My Stanford education was best in class, yet left big ‘life skills’ gaps

Marisa Messina is trying to learn life skills her years in elite schools failed to teach her.
(Via Marisa Messina)

Marisa Messina went to private schools and attended Stanford University for college and business school. But, she writes, she still finds her education lacking in fundamentals, particularly life skills — like handling personal finances, doing home repairs and dealing with emotions. She wonders what a proper modern education should include — and who is responsible for filling in the holes.

I have done a lot of school: 14 years in East Coast private/preparatory institutions and four more at Stanford University, during which I earned two bachelor’s degrees, a minor and a master’s degree.

And I’ve done it well; I was in the top 10% of my 2016 Stanford graduating class. Arguably, I got the “best” education possible.

On paper.

My late grandfather, a self-made entrepreneur, loved to brag about all the credentials of his only granddaughter (me). Yet, as I wander through the “real world” and make my home in the Santa Cruz community, I continue to encounter essentials my schooling never touched, opportunities it missed.

My elementary school was in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but all our field trips were to musty indoor museums, never to go put our hands in the mud and pick up trash and learn about how to save the bay. I took a middle school course called “life skills,” but it didn’t teach me how to work a sewing machine or a power tool or to change a tire or block a punch or read a map. I earned a minor in economics, but I never learned about how to responsibly manage my own finances. I have a bachelor’s in cognitive science and a master’s in communication, yet I never learned to identify, address or articulate my own emotions.

These are all “life skills.” Isn’t school the place kids are sent to prepare them for the world? How did so much get missed? Who is expected to pick up the slack?

I guess our school curriculum’s inclusions (and exclusions) work if all “well-educated” kids grow up to be adults who live indoors and hire help for their basic needs, drawing from an infinite tub of dollars while ignoring the insistent tug of feelings.

But that’s not realistic. The natural world is all around us, filling in all the cracks where we have yet to pour concrete; we can’t live apart from it. Eighty percent of us at Stanford got some form of financial aid, so managing money with prudence and avoiding unnecessary expenditures are both essential (even given the salaries that come with Stanford degrees).

And no matter how hard we might try to ignore our emotions, they’re there, and they affect our engagement with each other, with the environment, with ourselves. We’d best learn to manage those, too.

I would have expected my education to do better on all these fronts. Sure, my friends and family have helped supplement my skills, but unevenly … and why is the onus on them? (Or if we expect parents to provide the useful elements of an education, why do kids attend school?)

I’m 29 now. I’ve spent the past seven years filing in the gaps my 18 years in a classroom left.

I’ve been lucky that my workplaces — Fortune 50 companies — have been outstanding learning laboratories. In them, I have met people who are better than me at managing their money and worse at managing their feelings. Both have been instructive.

Marisa Messina, an MBA student at Stanford, wanted to be a surfer, but could never quite get vertical on her board. She...

My tech-company employment actually made learning about financial management an imperative. Immediately, I faced an onslaught of questions I couldn’t answer: whether to opt for a Roth IRA or a regular one (what was an IRA anyway?), how much to contribute to my HSA (which stands for “health savings account,” I learned), what to do with the stock that vested, where to store my salary earnings so they would at least keep pace with inflation. I tried to research online, but it was tough to know what to trust.

Was an article truly from a benevolent blogger, or was it written by a financial advisor operating incognito, subtly urging me to pay him for services I didn’t yet understand? Was my bank’s recommendation that I get another credit card truly a helpful nudge to build my credit score, or just a ploy for more financing fees if I let my bills slip?

I overpaid by several thousand dollars for my truck before I understood what the strings attached to a car loan included. Ouch.

In 2019, I bought a run-down, fixer-upper house in an uncool neighborhood about 45 minutes’ drive from my job in Seattle because the turnkey ones and the closer ones were all out of my price range. Then I stood bewildered in Home Depot, trying to decipher which of the gazillion blades and batteries were right for the saw I had purchased, all the while hoping that said saw was right for cutting studs and drywall sheets. Alas, most of the doorways and window frames in the lower level of that house are still uneven at their edges, souvenirs from my earlier days with a circular saw I had yet to learn to control. I’m counting it as a success because none of my limbs bear jagged scars.

Marisa Messina wanted to surf, until she tried kayaking.
(Via Marisa Messina)

I learned to cook by trial and error. Unfortunately, that’s not a good way to learn when it comes to car maintenance. I can operate jumper cables now — albeit with trepidation — but I am ashamed to admit I’ve still never changed a tire. Man, it would be nice to have practiced that in school so my first go-round isn’t on the side of some forlorn freeway.

I can start a fire and identify various wild berries and mushrooms, but I know those things only thanks to the tutelage from an ex-boyfriend. Thanks to him, I started to develop an awareness of subtleties of Mother Nature I’d overlooked and literally trampled on as a student. Fiddlehead ferns are edible; sword ferns soothe the sting of nettles. Nightshade and Oregon grapes both have tiny purple berries, but nightshade is shiny and toxic, whereas Oregon grapes are matte and delicious. Slowly, I’m learning.

I could probably survive a few days in the wilderness now, but I’m not confident in my skills. I have gleaned enough financial know-how that I don’t worry about my rent autopayments triggering “low balance” in my checking account.

But I’m still struggling with the emotional side. I feel disconnected from my own feelings because I never learned how to handle them.

Certain emotions are socially unacceptable, so we shove them aside. I should be proud to be a Stanford grad, but I go out of my way to avoid mentioning my alma mater because I fear it will make me sound arrogant.

Other emotions — like shame and anger — also feel distant for me, perhaps because I’ve grown up minimizing them. A friend who borrowed my car parked it somewhere dumb and it was broken into, but I told her it was “no big deal” that my backpack (which had all my favorite running gear and my checkbook in it) was stolen. I changed the subject because it was easier to freeze my checking account and replace my athletic wear than it was to constructively communicate anger to her. What if, alongside learning about the 13 colonies, we had learned 13 ways to calm down?

Marisa Messina had a plumb job in Seattle’s tech industry after she graduated from Stanford University. Now, six years...

I wish school had taught me how to invite those feelings, whole, into being — even just by teaching me their names. Those seem like some of the most useful nouns to learn … and yet “exasperation” and “remorse” didn’t show up anywhere in my lessons, except on SAT test-prep flashcards or, once, to underscore the value of prefixes and suffixes.

I’m slowly building my repertoire of “life skills” to augment my classroom knowledge. I spend hours outside, listening to the ocean and journaling my feelings. I’ve enrolled in woodworking workshops and investing seminars and voyaged into the vastness of deserts and forests and mountains that were previously just yellow and green and purple regions on a laminated map. I’m exploring, finding new gaps that need filling.

I’m still pursuing a good education.

Marisa Messina is an avid outdoorswoman who loves bringing people and nature closer together. Currently earning her Master of Business Administration at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (where she’s focusing on sustainable business), Marisa spends her non-class hours working as a fellow for an early-stage venture capital fund, guiding tours with Kayak Connection, exploring new hiking trails and listening to the ocean. Her previous piece for Lookout, “A million dollars or a million otters,” appeared in December.

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