In college I gained culture and knowledge. What I didn’t gain, however, was life skills. I went to school and read every great work of literature, and I even learned writing and editing–the skills for my desired career. After I graduated, however, I could not find the kind of job I was looking for. I worked at a restaurant for several years while I continued my job hunt, but nothing worked out for me.
I felt like my education and my talents were a waste, and I needed a change.
So I joined the air force.
Since joining, I have had a steady paycheck, a career (not just a job) that challenges me, and mentorship from many different kinds of leaders. Above all, though, I have some basic life skills that I would never have gotten from college. Here are some of those skills:
Respect – We live in a very informal society. My parents were practically children when they raised me, and they never taught me how to act in formal situations. Saying, “Yes, sir/ma’am”; greeting people with “good morning/afternoon/evening”, addressing people by titles, standing when someone important enters a room–these things make an impression. They are the marks of respect etched deeply into my being as a result of basic training.
Dress and appearance – When I was a civilian, I grew my hair out, and I seldom shaved or groomed my beard. I dressed sloppily in whatever baggy T-shirt and trousers I could find, and when I see photos of myself from back then, I think I looked like a homeless bum. No wonder nobody would hire me! Regulations require me to keep my hair short, my face shaved, and my uniform has to be immaculate. Likewise, most places on base won’t even admit me if my civilian clothes are torn, frayed, or dirty. I pay attention to how things fit, a I pay attention to loose strings, and overall, if something is stained, frayed, or torn, it goes in the trash. Grooming oneself shows pride, and it makes an impression on others.
Working under pressure – For some people this comes naturally, but others must learn how to do it. When I was in basic training, we had to deal with shouting instructors who gave us difficult tasks with impossible deadlines. We had to work fast, and the only standard was perfection. I quickly learned to do every task urgently and to the best of my ability without panicking while some red-faced sergeant was yelling at me about how incompetent I was. Some people think that basic training gets easier as time goes on, but I disagree with this. It doesn’t get easier; the trainees just get better at it.
Leadership/followership – In the civilian world, leadership is often treated like a natural quality or a personality trait: Either you have it or you don’t. In the military, the focus is on developing these traits. The leadership and followership concepts go hand in hand as part of the authority structure or chain of command. Sometimes an exemplary follower is the one to follow, and the best leaders are the ones who see their role as a service to both the ones above them and the ones below them. As a civilian, I learned to train or manage workers. In the military, I learned to lead.
Communication – College was good for learning how to write essays. Since I graduated, however, none of my employers have demanded good essays. Another thing I’ve found is that it’s possible to be a brilliant essayist but still suck at writing e-mails and letters. Telephone communication is another thing that often gets overlooked. When I was in Airman Leadership School, at least half of the skills we learned were related to communication: writing letters and e-mails, writing awards and performance reports for our airmen, public speaking, interpersonal speaking. These skills are indispensable now, but they will certainly be handy when I get back to the civilian world, whether that’s after the end of my current enlistment, or after I retire.
Culture – “Wait a minute! Wasn’t this what he said he learned from college?!” Yes. I did get culture from college–my own western culture. Since getting stationed overseas, I have had the opportunity to interact with several other cultures, learn foreign languages, and understand a different perspective than people who never leave their home country. I have met people from the U.K., Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines, all as a result of foreign travel. Truly understanding a foreign culture will change your worldview.
Confidence – Confidence is a tricky thing for many people. To me, it’s simply the ability to act to the best of your ability without fear of failure. That’s not to say you won’t fail, but you don’t fear failure. As a civilian, I had little self-confidence, and after so much failure, I really didn’t have any reason to think things would change. For me, confidence was the result of all the things that I listed above coming together and letting me know that I was worthy and capable. Subsequent successes only made it stronger.
I know everyone’s experience is different. Some of these things people learn growing up; I try to teach them to my children. Have you learned these life skills? How did you learn them? Share your stories in the comments!