The 11 (awful) life lessons Bill Gates did NOT write.

There has been a list going around the internet for over a decade called the “11 (or 12) life lessons you won’t learn in school,” usually mis-attributed to Bill Gates (for a closer look, click HERE). In fact, the list is a portion of 50 life lessons put forth by Charles J. Sykes in his book Dumbing Down our Kids. The list, like the book itself, appeals to those who are convinced that people today are too soft or too mollycoddled for the real world. The book is worth a read, and I encourage you read it with an open mind. Myself, I found much of it terribly pessimistic and cynical, a product of a world made cynical by tough times. Today, people have grabbed hold of this list in order to help put millennials in their place, because, like many other other generations, they are seen as soft and needy by their elders.

If you read Sykes, I also recommend you read Feel-Bad Education by Alfie Kohn. For all of Sykes’ cynicism, Kohn responds with a stark vision of flawed education for nearly opposite reasons.

Here are my responses to the “Rules” typically included in this list: 

RULE 1: Life’s not fair. Get used to it

Yes, this is literally true. There are many misfortunes that we have zero control over. This, however, is used as a hammer to pound the desire for equality and fairness right out of kids. Fairness should always be hoped for and when possible, fought for. Students who are encouraged to see injustice and inequity in the world are likely to strive to change it. Without that, we become subservient or enslaved to status quo, no matter how unjust it may be. Instead, let’s help kids know how to get up swinging when life knocks them down.

RULE 2: The World Doesn’t care about your self esteem

The world expects you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Your self-esteem may not be a big commodity out in the world, but it is crucial to you. Without self-esteem, there is no drive, no confidence, and no vision for improvement. We often assume that the so-called “me” generation is a spoiled-rotten bunch, but we forget that every generation has been seen by the previous as being spoiled and self-centered. Instead of this cynical statement, perhaps we can remind kids that the key to self esteem is giving of themselves and being proud to help others. There is no need to vilify self-esteem.

RULE 3: You will not make six figure salary right after school

This one is particularly stupid. We know there are hundreds of young people who have done just that. Take a look at the richest people under 24 today and you will find entrepreneurs and entertainers who got successful right after high school, and in many cases even earlier. Can everyone expect that? No, but they should look for opportunities to hit the ground running. The 1950s model was to work your way up from mail room to CEO, but today anyone can publish, record, create, patent, innovate, and make a difference at any age. Why would we try to convince young people that they sit in the back of the bus and wait until their turn comes up? Today’s young people realize that they can bypass the system with creativity and hard work. Instead, let’s ask them how they can make a big move right now.

RULE 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you meet your boss

All those deadlines you think are unreasonable at best, those times she locked you out of class because you showed up late? Ten times worse with a boss. Only, instead of chewing you out in front of a classroom, it’s a whole office. Teachers are legally mandated to show some restraint, bosses aren’t. He’ll call you all sorts of names your teacher only dreams of saying to your face, then show you the way to the unemployment line.

Hogwash. Any boss worth working for should treat employees with dignity and respect, and most do. Any boss worth their salt knows that you develop great people by helping them grow, not by beating them down. To tell young people that bosses are mean and abusive is generally untrue and horribly cynical. In general, young people can expect their employers to treat them as well or better than their teachers, and when they don’t, they have the option to get up and walk out, unlike at school. We should be helping kids understand how to identify positive work environments rather than trying to convince them that the workplace is scary.

RULE 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity

Your grandparents had a word for this: opportunity

Again with the starting at the bottom. Sure, any job is better than none, and there is no shame is working an entry-level job. However, convincing a new generation that they should start with their sights on a McJob is short-sighted and does nothing helpful for young people. We can help students find opportunities that fit their skills rather than convincing them that flipping burgers is a great career path.

RULE 6: If you mess up, it’s not your parents fault

So don’t whine about your mistake – learn from them.” Too many people fall into the trap of claiming “mommy” and “daddy” issues when they mess up.

