There’s No 4 Point O in Life

We need to change the way we prepare ourselves.

College isn’t getting any cheaper and every student and parent wants the best return on investment possible. But this cannot be the job of the university alone. We need to go all in, from every angle, and change the way we think about our own preparation.

Unfortunately, preparation for work in the “real world” is no longer limited to taking classes and getting a degree. The degree is just the price of admission, no matter what it is. Success after initial employment is defined by much different standards. Moreover, at the current pace of change, most knowledge learned anywhere is outdated within a year or two. Not to mention, the real world doesn’t operate on a graded scale. In life, you either pass or you fail. There’s no 4.0 in life. 

Because of this, employers demand a proven ability to learn, navigate barriers, and work inclusively with others. Traditional education systems of reciting facts and measuring the retention of static information doesn’t adequately prepare us. Yet, this isn’t as much our teachers’ fault as you might think. It’s ours.

We rely too much on getting A’s and/or following a linear path to success. From the time we play rec-league tee-ball, are recruited into college, to meeting with an advisor, we have come to expect a mapped out, step-by-step life. We know this is where we go wrong, but just can’t help ourselves.

Optimization is the process by which we make something (or someone) as fully functional as possible.

Universities cannot accomplish real-world preparedness alone. College Student Optimization is more than a process, it’s an attitude we should share in.

For the past decade I’ve worked with thousands of executives, professionals, and even young, 3-5 years-out-of-school employees, from highly regarded companies like Apple, Google, Cox Media, Virgin Galactic, Amazon, you name them. Here are 3 things to do to begin optimizing the real-world-prep experience now:

1. Dig for Gold in the Right Places

People have this illusion that the brand name behind their education will make all the difference. While it is true that the Top 25 schools have clout, there are still 4000 other schools and plenty of amazing jobs and ways to contribute.

The one thing every school has in common is an ecosystem of opportunities filled with nearly unlimited resources and people who are actually paid to make you successful. These people are singularly focused on leveraging the system and their network to put you ahead. From community colleges to small-to-midsize schools, every student has the same resources to get them to the big leagues. To be honest, most people never take advantage of them because they still think the gold is solely in the classroom. While those people miss out, others get ahead from simply showing up to claim the prize. Of all the successful students or professionals I’ve ever coached, 99% were normal people who understood this simple fact.

2. Do Improv Comedy      

The ability to communicate is essential, but it’s most critical when you have to think on your feet. Learning how to write a neater e-mail or give an orderly presentation is like learning how to hit only one type of pitch in baseball. In reality, every job interview, meeting, or formal presentation includes curve balls, sinkers, and sliders. If you want to hit it out of the park, you have to learn how to react to every pitch.

Improv comedy might sound like something only for theater majors, but the skills learned from standing in front of people and instantly improvising and communicating your thoughts on random topics is clutch. This is so true that even Carnegie Mellon University requires this from many of their masters candidates. Not to mention, presentations are seldom solo and your ability to work with a team on the spot can be developed here as well. Or, you could just wait until your job depends on it and see how well you do then.                                                            

3. Get a Cross-Cultural Grip

Globalization isn’t happening somewhere overseas, it’s happening to you. Because of this, we need the ability to collaborate cross-culturally, inclusively, and lead in complex environments…at least, that is, if you want to get hired. And, you don’t need to study abroad to get an experience like this.

While studying abroad is a highly recommended investment that will easily pay mucho dividends-o, there are other ways to demonstrate an ability to hang with others who work differently than you while showing aptitude for flexibility:

  • Attend international events, programs, or festivals – eat the food and ask questions. They’ll love you for it. Feel uncomfortable and gain an alternative perspective on what it’s like to be the only person like you.
  • Go to a part of a nearby major city where refugees live in concentration and start their own grocery stores and restaurants. In the northern section of my city, there are 6,000 refugees from Nepal. While most people consider this an lower-income part of town, I re-label it as “amazing.” I can have the same adventurous experience of shopping and dining 2 miles up the road as I can by paying thousands of $$ in developing countries in Africa or Central America.
  • Take a leadership class with the U.S. Army ROTC (you don’t have to be in the ROTC or commit to it). The Army is a different culture. They wear different clothes, speak in acronyms, have their own rules, and even wear their hair differently. My Institute runs a leadership class with these guys and gals just to get students out of their shells. It’s one of the most popular courses we have at our University.

Once you’ve had these experiences, reflect on them and figure out how you’re different because of them, not how they were simply different from you. This is what will optimize your experience.

Of Course…      

Yes, there are more than just 3 things to do to begin the optimizing of you. In a world where the number of English-speaking college graduates are tripling into the vast millions, you need to be seen as the solution to someone’s problem, not another number.

Finally, another thing all these successful people have in common is that they have a coach – someone they meet with regularly to get valuable feedback and with whom to negotiate action. Save yourself 5-10 years by listening and learning to the experience of someone who is already optimized and never stops.

Personal Success Optimization is not a beginning and it is not a means to an end. It is a continuous state, an attitude, and it’s your choice. 

Kevin Smith is a speaker with CAMPUSPEAK ( and the Director of the Institute for Leadership Advancement in the College of Business Administration at The University of Akron. Kevin is a first-gen college graduate who believes everyone is only one small decision away from changing everything. 

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