Ring the bell. School’s back in …

In my recent questions column, our own dagblogger Nebton says the biggest risk he ever took was to go to graduate school after 30.

With official unemployment nearing double digits (and the unofficial number much higher), a lot of people looking for something to do are following Nebton’s example and going back to school.

Now financially, going back to school to get another, or more advanced degree, doesn’t often pay off since the cost can be so high and the potential benefits often rather low. There are probably more productive ways to spend your time in a recession than going back to school. But still, who can blame these people?

I know I for one miss school a good deal. The friends and the camaraderie, the laid-back environment and the relative lack of responsibilities, the eclectic subject matter and the extracurricular activities. I miss it all (except for homework, of course, which still ranks up there as one of life’s more torturous inventions)

But perhaps what I miss most about school is the constant sense of accomplishment. School is designed in such a way that you always feel like you’re progressing toward something. To the next level of math, to a more complicated version of French, to the next grade, to the next placement test, to the next degree. It’s all neatly structured, with few opportunities for shortcuts and side paths. And all along the way, you’re being judged and graded. You know where you stand in school and the measurements for success are rather simple. And being smart was enough.

In the real life, it isn’t quite like that. It’s easy to feel adrift. Am I doing the right things? Am I progressing? Am I building a life that will matter? Do I know where I want to go and how to get there?

Now I happen to have a job – stock picking – where I actually do get graded constantly (the market declares its verdict every day and investors have little patience for poor performance that extends much beyond a year).

But even still, it’s not quite the same because there are so many things that feel out of my control. I know there’s been times where I’ve never worked harder and the stocks I picked stank up the joint, and other times where I decided to take it easier and couldn’t miss.

Some of that discrepancy is probably due to the fact that investing is more of an art than a science, and if you do enough research you can always find a reason not to buy a stock (ie mistaking the trees for the forest), but there are times when I question whether anyone can beat the market consistently enough to make a difference. There’s a whole pretty well-accepted theory out there in my line of business – the Random Walk – that says it’s darn near impossible to beat the market consistently.

In school there were certainly times when I got very good grades despite doing as little work as possible (that describes much of my tenure in fact), but I rarely felt I got a grade I didn’t deserve, in that if I knew the material I did well. In the ‘real world’ I feel like I get ‘grades’ I don’t deserve all the time, and the standards for success are so much more complicated – is it personal happiness, intellectual fulfillment, money, job title, goodwill, friends, lovers???

I want to know, please just tell me how to get on the Honor Roll.

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