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The Courses That Mattered Most

Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University famously describes how a calligraphy class inspired the addition of fonts to the Macintosh computer. Here, I consider five courses I have taken that have mattered the most. Three are predictable, while two were not obviously useful at the time.


Before jumping in, I want to stress that this describes my personal experience. Your experience will be different but may follow a similar pattern. I invite you to reflect on what parts of your education have been the most useful to you. The sieve I used, was to ask, “What things did I learn in school that I use today on a daily basis?”


The three classes that might be predictable winners are the classic 3 Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. I use the skills from these daily in my personal and professional life. I can’t imagine how hobbled I would be if I lacked a solid foundation in these basics. I have continued to hone these skills by learning speed reading, scheduling dedicated reading time, and practicing writing through this newsletter, and elsewhere. A business writing course required by my first employer also provides nearly daily utility.


Now for the less obvious winners. What stands out from the opening paragraph is that there were classes that both Jobs and I took that didn’t seem overly useful at the time, but that proved to have great value in the long run. In high school, I took two semesters of typing. It was an elective that I used to avoid more serious classes. But today, being a proficient typist makes my work vastly easier. The modern equivalent might be learning rapid cell phone keying. Is there a class for that? 

You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking back. — Steve Jobs 

The fifth winner is the computer programming I learned in middle school and high school. Learning to program has allowed me to streamline countless activities I would otherwise have to do both manually and repetitively. I consider it my secret weapon. While I don’t code every day, I do utilize my code daily and believe that coding is one of the most leveraged ways I use my time.


In the bonus category, I want to add a 3-day personal development seminar I took in my 30s. I use the lessons from that seminar every day, without exception. It ranks as one of the most valuable things I have done.


There are countless other classes that mattered, but those are the ones that show up prominently every day. Other than the three Rs, the utility of these courses was not obvious at the time. As Jobs observed, we can’t connect the dots looking forward. I am grateful for having solid foundational skills and a wide range of other knowledge and skills that prepared me for life’s demands and opportunities. While not used daily, along the way I also took some classes just for fun. Those matter too!


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