While the central point of this advice is about how we have complete control over our actions is completely valid, it severely minimizes the catastrophic impact that abuse, addiction, violence, poverty and neglect leave on a young person. It seems that only people who had positive upbringings stress this point. Everyone else understands that it takes a lot of courage, practice, and sometimes therapy to transcend the effects of abuse. Instead, let’s remind people that they are not destined to the life they grew up in. Empowerment, rather than shame, is the only way to break cycles of abuse, addiction, and violence.

RULE 7: Your folks know something you don’t know  

Sometimes. As with #6 above, this point is also predicated on the idea that every young person has great role models. Many don’t. I couldn’t agree more with the author that young people need to listen and learn from their elders, these people may not be, and in some cases should not be their parents. Instead, let’s encourage young people how to identify positive role models, and how to be a great listener when mentored by positive influences, whoever they are.

RULE 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not

“In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they’ll give you as many tries as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.” 

Actually, this resembles almost EVERYTHING in the real world. In the real world there are do-overs for almost everything. Don’t get into the college you wanted, you can work hard and try again. Didn’t get that business of the ground? You are free to try again. Even at most jobs, we learn by experience and failure. Sometimes, like at school, the stakes are higher than others, but overall the world is a fairly forgiving place, and in most cases you can grow by trial and error. Instead, can we just instill in our young people a sense of tenacity and perseverance? That seems to trump whatever this awful advice is attempting to get at.

RULE 9: Life is not divided into semesters

You don’t get summer off and very few employers are interested in helping you “find yourself”. The real world won’t give you time off to recoup your strength. Once life starts it just goes on and on, and on. 

According to this advice, just join the real world, get with the program, and be miserable in your life forever until you die. We can’t think of anything else to tell them? Like perhaps that many of the richest and most successful companies today pride themselves on helping employees explore their passions. Or that travel and volunteerism are two highly-prized qualities by employers. There are usually opportunities for people to find renewal and feed their soul, even while working full-time. And yes, in many cases, your job will give you time off to do this from time to time.

RULE 10: Television is not real life

In real life, people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

This one is a bit dated, because young people don’t watch much tv any more. Instead, they watch YouTube videos about how people fix things, or create things, or do things. If anything, entertainment today, at least online, helps people understand that anyone can do amazing things if they just put themselves out there and work hard.

RULE 11: Be Nice to Nerds

Chances are you’ll end up working for one. 

Finally, one I completely agree with. Anti-intellectualism did, in fact, lead to the origination of this awful list, and we can only do well to help young people understand that the bookworms, computer nerds, and weird kids will likely do well in life. But we also need the brilliant kids who struggle in school to know that they will probably also be successful. Everyone can succeed in time.

To expect that everyone has the same level of maturity, drive, and stamina in high school is short-sighted. Instead of getting their undies in a twist fretting about “kids these days” and their faults, we need to see that our optimism or pessimism about the “real world” is a key to their success. Listen, advise, and support. You won’t spoil them. Most adults think tough love is the best way to motivate young people, but I have seen very few examples of that approach turning out great people, but I can list dozens of examples of former students who were beaten down by cynicism and “real life.” Take a step back and realize that Socrates himself complained that students of his were mouthy, arrogant and disrespectful. It isn’t just “kids these days,” but a natural stage young people move through. Let’s help them be the best people they can be as they grow.

2 thoughts on “The 11 (awful) life lessons Bill Gates did NOT write.

  1. Hi Anthony,

    I reacted similarly to this list back in 2005 . Thanks for your thoughts on it!


  2. Hi there. I was glad to find this page after Googling around a bit looking for a critique of this list.

    I’ve seen it a few times and, although advising young people to try to be resilient and responsible is no bad thing, it also struck me as unduly mean and one-sided advice. It seems to say: shut up, don’t complain, work hard, set your expectations low, respect your elders. And: there are only winners and losers – if you are a loser it’s your own fault.

    There’s nothing here about compassion or looking out for others. In fact it’s saying you should rely on no one for any help in life – the corollary being that you have no obligation to help anyone else either.


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