Bennis Inc. | What I wish My College Professors Would Have Taught Me: It’s almost never about WHAT you know
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What I wish My College Professors Would Have Taught Me: It’s almost never about WHAT you know

What I wish My College Professors Would Have Taught Me: It’s almost never about WHAT you know

There are some things that can and will never be taught in the classroom. Maybe it’s because those topics are seen as too radical or have been flagged as a lawsuit risk, but truly these are the missing pieces of wisdom that leave many college grads as an incomplete puzzle with still much to figure out in the real world. In the spirit of Back-to-School, this will be a 5-part series exploring the top lessons I wish would have been included in my own college degree. It’s blunt and it’s honest, but it’s sure to be interesting.

Lesson four: It’s almost never about WHAT you know

I wish my professors would have just been honest with us. How successful you are (basically) boils down to two things—who you know and how well you sell yourself. Especially for all the readers out there with a degree in Public Relations, Communications or the similar, you know what I’m talking about. Our communication skills, social competence and depth and breadth of our relationships are directly related to our success.

Throughout my years spent at Penn State, my classrooms were filled with hoards of Advertising and Public Relations students all training to be “master communicators.” Some students aced every test and could recite any answer a teacher asked of them, but they often blended into the background as soon as they put their hand down. The students who did make the biggest impression weren’t the ones breaking the curve, necessarily. They were the ones who could pull together an impromptu presentation with ease and confidence and could make a classroom of 500+ students laugh and feel as if they knew them personally.

This ties-in closely with Lesson three: In the real world, you’re not expected to have every answer. I’m not talking about the students too lazy to open a book or the ones aiming for a career as a professional “bull shitter.” I’m talking about the students who did more than write the concept on a note card and memorize it; instead, they absorbed the concept and immediately applied it to their communications strategy of selling themselves. I’m sure everyone has a few of these friends in their lives. They catch on quick, have an impeccable ability to read a situation and make lasting impressions that build their networks almost effortlessly.

So maybe this isn’t something that can be entirely taught in a classroom, but these are skills we all possess to some degree. I wish my professors would have worked to help us refine these skills through “social challenges” such as walking into a business and asking for an impromptu meeting with the owner/marketing director to pitch an idea or even attend a party where you enter as a complete stranger and leave with at least 3 acquaintances—these type of challenges would have tested our core social abilities and helped to build skills we would have used immediately in any career.

I knew people who, even as 20-something year old college students, were too timid or insecure to call a restaurant for their business hours or walk into a party if they didn’t know at least 5 people. Anyone, no matter their field of study, could have benefited from at least one course emphasizing social intelligence to supplement the “what you know” with the “how well you can sell it.”

Even if you’re at the top of your class, you’ll be that much more valuable to a future employer if you have the social and communication skills to convey this knowledge.

In case you missed a few “classes”, here’s some reading homework:

Lesson One: Group projects can be completed alone.

Lesson Two: It’s okay to NOT like everyone you work with.

Lesson Three: In the real world, you’re not expected to have every answer.

Stephanie Shirley