Forget About the University

Sculpture of a tiger

When I was in 1st grade, I came home half-way through the year really upset. A friend of mine, a 2nd grader, told me during recess that he was required to spell the word “dolphin” on one of his spelling tests. I panicked. I’d never be able to pass 2nd grade. No way would I EVER be able to spell the word “dolphin!”

That afternoon, I walked home from school, came into the kitchen and told my mom that I was doomed! Her son would never be able to pass 2nd grade. Ugh! I knew this would disappoint her. After all, she had been valedictorian in her high school class and was the smartest person I knew. Yes, while I was 100% convinced that she could spell the word “dolphin” her son could not. He would be a perpetual 1st grader in Ms. Fletcher’s class. Ugh! At least I had warm chocolate chip cookies and a glass of cold milk to mask my disappointment.

So I did what every well-intended 1st grader would do (at least those with aspirations of passing 2nd grade). I practiced the word “dolphin” over and over. Soon, I could spell it backwards, “nihplod.” I could even say it in “pig-latin.” I probably wouldn’t pass 2nd grade, but at least I’d be able to spell “dolphin.”

Well, you probably already guessed where this is going. I passed 2nd grade and then 3rd. And by then, I was so good at spelling “dolphin” I skipped 4th grade. Years later, I graduated high school (not valedictorian but respectable given my level of effort) and looked at colleges, settling on the Colorado School of Mines. I was going to be a petroleum engineer. After a year, I decided to study something broader than petroleum engineering. So I transferred to Clemson University (reigning National NCAA Football Champions – just sayin’) and studied industrial engineering. All “imaginary engineer” jokes aside, it served me well.

You see, spelling “dolphin” successfully was “a thing.” I became a registered engineer, a certified quality engineer and got a good job. I went to school at night and got an MS in industrial engineering, an MBA, and a doctorate in leadership studies. I studied abroad, was accepted at Harvard, Stanford, and London School of Business, presented at conferences, and wrote articles. I mean, what else would expect from someone who could spell “dolphin.” It was a no-brainer. Duh!

But I learned something unexpected along the way. I learned that formal, academic, university-type learning was only part of the answer. Yes, go to a great school. Take hard classes. Push yourself. I’m still passionate about higher-education. I love university settings. But. And it’s a big “but.” But recognize that this type of learning is not enough. N.O.T. ENOUGH!!!

To be successful, you need to continually learn. You need to observe. You need to read. And take notes. And keep learning. Take a class online. Enroll in a graduate program. Hang out with intelligent people. Hang out with practical people. Travel. Read. Listen. Yep, L.I.S.T.E.N!

You get it. Learning is a life-long journey. It doesn’t end when you graduate. Regardless of how intelligent you were as a 22 year-old graduate from an Ivy League or Tier 1 school, you need to keep learning. Striving. Seeking. Asking. Pushing.

Great leaders forget the university. They appreciate it. They recognize it as a beginning. They learned how to learn. How to reason. How to think. But they realize that they must continue to reinvent themselves and become a life-long learner. They recognize their university experience was a foundation. And then they keep building and learning.

Maybe you never went to a university (there are many valid reasons). But the lesson applies to you as well. Keep learning. Are you a welder? A sales rep? A stay-at-home parent? Regardless, you will benefit from learning. Don’t quit.

By the way, my mom (who is SMART!) didn’t graduate from college until she was in her mid-30s. Things happened and she took a 16-year break from higher education. But she never stopped learning. She never stopped reading. She never stopped asking questions and seeking insightful answers. Great leaders never do. They keep learning.

What about you? Are you a recent college graduate? Great! You’re just getting started. Keep learning! Are you a seasoned industry veteran? Awesome! Don’t slow down now. Keep learning! Are you a stay-at-home parent? Fantastic! Don’t give up or get distracted. Be creative in ways to keep learning. It’s never too late to start or continue the learning process, formal or informal.

Hope you have a great week. Regardless of your SAT or ACT scores, your level of formal education or your raw intellectual horsepower, keep learning. Be creative. Increase your emotional intelligence. Expand your technical expertise. Deepen your vocabulary. You get the idea. And do it starting today.

is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]

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