7 Essential Life Skills I Wish They'd Taught Me in High School

Shannon Hilson

Calculus is cool and all, but I can’t exactly say it’s come in handy.

(Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash)

I’m probably not the first person to wonder why people graduate high school knowing how to recite the periodic table but not how to do their taxes, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but there’s a lot of critical information I fumbled into adulthood not knowing, especially for someone who was considered well smarter than average.

Many kids may have learned certain essentials at home, but sadly, I wasn’t one of them. My parents were the hands-off type who expected me to learn how to be a person on my own, and I haven’t done such a bad job of it. I would have screwed up a lot less during my younger years if I’d been taught things like the following in school, though. I didn’t learn some of them until extremely late in life, and I doubt I’m alone.

1. How to Establish and Maintain Healthy Habits

I remember being taught the basics of nutrition in school. I was taught that exercise was important, as well. However, I was never truly taught why you need to pay attention to these things or made to understand exactly what happens if you don’t bother. Like many people, I had to find out the hard way, so learning how to cultivate healthy, realistic relationships with food and exercise when I was still young would have helped a lot.

You can try to tell a teenager that they should always eat whole grains, vegetables, or lean proteins and never, ever pizza or candy, but good luck getting them to follow through. Most real people — teenaged or otherwise — are fallible and unlikely to say “no” to every single Mars bar that ever comes their way. Young people need to know that it’s fine to indulge once in a while, but moderation is key, especially since they may not be learning this at home.

As for exercise, I’d have understood how enjoyable it could be a lot sooner in life if P.E. class was about more than playing volleyball day after day, whether we liked it or not. (I personally can’t stand volleyball.) I might have learned that there are many ways to stay active and even fallen in love with a couple.

2. Effective Time Management and Scheduling

I don’t know about you, but I had a lot of nervous energy in high school and zero idea on how to manage my time effectively. Yes, I was given deadlines and told I’d damn well better meet them. Time management was a completely foreign concept to me, though — something I was left to figure out on my own.

Bopping along without any plan for making sure everything got done properly and on time was something I could get away with in high school, especially since I was smart. College was another story, though. And by the time I was a working adult and — later —a working adult with her own business to run, I was pretty darned lost.

Despite being in my 40s, I didn’t truly understand essentials like efficient scheduling and effectively prioritizing tasks until relatively recently. It makes me wonder how differently certain pursuits would have gone if I’d known how to do those things a lot sooner.

(Photo by Yasin Yusuf on Unsplash)

3. Healthy Ways to Deal With Failure

Maybe things are different these days, but I wasn’t taught how to deal with thorny concepts like rejection, disappointment, or failure of any kind when I was still in school. In fact, I distinctly remember having the impression that failure wasn’t an option at all and that if I ever experienced it, it was because I screwed up somewhere or wasn’t trying hard enough.

While it would be nice if failure were completely avoidable, it’s an inevitability in life, and young people need to know that. You mess up. You miss the mark. You have to deal with hearing a “no” when it was super important to you to hear a “yes” instead. Those things suck royally, but they’re infinitely easier to deal with when you know how to do so with grace and understand they’re a normal part of life.

It took me most of my life to understand that I didn’t have to be good at every single thing or win every race to be a worthwhile person. The same goes for knowing how to dust myself off and give things another go instead of simply giving up if I wasn’t wildly successful at something on the first try.

4. How to Identify and Set Realistic Goals

I grew up hearing that I could be anything I wanted to be in life — a brain surgeon, a top courtroom attorney, an astronaut, or the United States' future president. All I had to do was work hard enough and believe in myself. I was also told that I should want to be something exceptional like that, and if I didn’t, I was aiming too low.

The only problem with that thinking is that not everyone will grow up to be the president or an astronaut. In fact, very few people will. Not every lofty goal is a realistic fit for everyone. Some people don’t even want to be those things, and that’s OK, too. I eventually learned this, but I know quite a few people my age that never did, and they’re still struggling because of it.

Effective goal-setting is about more than shooting for the moon, assuming you’ll still land among the stars if you miss. It’s an entire journey that starts with a reachable, realistic goal and continues step by step according to a detailed plan. This is the case whether you do have your heart set on becoming an astronaut or think you’re better suited to life as a veterinarian, teacher, plumber, or contractor.

5. The Basics of How to Run a Household

I know an astonishing number of grown adults who have no earthly idea of how to cook a meal that doesn’t come in a bag or a box with the directions printed on the back. Some don’t even know how to do that and live entirely on take-out and McDonald’s.

Thankfully, this is one area of life where I was way ahead of the game, but I have my weird teenage obsession with Saturday morning cooking shows on PBS to thank for that. My mom wasn’t much of a cook, and home-ec classes were a thing of the past when I was in high school.

I’m awful at just about everything else to do with running a household, though, although I’m actively trying to learn. Thankfully, my husband has a good understanding of some of those things, but I’ll be honest. I’m mortified that I still don’t know how to clean on more than a superficial level at my age. And I only recently learned how to manage a household budget properly.

Don’t even get me started on skills like childcare or how to care for a family. Luckily for me, I never wanted or had children because I have no clue what to do with a baby or how to be a responsible role model for young children. I certainly didn’t learn anything like that in school.

(Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash)

6. The Importance of Self-Care

I’m thrilled people treat self-care like a bigger priority these days because when I was younger, I never once heard those words. The mere idea that a school-aged person could experience burnout wasn’t even discussed. The same goes for talking out your feelings, listening to your body, and making enough room in your schedule to relax. And if you struggled with real mental health issues like depression or anxiety, you lived with them in shame and secrecy.

It’s great to teach kids the importance of hard work and dedication, but we’re doing them a great disservice if we’re not also teaching them proper self-care. This was a huge issue for me growing up, and I thought there was something horribly wrong with me for not being able to work myself around the clock the way some of my friends could. The same goes for not being able to overcome clinical depression through sheer force of will.

Stress management is an important part of self-care, as well. Everyone should understand why stress is harmful and learn how to establish a healthy work/life balance to keep the negative effects of stress to a minimum.

7. How to Manage Money and Credit

Of all the things on this list, I think this is the one that would have benefited me the most if I’d learned it young. I understood the basic concept of money, of course. I was taught that it was something to be earned honestly and handled responsibly, but I was never let in on the details of what that entailed.

At this point, I’m great at managing money and even better at using credit responsibly, but I had to learn the hard way. It also took me forever to completely undo the damage I did when I was younger. Essential skills like how to do taxes, balance a checkbook, build savings, and create a workable budget to live on would have been helpful, as well.

Really, I’m not knocking calculus, physics, literary analysis, or knowledge of any kind. However, I can’t say with any honesty that I’ve used those much in my 44 years on the planet so far. The same can’t be said for the skills I’ve listed above. The School of Hard Knocks delivers a killer education, to be sure, but there are much less painful ways to learn the basics of life.

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Monterey, CA

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