Top Three Things I Learned in School

by | Sep 18, 2018


Think back. What were the major lessons you learned in school? Through my formal education I learned about all sorts of topics ranging from anthropology to tax law. Looking back, the below three things stick out:

1. JDS!

Like all first-year law students at University of Missouri I took Legal Research and Writing my first semester. Our instructor was an Adjunct named Chip. At some point early in the course he said something to this effect: “All throughout your career but especially early on you’ll have a legal question or research project and you’ll have no earthly idea where to begin. You’ll walk into the law library and see thousands of books – so many that it will be paralyzing. What to do? You may not even understand the question well enough to know what area of the law to begin researching. What should you do? The answer: JDS! Which stands for JUST DO SOMETHING! Go open a book. Start reading from a journal. Find a treatise. Whatever. The very act of DOING SOMETHING will lead to progress. Your brain will be working. JDS! When you are stuck, JDS!”

Chip was spot on. My first assignment as a brand-new associate at a large law firm out of law school was given to me by a partner named Bob. The project was in the area of health care transactions law – an area of the law I knew nothing about. As Bob spoke I attempted to write down every single word coming out of his mouth because I understood about 10% of what he was saying. As I left his office my head was spinning and I was totally lost. I had no idea what to do or where to begin. Without Chip’s JDS! advice I would have probably freaked out and frozen. But I decided to JDS! and lo and behold over many hours (most of which I couldn’t in good conscious bill to the client) I ended up producing a passable memo on the issue.

This JDS! advice has been key to me over these past (gulp) 23 years since I graduated from law school. Almost daily in my job I face issues and problems that are totally new to me and potentially overwhelming. The advice to not freak out and JDS! has made a big difference.

2. Fingernail Polish: Cost vs. Value

One of the classes I took in undergrad was an entry level course on marketing. During one class the professor conveyed a lesson that has stuck with me over the years about cost vs. value. What he said went something like this:

Imagine there are two bottles of fingernail polish. They are both red – in fact they are the exact same shade of red. They are both high quality – in fact they are exactly the same quality. They are the same in all respects, except one is sold at Walgreens, is only $3.99 and is not a luxurious brand. The other bottle is sold at a high-end department store, is $13.99 and is a fancy brand, but in all respects is identical to the bottle at Walgreens except the brand name.

Now assume we have Lucy who is going to a fraternity formal this weekend with a boy she has only been out with once. She is a bit nervous and wants to look nice. She looks for new fingernail polish first at Walgreens and really likes the red bottle for $3.99 but doesn’t buy it. She then goes to the department store and eyes the red bottle for $13.99. As she contemplates the $10.00 additional cost of the fancy brand she thinks about how she’s a bit concerned about her weight and that her complexion hasn’t been all that great lately, and decides she’ll feel prettier and more confident with the more expensive nail polish and buys it.

Was this a rational choice? Was she cheated by the more expensive store and brand? It depends on whether you focus on cost or value. She did end up spending more in terms of COST for the exact same polish, BUT it isn’t for us to say that feeling better about herself wasn’t worth the additional $10.00. It is possible or even likely that she got at least $10.00 of additional value from that bottle.

I’ve thought about the professor’s point a lot through the years. As we buy products and services our perception of the value of the product/service can be a different concept than the cost. For example, some view a luxury car as a great expense above and beyond the cost of more basic transportation. Others think a luxury car is worth the money as they ascribe more value to the various aspects of the experience of driving such a car.

3. Crashing and Burning: The Importance of Failure

I did pretty well in high school without studying very hard. In fact, I thought that studying hard was a sign of lack of intelligence. Needless to say, this was a horrible and wrong headed mindset and it almost completely derailed me.


I went to TCU my freshman year of college. I was in the honors college and had enrolled in extremely challenging courses my first semester. I also pledged a fraternity (Fiji). Over the first two semesters I made a 1.8 GPA and then a slightly better 2.4 GPA. Not a good freshman year academically! Having lost my scholarship, my parents calmly explained that I would get one more chance at college with their financial support, but at a cheaper college. I transferred to the University of Missouri, buckled down, went to class, put in the work and got my act together.

At the time, crashing and burning academically was horrible. I was embarrassed, disappointed in myself and lost a lot of confidence in my abilities. The options for my future seemingly shrank.

Looking back, however, that failure was one of the most important experiences in my life. That failure:

  • Allowed me to meet my wife at Mizzou
  • To paraphrase a passage in Catcher in the Rye, it allowed me to find the limits of my intellect. 
  • It shaped my worldview. From that point forward I saw success less as due to innate qualities but rather due to doing the work. I learned that I could learn and grow and succeed if I was willing to work.
  • In a strange sense it gave me the confidence to leave my comfort zoneand try new things and risk failure. When you’ve failed big you aren’t as afraid of failure in the future. I’ve worked with many smart, talented people who have been afraid to fail and leave their comfort zones because they’ve never failed at anything.
  • It has positively affected my parenting as throughout my daughter’s lives I’ve stressed the importance of effort and working hard. If they make a good grade I praise the work that went into that grade, not their smarts. 
  • etc. etc. etc.

My main point is that sometimes things that seem horrible at the time can turn out to be great lessons. To this point, here’s my favorite parable of all-time:

There is a Chinese story of a farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?”

Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?”

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off. Now was that good luck or bad luck?

Who knows?


  1. The best advice I’ve received was from a close friend that said “Just Do something.” It’s truly amazing what optionality it has provided thus far. Great post!

  2. I think it is Warren Buffett who said “Cost is what you pay. Value is what you get.”

  3. 1) This is good but believe I find that if I sit down and formulate the best questions that I can, and write them down I often find what I am looking for or at least something I can talk about
    2) This just sounds like a way to rationalize overcharging people by taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. I think it’s pretty bad…

  4. Well- my comment is not as profound as the others. I learned How to drink and handle my liquor in college😛. Go Tigers!! During my time at Mizzou- the school was ranked as the best Party school in the Country. What an honor😊

  5. These are all highly relevant to me too, and deceptive in their simplicity. One of my favorites was from the otherwise cryptic economics classes I took, and was marginal cost versus marginal utility. An echo of your lipstick example above. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.
    Mark Twain


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