What They Don’t Teach You At Any School

Posted on September 2, 2014 by Robert Ringer


One of the saddest things about our education system is that children are under enormous pressure to give answers that are safely within the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, the fear of being wrong is constantly reinforced and carries into adulthood.

I feel I was fortunate in this respect, because I apparently inherited a penchant for taking risks that might result in my looking foolish. At a very young age, I understood that it was okay to speak out and risk being laughed at. Nor was I afraid to try something novel at the risk of failing.

My memory takes me back to an incident that occurred in chemistry class when I was a sophomore in high school. The teacher (Coach Smith, who also coached the school’s basketball and football teams) asked the class, “Can anyone give me the technical definition of cold?” What a great moment for me, given that I had just read that definition in my chemistry book the night before.

Up went my hand. Coach Smith nodded in my direction and said, “Okay, Ringer, let’s hear you define cold for us.” To which I replied, “Cold is the absence of heat.” Yikes! The way the class erupted in laughter you would have thought I was a standup comic. “What a dumb ass thing to say,” the future Ivy Leaguers in the front row must have been thinking.

Coach Smith quieted the class down and, to everyone’s astonishment, said, “I have news for you. Ringer’s definition is exactly right.” Dead silence. What a beautiful and quick vindication. It was approximately the same satisfaction I would have gotten had I been given permission to roam through the classroom and randomly mess up the hair of the supercilious, would-be Ivy Leaguers.

I never forgot that exhilarating experience, and I believe it helped me when I ventured out into the real world and did a lot of things that today seem audacious even by my standards. A great example of this came early in my business career, after I had anointed myself a men’s outerwear designer. Nobody gave me permission; I just did it. I was an aspiring Tommy Hilfiger before there was a Tommy Hilfiger.

At some point in this particular career, I came up with a crazy idea for a poncho that featured two hoods. It consisted of nothing more than a large piece of vinyl with two holes in it and two hoods that a couple could wear while sitting in inclement weather at an outdoor sporting event.

But then, as now, it all got down to marketing, so I scoured my brain trying to think of ways to get some exposure for my strange looking masterpiece. Sitting in my hotel room in New York, I came up with a wild idea to try to get my two-hooded poncho on The Tonight Show.

It was in the early years of Johnny Carson’s reign, and, as unbelievable as it sounds today, I took a taxi over to NBC’s headquarters, then simply walked in off the street and sat down in the darkened studio theater to watch the rehearsal for that night’s show.

I can still remember Johnny Carson walking onto the stage to practice his lines, and my thinking how amazing it was that no one had tried to stop me from entering the theater — or even bothered to ask why I was there. While watching the rehearsal, I decided I would try to talk to the producer about using my two-headed poncho in some sort of comedy skit, but I knew I’d get escorted out if I went backstage and tried to corral him.

So, instead, I dashed outside, zipped into a phone booth, and put some coins in the slot. In those days, all you had to do was call information, get the number of the company you wanted to contact, then call and talk to a live receptionist and be directed to the party you wanted to speak with.

Just like that, I was immediately put through to an assistant producer. I introduced myself, described my two-headed poncho, explained that I thought a good comedy writer could build a funny skit around it, and asked if I could come in and show it to him. To which he responded, “Sure, when can you be here?” (Try getting that kind of response in today’s world of impenetrable gates and gatekeepers.) I quickly answered, “I can be there in a couple of minutes.”

I then went back inside, walked through the lobby, took the elevator to the associate producer’s floor, and entered his office. (Today, of course, the super-militarized lobby guards would probably mow me down with a hail of machine gun bullets.) I don’t recall the details of the meeting, but the bottom line was that I left a sample of the two-headed poncho with the associate producer and he said he would “see what he could do.”

That night I made it a point to watch The Tonight Show, and, to my delight, Ed McMahon and Skitch Henderson (the show’s bandleader at the time) actually put the poncho on together and clowned around with it. It was classic time-filler shtick. And even though it had zero impact on my sales, I’ve always thought it was amazing that a kid could walk in off the street and get his product shown on national television just by taking the initiative and asking.

