A Lesson From College

The carpenter was finished repairing our front porch. He was standing nearby with the invoice while I was sitting at the dining room table writing his check. He looked to be in his early 60s, probably not too far from hanging up his hammer. Suddenly he asked, “So what do you do, Brooks?”

“I’m a professor at King’s College.”

Immediately he asked, with kind of a challenging tone, “So tell me, Brooks, what do those kids learn in college?”

Now I had been teaching for 30 years and I had developed my ideas about what he was asking. Also, I had posed his question myself dozens of times in presentations to parents at functions like Parents Weekend and Open House for prospective students. The old guy didn’t know it but he had lobbed me a softball.

“They learn discipline, transferable skills, who they are, and how to express their passions.”

I looked up at him and his expression was clear that he was a little taken aback with an answer he didn’t expect. But then he pulled out a chair, sat down next to me, and said, “What do you mean by all that?”

Paraphrasing, I replied, “OK, by discipline I mean learning to organize your life, plan ahead, establish priorities, how to find information and how to evaluate it. I mean learning how to be a team player, resolve conflicts, and solve problems. I mean respecting other points of view. Transferable skills are things like being able to speak, write clearly, read with comprehension, and have some technical ability. Expressing passions….I mean discovering who you are, developing some values and standards and finding ways to put all that into actions that bring you satisfaction.”

Silence, as he stared intently at me. Finally he said, “What about all that book learning?” I laughed, “Yeh, you have to learn that stuff to get a grade. But I think all the other stuff has more staying power because it involves learning to live. The book stuff fades fast.”

He got up, handed me the invoice, and I handed him the check. “My niece wants to go to college and learn about computers. Computers, math….a girl! I told her she’s wasting her time and her parents’ money. Good talking with you. Any problems with the porch give me a call.” And that was that. He was clearly unconvinced about the value of college, especially for “a girl.”

OK, why do I share this story in a piece about coping? Well, strip the story of the college context and two people talking, and you have some coping lessons. Just make my conversation with the guy into a conversation with yourself. You’re experiencing emotional upheaval over some circumstance in your life. How do you go about coping?

Let’s use my statements to the repairman about college learning. To cope effectively you must organize your thinking about your dilemma. What are your priorities? Are you communicating effectively? Are you listening and understanding others’ point of view? Are you working to solve a problem, or focusing on your emotions? Are your thoughts and actions within your circle of control? Are they consistent with your values?

We deal with these aspects of coping again and again in this blog. They’re often cast in some specific context, but the point is, no matter what the context, the themes developed usually have a much broader application because in the final analysis, they’re all about dealing with how to live. That’s what coping is: discovering actions that bring you meaning and satisfaction, actions that take you beyond mere existing, and into the arena of living.

So, the questions you need to ask yourself when you’re troubled should go to this central core: “Am I living in a way consistent with my values, my passions, and my needs? Or, am I avoiding and denying my challenges just to excuse my emotions and insecurities?”

It’s not rocket science, folks. Follow some basic rules and you’ll be fine.





2 thoughts on “A Lesson From College”

  1. When a solution to a problem is under your control, facing the problem will generally bring a greater payoff than avoiding. Plus, the struggle not to avoid will get easier. Also, remember that struggling shows you’re aware of your choices. That’s often half the battle. Many just reflexively avoid and completely bypass struggling.


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