In the United States, we spend somewhere between 12 and 20 years going to school, but only a tiny fraction of that time is spent learning how to work. Even when skills that lead to academic success are formally taught, those skills rarely translate to the world outside of school and academia.

The idea seems to be that it’s our future employers’ jobs to teach us how to work. Unfortunately, the few who learn these effective skills normally work for large corporations, and they make up a very small percentage of the workforce. Ninety percent of us are left to figure out how to work on our own or hope we’ll eventually get lucky enough to work somewhere where someone will teach us.

We wouldn’t be surprised or frustrated if nine out of 10 people who were never taught algebra didn’t know how to do algebra. Yet we’re still surprised and frustrated that most of us haven’t learned how to be effective, productive, and creative members of society, even though ninety percent of us have never been taught those skills.

School Teaches Us to Be Managed, Not to Manage Ourselves

If school were neutral about work, it’d be one thing. But what we learn in school is often the opposite of the way Project World works. Consider:

  • In school, there’s a map of required classes we need to follow to be successful. In Project World, there is no set map, and there are multiple pathways to get wherever we’re trying to go.
  • Our teachers tell us what we need to learn and what we’re going to be tested on. In Project World, we often learn what we needed to learn after the fact and after already being tested on it.
  • Our teachers define major milestones (tests, papers, projects), when they’re due, and what success looks like. In Project World, we’re largely responsible for setting major milestones, when they’re due, and what success looks like. At best, we have a boss who co-creates those with us. However, if we only do what our boss wants us to do and nothing more, we’ll be left behind.
  • School rewards us for being good at a lot of things and not having any major weaknesses. Project World rewards us for doing fewer things exceptionally well and addressing weaknesses only when needed.
  • School ranks and sorts students based on how well we’re following the map and the rules. Project World ranks and sorts us based on how well we’re creating the maps and rules.

School Teaches Us to Conform, React, and Pass Tests

To win in school, students must conform, react, and pass the tests; to win in Project World, we must be proactive, creative, and courageous. We assume that what we learn in school forms the foundation for success in Project World. Ironically, this belief often creates ruts that prevent people from being successful in Project World until they spend a decade or two learning how Project World works.

To be clear, I am not bashing the many wonderful teachers and education professionals we’re blessed to have in the United States. I come from a teaching family, followed the traditional path (I took undergraduate and graduate teaching courses), and still consider myself a teacher at heart. What I am at odds with is the way the education system is set up to produce students who are not ready to live and work in Project World. Great teachers and education professionals are great precisely because they work uphill against the system.

Though I am clearly critical of the education system and serve on boards to address its challenges and problems, my goal here is merely to give some context about why people struggle in Project World. Under-prepared students become under-productive workers.

Creative Workers Suffer the Most, but They Can Learn to Thrive

The lack of preparation schools provide is especially rough for creative workers, because how we do what we do must fit into the rigid, mechanistic machine that is the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Although we know steady creative work doesn’t happen from 9 to 5, we have to figure out how to produce steady creative work — or at least the optics of steady creative work — from 9 to 5. The demands of creative work are such that we need larger blocks of uninterrupted time to do it well, but our days are chopped into incoherence with interruptions like emails, meetings, and base-touching. The very system that pays us to produce is the same system that gets in the way of our doing so.

The good news is that these practices can be learned. Project World can become a place in which to thrive. The big step is learning that what you know isn’t nearly as important as the work you finish in the world. And, if finishing is a challenge for you, Start Finishing is for you.

Originally published at


  • Charlie Gilkey

    Author, Speaker, Business Strategist, Coach

    Charlie Gilkey helps people start finish the stuff that matters. He's the founder of Productive Flourishing, author of the forthcoming Start Finishing and The Small Business Lifecycle, and host of the Productive Flourishing podcast. Prior to starting Productive Flourishing, Charlie was a Joint Force Military Logistics Coordinator while simultaneously pursuing a PhD in Philosophy. He lives with his wife, Angela, in Portland, Oregon.