I suspect this is the kind of thing Mark McCormack had in mind when he wrote his classic bestseller What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. The fact is that they don’t teach initiative, risk-taking, or audaciousness at any school. It’s strictly on-the-job training, and it involves a lot of rejection, disappointment, and embarrassment. But it’s worth it, because, thanks to the law of averages, it’s just a matter of time until it yields results.

All this mind travel had me fantasizing about how great it would be if schools at every level were compelled to teach initiative, risk-taking, and audaciousness. But, alas, where would they find teachers who had even the slightest clue as to why these skills are important in real life? Answer: nowhere.

That being the case, it’s wise to be proactive and homeschool your kids in these life-functioning skills, preferably before formal educators mold them into conventional little automatons. No disrespect to William Shakespeare, but I’ve never known of a deal that anyone closed by employing his storehouse of knowledge about English literature.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

35 responses to “What They Don’t Teach You At Any School”

  1. larajf says:

    I think it's time I re-read that book :-) I've forgotten how great it is to be a bit of a risk taker with a hint of audacity mixed in.

  2. Paul Anthony says:

    Alas, the government school system is not designed to create individuals. The goal has always been to produce good little cogs for the machinery of business – while wiping out any individual thinking that might make people hard to govern.

  3. Jay Clifton says:

    Good point.. But, with respect, I landed a job once when asked what I would do if I had an idea that I thought was good, but I didn't think other people would like too much. I said, paraphrasing Shakespeare, that I'd 'screw my courage to the sticking place' and present it anyway.

  4. Robby Bonfire says:

    Small world, regarding Robert's "Tonight Show" experience. My step-brother did the same thing. In 1968 he got a hold of the right people connected with the show, and got free program advertising, with Johnny Carson's involvement, for an electronic smoke alarm gadget he was selling, which, when the gadget detected smoke, it would knock the telephone off the cradle and dial the fire deparment, and play a recording of the address where the fire department was needed.

    Johnny and Ed fooled around with and had fun with this smoke alarm gadget for a full four minutes. Free publicity certainly beats paying for advertising time on a major TV network.

    So, yes, take an audacious shot, when you feel inspired. Catching those on the other end off guard, because no one else has the guts to take a shot is half the battle. Immediately you have their attention and their respect. And you just might get the "sale."

  5. Ros Burn says:

    My fourteen year old son was in trouble at boarding school. His 'crime' was to borrow the janitor's keys for a short while, take them up town and get keys to the girls' dorm duplicated. So the ability for midnight feasts. When the head teacher threatened to expel my son, I replied that I was delighted to see that he showed initiative and enterprise.

  6. Phiosophizer says:

    Robert, there is a college, and there are teachers who have actually lived initiative, and risk-taking. All the professors had to be working in the business or profession they taught! It was fantastic!

    It is where I learned about Robert Ringer, and where my professor in Real Estate told us about "Winning Thru Intimidation". I immediately read the book, and was hooked on Roberts books ever since. I found the writing to be so informative, yet the antidotes so hilariously funny. And Roberts books are funny because they are True. It is a rare combination, and I have found only one other writer with both of these qualities.

    But yes, as a general rule, schools don't teach you crap about real life…

    • ANECDOTES. Thanks for the laugh! But, maybe they WERE antidotes also! Works as a double-entendre… maybe

      • Phiosophizer says:

        Lol. Ya I guess I played too many "Lord of the Rings" games because "resist poison" is very important! The dbl ent not intended, just blindly written down with no thought as a similar but entirely different word comes out…

        I think that's why real writers like Robert have editors!

  7. Vladymir Rogov says:

    "I’ve never known of a deal that anyone closed by employing his storehouse of knowledge about English literature." Are you not trying to do it with this piece, Robert?

  8. Serge says:

    I,m a successful risk taker, you can bet your britches on it. Ever since High School and College I have avoided public speaking. Maybe it's a phobia don't know. I will do anything in its place to avoid public speaking. I will work extra, risk extra, ask extra, and have the guts to do successful deals in order to avoid a public speech. I would go door to door in sales in 100 degree temperature for 8 hours than make a 15 minute speech. Most deals are successful because it motivates me to have to make up for this handicap of the fear to speak to more than 3-4 people at a time. Funny thing is that I a have a desire to speak in public. This is my new goal and I am ready to try therapy if need be.

