Structural Engineers

Things I Wish I Had Been Taught In School

I would have to say I have an excellent education.  I have been well educated in Catholic schools through high school in literature, various religions, writing, and the sciences.  In college (the University of Maryland and then on to Columbia University, New York and Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh) I’ve studied math, physics, engineering, management, marketing, and accounting.  All of those are excellent, but here’s a few things that would have been nice to have been taught in 8th Grade:

1. There are bad people.  In grade school we were taught all people are basically good, but they make bad choices.  Given the attention, and proper therapy and instruction they can reform.  Maybe so, but what was neglected was that there are people that are Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Psycotics through probably a combination of environment and heredity.  These people are seldom, if ever, reformed, and can do serious damage.  Spotting people with these personalities and disorders can be fairly straightford, and a day or two of instruction would have saved a lot of us a lot of problems.  My understanding of the different personalities is as follows:

  1. Narcissists – Consider the world to revolve around them.  They tend to be entitled, egotistical, and inconsiderate.  They are also very manipulative, and often are very destructive.  Steve Jobs may have been a narcissist, but for every one of him there are probably a thousand like your uncle who’s been in 5 marriages, can’t keep a job, and spends all his money on fancy cars and expensive clothes.
  2. Sociopaths – My understanding of a sociopath is this is a person who has no conscience.  A sociopath is the kind of person who fires an employee the day before she is vested in the company retirement plan, or totally guts a company to make the stock price rise so he or she can make money exercising stock options.  They are very dangerous in business because of their total lack of concern for others, and their lack of moral compass.
  3. Psycopaths – From what I’ve read, a psychopath is like a sociopath, but doesn’t think through the consequences of what he or she does, and has a need for high stimulation.  I knew a guy in high school that was probably a psycopath – one day he was walking down the street and he saw a family in their living room singing Christmas carols.  For no reason at all, he picked up a brick and through it through the picture window.  Just did it for excitement, he didn’t know who the people were.  He did other stuff too, like broke into houses and stole cars. You don’t want to deal with these people at all because their lack of concern for consequences can lead to serious problems for those around them.

If you could at least understand early on that these people exist, it could save a lot of heartache in the future.  Generally in life most of us can avoid the psycopaths, and we can often spot the sociopaths pretty fast, but narcissists are not so easy, and a bit of instruction on them would go a long way in saving a lot of pain.

2.  There is no “Get Out of Jail Free” card in life.  In many religions there is a hell for bad people to go to, but they usually have an out.  Various forms of forgiveness is granted, or if you go through some sort of ritual like a public baptism, you get granted forgiveness for whatever you do in advance.  It’s very convenient if you want to do bad things, because you can take advantage of that forgiveness to avoid Eternal Damnation.  A “Get Out of Jail Free” card for the Afterlife.

I’m not going to argue the theology of this, or whether spending an infinite amount of time in torture is an appropriate punishment for any conceivable crime (consider just how large infinity really is).  The point is, you can get forgiven all you want, but it won’t apply here.  FBI Agent Robert Hanssen sold a significant amount of secrets to the Soviet Union and also was a devout Catholic.  He reportedly confessed his sins of being an agent for the Soviets, and he also attended Mass regularly.  This may lead to his forgiveness in the Afterlife, but he is still serving 15 consecutive life sentences.

The fact is, most of our rules of morality like compassion, honesty, loyalty, and care for our fellow man are older than any religion and are based on hard experience.  Human societies where people show these virtues do much better than ones where people routinely kill and steal from each other.  It’s just how it is, you do bad things and bad things happen to you.  Maybe not right away, but then you can jump out of an airplane without a parachute and you don’t hit the ground immediately.  It doesn’t mean you are in orbit.

3. Things don’t happen for a reason.  I hear the stupid saying all the time here in the Southern US – “I believe everything happens for a reason” and “I don’t know what God’s plan is for me”.  If either of those statements were true, there would be no such thing as Free Will.  Awful things can happen to people for no other reason than they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There is no greater reason for the suffering of people in Haiti, and if I doubt any God would have a plan that included their day to day suffering.

We can debate why this seems to be true, but it doesn’t matter.  No deity is rewarding you for being a great person by your success in life, nor is any deity punishing you because something went wrong.  If your house got flooded out in a hurricane, it probably is because it was built in a flood plain, not because there is an injust God, or you are a bad person.

4. Our brains don’t think logically.  When I was in the Army in Military Police, I saw horrific domestic disputes.  Often our patrols would be sent to the same quarters repeatedly.  There was a Sergeant in my unit that was always seeing our commander for various domestic issues.  Seems he married a prostitute when he was in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and she continued her business when they came back.  He was forced to leave their on-post quarters and move back in the barracks, while she continued “entertaining” men.  He’d periodically break in, get violent with her, and get hauled off by his fellow MP’s.

None of this stuff made sense.  First, why did guys hit their wives?  Why did they abuse their children?  Why didn’t their wives leave them?  With that Sergeant in my unit, why didn’t he divorce his wife and be done with it?  He had no children, and the woman clearly didn’t care for him.  There are some rational reasons why wives don’t leave abusive husbands (where would they go?), but there is no rational reason for a guy to beat his wife (or abuse his children), or vice versa – there are significant numbers of men that get physically abused by their wives too.  The fact is, people think with their emotions.

What’s important about knowing this, is that I may be thinking with my emotions too.  Did I take that business deal because it seemed exciting?  Am I renting out office space I don’t need to put on a big front? Am I borrowing ever greater amounts for my business that will never make a profit because I don’t want to admit defeat?

5.  When you make a decision, how will you look at it in the future?  This one is a killer, and I will drum this into my grandchildren.  It’s hard to know how any decision we make today will affect us further in life.  I was interviewed in my last semester in college by a recruiter for a major oil company.  He was kind of a jerk, and one of his more idiotic questions was “George, where do you see yourself 20 years from now?”  I almost busted out laughing at the dumb question.  How should I know?  I made up something I thought he’d like to hear and shared the idiotic question with my fellow students.  20 years from that day I was in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.  I’d been an Air Force Reservist, and it was 2001.  I was called to active duty after 9/11 and was given a number of all-expenses paid trips the the Middle East and Central Asia.  Could I have answered that stupid question with “Well, I see myself as being a Civil Engineering Squadron Commander on a small airbase in a Middle Eastern desert and my business being totally ruined because of a terrorist act on the US?”  No, that was a really stupid question.

The better question would be “George, 20 years from now, what will you see as the best thing you have done in your life so far?”  I would know that answer and it would stay the same.  It would be “There are two, I served in the US Army and I am getting a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering”.  So, if you are in college partying your way through and taking some easy major so you don’t have to work that hard, do you think 20 years from now you will look back and consider that was a great idea?  If you are considering cheating on your spouse, do you think in 10 years that you will look back on it and be glad you did?  It kind of changes the way things look, doesn’t it?

So, it would have been nice to have been taught the above, either in school or by my parents.  However, there are some things I was taught when I was young that I’ll cover in another post.


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