Business Lessons I Learned in College

Thirty-six years ago this month I graduated from college. I didn’t study a major that paid immediate dividends, meaning a job, and I wasn’t ready for graduate school.

But with a college diploma as a foundation I have been fortunate enough to have both an interesting and a challenging career in business.

My four years at Stanislaus State College in Turlock, California, aka Turkey Tech, were characterized by personal growth, acceptance of responsibility, learning time management and attempting to balance work, school, recreation, sleep, financial management and accountability. Allow me to share five valuable lessons I learned in college.

The first lesson is plan to finish and then finish. Author Brian Tracy has said that quitting can be habit forming and while I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, and I was never going to be called a quitter.

Far too many people I knew started college and then did not complete their degree. Maybe finances and family got in the way; maybe the coursework was boring; maybe the pressure was too much.

But there is nothing like completing something that you set out to do and that good feeling of accomplishment stays with you forever.

The second lesson is that things change. In college, this could mean that a required class won’t be offered; the tuition will increase, you won’t get the section you want. College should teach a person to be open, flexible; adaptable. Today, in the real world of work, all too often I hear nothing but complaints when something in the universe changes for people.

So, as the Eagles sing, “get over it.” Change will take place and a person can fight it and lose, or accept it and move on. Those who deal well with change generally come out ahead.

The third lesson is that you will meet interesting people, not all of them wise; some of them not exactly sure why they are, well, there. Be careful who you spend time with.

This is best capsulated by John, who went to college on his parent’s dime. Just after enrolling he decided that academics were not his thing, but other vices were. So, having signed up for a full load of coursework, he proceeded to play for nearly the entire semester, never once attending class. Or writing a paper. Or taking an exam.

As finals week started he visited the dean and announced that his father had died, which required John to withdraw from school.

His father had not passed, and the college never bothered to check, so it was a “get out of jail free card” for John. The next semester he used his mother’s passing as the excuse, so a year of academics was traded for two semesters of an Animal House lifestyle, minus Dean Wormer and double-secret probation.

With that, the parental-college-ATM was turned off and John resigned himself to low paying jobs and a very limited future unless he was willing to change. When I left town, four years later, John hadn’t done anything except grow older and have a lot of fun. He was, I am sorry to say, not much wiser.

The fourth lesson is to avoid distractions. My financial status required me to work while attending school (there was no parental ATM in my family). My employers were very kind and worked around my class schedule and they made it clear that if my
grades suffered I would work less.

Unfortunately some of my college friends didn’t share that same sense of responsibility. They were on a mission to steer me to the distractions of late nights, for any reason, or no reason, for the stated purpose of having fun. I remained true to my mission of getting my degree in four years but the distractions sure tempted me.

The final lesson, which is probably the most important, is that college should demonstrate that a person should never stop learning. The world changes. In business you owe it to yourself to stay abreast in your own industry and to allow yourself the luxury of learning what other industries can teach you.