For a start, let’s talk about what excelling at life means or the different definitions of success.

If you ask the average school teacher it’s probably going to be something like getting great marks at school so that you get into a good program at university, finishing a degree with good enough marks to get a good job with a reputable organisation. Sticking at that job for long enough and moving up the ranks to retire comfortably, so that you can spend your days doing what you love, like travelling or playing golf.

Definitions of success

I asked some of my friends, who are small or one-person business owners what their definition of success was and their answers were a bit different to those of the teacher’s.

One who runs a bricks and mortar veterinary practice said that to her, success meant having a good work/life balance or not working so hard that there wasn’t any time in her life for anything else.

Another who is a food blogger with an international audience and three young children, said that to her, success meant having the freedom to choose the type and amount of work she took on, based on what else was going on in her life at the time, without having to be accountable to anyone else.

Another who is a personal stylist for small business owners, said that to her, “personal success is a deep feeling of good fortune in relationships, comfort, security, and having the freedom and capacity to keep learning and growing.”

Notice a trend?

Freedom and security, which means having choices about how you live your life, which is essentially what money and status give you.

A traditional education

The traditional path to freedom and security has been through employment, which became more common once we outgrew villages and had more and more people to take care of. It’s how our education systems were all designed – to create workers and professionals for industry – and most of them haven’t evolved much since then, even if the world around them has.

I asked some of my friends who started off on a traditional path but moved into a small business, for their opinions on how the skills they learnt at school and university, equipped them for the challenges they’ve faced in their work and life.

One friend worked up to what can only be described as a dream job with a reputable business in a scientific field after finishing uni. Several years and a lot of international travel later, she burnt out, took an abrupt left turn and ended up starting a successful, booked-out small business as a physical therapist for horses.

“I excelled at school and I feel like that was because I was very organised and I was good at remembering and recalling facts. I was good at working out what the teachers were looking for to get good marks, and giving them exactly that. Turns out life is quite different! It requires critical thinking, resilience and self-direction. I think school conditions us to believe that someone somewhere has all the answers and everything is black and white, but real life isn’t like that. I’ve probably spent all the years since I left school, trying to unlearn my conditioning from school.”

A smarter education – at any age

So assuming we agree that success is about having the freedom to work towards a secure, fulfilling life, based on the skills, values, abilities and personalities that we were born with (or grew into), how do we work out what’s right for us or what we’re supposed to be doing with our lives? Who can teach us what we need to know to be able to think for ourselves or where can we learn it?

Nobody and nowhere would be the most likely answer to that question, or at least, nobody and nowhere that I know of. But wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had access to a “school of life” based on the best scientific global knowledge to date, distilled into its most essential facts?

Topics like:

  • Philosophy – the meaning of life
  • Culture – an overview of the nature of culture and how it frames our view of the world
  • Community – how to re-connect communities and make people happier and healthier
  • Self-awareness – how to identify, accept and value our personal qualities
  • Behavioural science – how to understand our own and other people’s behaviour
  • Evolution – in particular, where humans came into the story and how their story could unfold
  • Religion & Society – tools for organising and managing large groups of people and helping them make sense of a world they don’t always understand
  • Entrepreneurship – how to use what we have available to us to solve the problems around us
  • Habits – why successful people aren’t better than us, they just have better habits than we do
  • Marketing – how to help other people see the value in what we have to offer
  • Business maths – what the numbers need to look like for an enterprise to be sustainable
  • Identity – how other people see us and what to do with that information
  • Behavioural economics – why we make the decisions we do relating to money and value
  • Life maths – how to work towards financial security regardless of income
  • Self-sufficiency – how to come up with ideas in a vacuum, how to motivate ourselves and set goals
  • Problem-solving – what to do when things go wrong (because they will)

Education is the silver bullet

One of my favourite quotes is from the TV Show The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn, who said “Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. Competition for the best teachers should be fierce; they should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defence.”

We’re not currently excelling at life because record numbers of us are experiencing mental ill-health, physical ill-health, financial distress and an enormous sense of disconnection. When I agree that education is the silver bullet, I’m not suggesting we all go off and spend four years getting a degree to fix the problem. I’m suggesting that we consider differentiating between an education that equips us to excel at a job (doctor or lawyer) and an education that equips us to excel at life.

An education for an illogical brain

The human brain doesn’t operate logically, it makes decisions based on mental shortcuts called heuristics and biases that to the owner of the brain, feel like logic or their own decisions in action.

Education is the difference between us responding using these flawed, default settings (in what to the outside can look like ignorance), and us responding with the benefit of the wisdom already accepted as fact by everyone, everywhere and learnt through scientific study, from the beginning of human time until now.

Many of the problems around the world – wars, discrimination, poverty – happen because people are operating using this flawed decision-making (which we all do, regardless of how much of an “education” we’ve had) and accepting information they already have, as fact (this is how our brains work), which leads them to assume they are right and the other party is wrong, or that things are the way they are and can’t ever change.

Humans are similar to other animals in more ways than many humans would care to admit, but we have one advantage over every other species, which is our ability to pass on to future generations, the entire collection of human wisdom in printed form.

So why aren’t we doing that in a smart way? Why are we teaching so much stuff that people will honestly never use, and hoping for the best that they will find out about the really important stuff along the way? Why are we passing the knowledge that equips someone to do a specialised job, off as an education, that for many, is out of reach anyway?

Whatever we’re doing, it isn’t working

Not only are people who could be described as model students leaving school unprepared to excel at life, so are most of the others who don’t fit the definition. Kids who aren’t good at remembering and recalling facts or who like one of my children, don’t care enough about doing it to bother. Kids who find nothing at school that interests or excites them and so make the assumption that they have less potential or who find more interesting ways of occupying themselves until they are labelled, marginalised and on a one-way street to a life of hardship.

We could start by acknowledging the skills of the inconvenient students

The kids who will change our world for the better or become the engaged, free-thinking leaders of tomorrow aren’t the model students of today who are motivated by the approval of their teachers. They are the kids who are impatient, curious, self-motivated and out-of-the-box thinkers. Students like this are able to cope with disapproval and don’t feel constrained by limitations or rules. These are the exact qualities which every entrepreneur has or wishes they had, to help them think for themselves and weather the storms of life.

Instead of labelling these kids as bad because they’re inconvenient in a school setting, how about we acknowledge the qualities which they have and the model students don’t, which if directed appropriately, could give them a head start in life?

And equipping everyone to be independent thinkers

While we’re about it, why don’t we also make useful knowledge like the topics mentioned before, available to every person to help them excel at life, instead of telling them what to do and making them helpless through dependence on “people who know better than they do”?

And if what I’m suggesting sounds like a bizarre idea, education like this is already happening with institutions like which is based on the US school curriculum and started by one guy who decided to have a go at tutoring his cousin.

What if we had to build on that idea and support the creation of something like an online Global School of Life, available to anyone, anywhere who wants it?

I’m not looking for another project right now – I’ve got my hands full with enough of my own crazy ideas – but if anyone wants to get together over tea and cake and talk about how amazing this could be, I can’t think of anything more fun.

As I go about my day today, I’ll be dreamily imagining how many people could be empowered with knowledge like this and in a few years when I’ve gotten to the bottom of my to-do list, if nobody else has created a school like this in the meantime, maybe I’ll throw my hat into the ring to have a crack at it.