Beware the naked man who wants to give you fashion advice

 “Well, you have your degree. Now you’re going to get an education.”

One of my professors said that to me the night I graduated. She was correct.

A few weeks later I had moved with my new bride (who is now my not-so-new bride but exciting nonetheless) to Northern Arizona for our first post-college, degree-enabled job. Four years of formal education delivered by some of academia’s finest minds would lead one to think that graduates of the program would be equipped for every good work.

Our first morning there, I stepped outside, looked up into the clear Arizona sky and said right out loud,  “I have no idea what I am supposed to do.”

I figured it out eventually.

Fast-forward now several decades to a Harvard commencement program. My son was receiving his Master’s degree and we were there to witness and bask in his accomplishment. The commencement speaker, himself a Harvard grad, began to speak and what he had to say remarkably paralleled my own story. Years invested in higher education, launching into career post-graduation with no idea of what to do, eventually figuring things out and making a successful life along the way. We both got the bulk of our education after receiving degrees.

So, you are wondering, what is my point?

Employers place a good deal of emphasis on education and experience for good reason. Education alone seldom prepares one for work and life in the real world. It does expand knowledge. It does provide information both general and specific. But it does not, and cannot, prepare one with the thousands of nuances and insights that come from living life and interacting with its many opportunities and curve balls nor can it provide the street smarts that comes from working in your field.

You remember the old story about the young executive who asked of his mentor hos that mentor became a success. “Good decisions,” replied the man.

“But,” asked the young man, “how can I learn how to make good decisions?”

“Simple,” replied the mentor, “that comes with experience.”

“How do I get experience?”

“Simple,” replied the mentor. “Bad decisions.”

Most of us have been subjected to the friend or relative who can well tell us how we should raise our children but their words do not resonate for one glaring omission. They’ve never had children of their own.

A friend once told me, with a completely straight face, that he was the best husband to his wife that he had ever known. When I asked him how he knew that, he remarked that he had been to a marriage seminar and what he learned there had assured him he was.

Now, there is probably no doubt that what he learned was true, accurate, and worthwhile. But education’s power to transform is limited until it encounters the catalyst of real life. Why? Because life is full of “Aha” moments, those increments of time when what you have learned and what you have become aware of collide to produce truth and reality. Education is quite good at swelling the head by filling it with information but frankly it is of limited appeal and therefore limited use to practical leaders (notice the title of this website) until it has been tempered with the sting of battle and shaped by the exigencies of life.

Now, this essay is more than an exercise in examination and opinion. There is a point.

I was interviewing potential associates for business and asking if they had ever owned a business. Most had not. One employee who left my employ (fired him for unsafe shop practices) and started out on his own told me later he had no idea what a challenge cash flow was, that he was used to getting paid regardless but as an owner he got paid last if at all. Well, duh?

Another told me he had been in business but when I asked the nature of the business he said it was a small shop located in an out-building behind his house in which he made the occasional piece of custom molding on order for the company he worked for every day. So, while technically he was a business owner, it was not the type of business that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be equated with a stand-alone business that demands finding customers, fulfilling orders, handling payroll, making lease payments, and the dozens of other pieces of business of a real business. His was a “business” for tax purposes only and met the criteria for tax reporting that allowed certain deductions.

So here’s my point. Neither of those guys had the complete package. One had experience in the field but completely lacked both business knowledge and experience. The other had some limited knowledge but had never embarked on the unknown sea of commerce; his was a boat in a bathtub but he fancied himself a blue water sailor. (FYI, the last I knew this fellow was marketing himself as a business consultant.)

When I was in college I noticed the large number of alumni who had gravitated back to the school to teach. Then I checked into other institutions of higher learning and found the trend was the same. I asked that same professor who predicted when I would get an education why this is so. She said, “Because those who can do, but those who can’t come back here and teach you how to do what they could not.”

Without doubt you will encounter a goodly number of consultants who offer their services to help you solve a problem, build a business, or make a life. There is little doubt they will have good things to say and might be worth their fee. But before you hire one of them, ask them just exactly what they have achieved in their field. Beware the naked man who wants to give you fashion advice.

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