  9. Yes, Mr. Ringer makes and excellent point once again! TRY! And expect good results. That is living "open-endly", no certainty or even likelihood of realizing what we intend or hope for. For example, one of many in MY LIFE: In my fifth year of low-level college teaching, I QUIT a tenured job to realize my Ideal as Poet-Writer in Residence… for only ONE SEMESTER. That led to other things, all better, and higher! And those led to even higher and better things when I left THE SYSTEM completely… or as completely as one can. But NOW, is there much of an "underground economy" left for the daring to enter and succeed? Or are the watchdogs of Govt shutting everything they can find down… ? I was born a FREEDOM LOVER and an INDIVIDUALIST. But now I fear there is less room for the likes of me… and others.

  10. Jurgy says:

    as George Carlin succinctly put it, in regard to education – the government wants obedient workers who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork …

    • Richard Lee Van says:

      Carlin was brilliant as well as entertaining… esp regarding "our stuff"… Like many people, I keep too much of the stuff I accumulate, then when I move I drag that stuff over to the next place where I accumulate MORE STUFF that I don't, and never will, use. Use-value, Pragmatism, is the name of the game!
      Collectors of stuff… like me… drag ourselves down.

  11. Murray Suid says:

    I attended UCLA's graduate school of filmmaking, and I can assure you that a key agenda item at that school is learning to go outside the conventional boundaries. UCLA is a public institution.

    As for K-12 public schools, my teachers–in Hollywood, Florida–often gave assignments that invited us to think on our own. In my advanced class of 20 students, 3 went to MIT and on to innovative careers in industry. One went to Harvard and later made waves in the medical establishment. I went to a second-rate college, but have lived a rather unconventional life (for example, returning to graduate school at age 49, and selling scripts in my 60s.

    While I agree 100% with you that parents have a key role in teaching children to think for themselves, I believe that many public schools also nurture independent thinking. But let's face it, before people can think independently, they do need to learn the basics–for example, to master words and grammar and logic. Schools need to teach a lot of conventional material that is the foundation for wild thinking. Example: my hero Robert Goddard, who pretty much on his own invented the modern rocket, earned a PhD in physics BEFORE he began his rocket experiments. He was a dreamer as a kid, perhaps learning to think about the moon by reading sic fi novels. But without the conventional knowledge that he learned in school, he couldn't have invented the rocket.

    • Richard Lee Van says:

      First we need ORDER and QUIET in the classroom so a true teacher can teach. Too many educational environments no longer have that. Now too many teachers have their hands tied by… etc.ad infinitum… I taught for 15 years. Looking back I'm happy I did not continue since the CONTROLLERS tie the hands of the best creative teachers… like I was!

  12. blh557 says:

    Great article, Mr. Ringer. I am the exact opposite of the person you describe as yourself. I was taught to keep my mouth shut and my opinions and thoughts to myself because nobody ever wanted to know what I thought. Not from teachers alone, but from my father. It had a profound negative effect on my self image and likely on a large portion of my life.

    Now, the rest of the story. I did NOT teach my son that way. As a result he's one of those people who will one day make his own fortune. Even at the young age of 24 he was appointed as a project manager for a major pipeline project in Atlanta. At 30 he is a major player in an even larger pipeline company. In just a few years he has communicated his way into the good graces of the world's major players in deer farming and genetics and we will soon be part of the first ever genetics testing program for Red Deer in the US.

    Thankfully my own story has changed, but reversing years of ego abuse is like using sandpaper to take out peened serial numbers on steel. It takes much time and much effort and there's still a scar there even when you can't see the imprints. I agree wholeheartedly; even if it's outside your own learned indoctrination, teach your children to persevere and not be embarrassed by being wrong… or right… when, not if, they speak up.

  13. Pat says:

    This reminds me of the time I wrote to Don Shellie. He used to write a funny column for the Tucson Citizen. I said I had seen a truck that said Zebra Exterminating. I figured their service must be pretty darn good, since I hadn't seen any zebras in town lately. He like the idea and wrote a whole column about it.

    I guess you'd say I am a risk taker. Another woman and I started a civil rights organization back in 1972 that is still going strong. I pretty much ran the organization in the first few years, by myself. It's still going strong.

    And we did homeschool our children, and yes, they are risk-takers. Sometimes more than I'd even like…

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