face, and as a leader, understanding the broader context of the global community that is his customer.

The first five books selected:

‘Creativity’  Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

‘On Immunity’  Eula Bliss

‘Gang Leader for a Day’  Sudhir Venkatesh

‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’  Steven Pinker

‘The End of Power’  Moises Naim

Why do we read books recommended by leaders and celebrities? Maybe to get a sense of how their reading habits led to their success. That’s where we start. But it’s where we go from there that personalizes a reading list to expand our understanding of the world beyond our community.

Follow the tangents, the annotations you make in the margins to discover both the old and new in your world and your profession.





‘The Workforce’ – A Poem by James Tate

How often do you find yourself in negotiation with management and suppliers to acquire the resources necessary to meet your objectives?

In the poem ‘The Workforce’, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning poet, James Tate creates a dialog about the ‘resources’ needed to complete a job. It’s up to your imagination to visualize what these workers are trying to accomplish. To perform their task they need a variety of supplies…and women. We are left with the question: Are the women motivation to work or are the women workers who will help complete the task?

In a 2006 Paris Review interview Tate described his process: “I love to take a poem, for instance that starts with something seemingly frivolous or inconsequential and then grows in gravity until by the end it’s something very serious.”

The Workforce

Do you have adequate oxen for the job?
No, my oxen are inadequate.
Well, how many oxen would it take to do an adequate job?
I would need ten more oxen to do the job adequately.
I’ll see if I can get them for you.
I’d be obliged if you could do that for me.
Certainly. And do you have sufficient fishcakes for the men?
We have fifty fishcakes, which is less than sufficient.
I’ll have them delivered on the morrow.
Do you need maps of the mountains and the underworld?
We have maps of the mountains but we lack maps of the underworld.
Of course you lack maps of the underworld,
there are no maps of the underworld.
And, besides, you don’t want to go there, it’s stuffy.
I had no intention of going there, or anywhere for that matter.
It’s just that you asked me if I needed maps. . . .
Yes, yes, it’s my fault, I got carried away.
What do you need, then, you tell me?
We need seeds, we need plows, we need scythes, chickens,
pigs, cows, buckets and women.
We have no women.
You’re a sorry lot, then.
We are a sorry lot, sir.
Well, I can’t get you women.
I assumed as much, sir.
What are you going to do without women, then?
We will suffer, sir. And then we’ll die out one by one.
Can any of you sing?
Yes, sir, we have many fine singers among us.
Order them to begin singing immediately.
Either women will find you this way or you will die
comforted. Meanwhile busy yourselves
with the meaningful tasks you have set for yourselves.
Sir, we will not rest until the babes arrive.

James Tate, “The Workforce” from Memoir of the Hawk: Poems. Copyright © 2001 by James Tate