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Things I Wish I’d Been Taught in College

From Aryeh Rubin, Targum Shlishi’s Director

I was invited to deliver the Spring Honors College Excellence Lecture to students and faculty at Florida International University during February, 2011. It was my hope that in sharing my experiences and discussing many of the lessons I’ve learned, I would be of some help to students. Highlights of the lecture appear below, condensed from 7,000+ words to under 2,000. The full text of the lecture is available as a pdf here, the second link on this page. I welcome your feedback and comments, but can not guarantee a reply. Please respond to


…The topic I’m speaking on, Things I Wish I’d Been Taught in College, is a subject I’ve thought about for years as part of my ongoing efforts to define my own priorities and life goals. I hope to help you navigate more effectively than I did when I was starting out…

Biographical Information

I’m going to tell you a bit about myself, so you know where I’m coming from. Perhaps most importantly in terms of this topic is that I consider myself a lifelong learner…I view my higher education as a pursuit I’ll be engaged in throughout my life. It didn’t stop the day I received my college diploma…it had not even started at that point. Despite making great friends, my college educational experience could have been better on several fronts. My education taught me to memorize and to regurgitate what I had read, but I wasn’t taught how to learn, how to think, or the value of curiosity. I wasn’t taught how to determine my true priorities, make decisions, or establish goals. In short, I was not educated in the tools for a successful life.

…The point I’m making goes to the heart of what higher education should be – do we attend universities only in order to get job training? I would argue that higher education…should also prepare us for life, it should help us grow and become worthwhile participants in and contributors to our society.

Like some of you, I am the child of immigrants and, like some of you, I was the first in my family to attend university. I grew up in Brooklyn with parents who escaped Hitler’s Europe. My entire formal education was spent in Jewish day schools and then at Yeshiva University, in New York, where I majored in biology…My parents’ plan was for me to go become a doctor, or a dentist, or even a lawyer. They had it figured out. But it didn’t work out that way.

After graduating college I worked for a major corporation…It wasn’t long before I started questioning what I was doing, and wondering about the meaning of it all. I worked for a year, saved money, went to France, bought a car in Paris, and drove across Europe.

For six months I visited the sites of eleven concentration camps in Europe, which at the time was unheard of… That trip was a seminal event in my life – it completely changed my thinking, spurred me to start asking questions, and jump-started me on the path to figuring out my priorities.

… I learned about the value of life and the evils of tyranny. My perspective shifted – I began to see the silliness of many of the banal concerns of everyday life…

I went on to have a successful career in the pharmaceutical publishing industry… I founded a creative publishing business that I sold to a public company when I was 41… At that point in my life I could have taken a substantial chunk of the money and devoted myself to the pursuit of making more money. I did not go that route because for me, that would have been the wrong choice. Fortunately, by that point in my life I finally had my priorities in order.

… I also started a philanthropic foundation and have awarded grants to and sometimes been involved in a hands-on way with more than 300 charitable initiatives….

…what I want to emphasize … is the importance of knowing one’s priorities in life and living according to those priorities. Knowing your priorities means knowing yourself and learning to listen to your intuition. I’ll talk a bit about goal setting, effective decision making, about a good life, the importance of taking time outs, of becoming a life long learner, the value of mentors and good friends, and the downfalls of toxic relationships….

For years, like many people, I struggled with getting to the place of knowing my priorities. I am considered a successful businessman. I could have been even more successful, if by success we mean dollars in the bank. …But I learned – the hard way – that is not the route I want to take for the rest of my life, that net worth does not equal self worth….

Looking back, it’s clear there were periods of my life when I was off course, sometimes for several years. When I was younger I was, as so many of us are, heavily influenced by mass culture and the pressures of consumerism… And for way too long, I cared too much about what other people thought about me…Those many years when I was not in touch with my true priorities is part of growing up. But I think that had I been directed in my reading, had I reached out for guidance to the many potential mentors willing to lend a hand, had I the wherewithal to be brutally honest with myself at an earlier age, perhaps I would have gotten in touch with myself a lot sooner.

Priorities In Life

…What, exactly, do I mean by priorities? Priorities are knowing what is important to you in life – to you, personally, not to society as a whole, or your parents, or your boss, or your partner, or your favourite celebrity…

Take a moment to think about it. What are your priorities? A good job? A great relationship? Meaningful work? Children? Good health? Traveling the world? Having a nice car? Friendship? I hope that after this lecture, you take time to truly think about this. I suggest you write down your priorities…

Consumer culture can act as a scrambling device as we seek our priorities. Most of us who live in the Western world no longer seek to fulfill our needs, but rather to satisfy our wants…

Here’s an example of priorities in practice in my own life. Knowing that family was a priority was key in helping me figure out the kind of work life I wanted to have. I started my business in 1984, and I worked my butt off. My first daughter was born in 1987. That only happens once in your life. I told my wife that even though we’d be taking an estimated 25 percent drop in income, I wanted to leave the office at 5:00. She agreed with me. It didn’t mean that I didn’t work after I left the office each evening – I set up a home office, complete with an early generation fax machine and the like. And then a miracle happened – business tripled when I spent less time at the office. And I got to spend more time with my new baby…


To know what your priorities are, you have to listen to yourself, and that means listening to your intuition, which we also call “gut feeling,” or “instincts.” We often allow our intuition to be drowned out by the noise around us…

I attribute much of my business success to following my gut…We all have these innate skills. Listen to them.

Goal Setting

Achieving the life you want in line with your priorities involves setting goals. Whether it is your education, your career, your family, or something else, put it down in writing as a goal. What do you want to achieve? What kind of person do you want to be?…Committing goals to paper helps give your vision focus and force….

Life: Enviable vs. Admirable

Everyone in this room wants to have a good life. This goes straight back to priorities, because there are different ways of defining what constitutes good. There is a good life that is enviable, full of comfort, happiness, adventure, love, and material well-being. Then there is a different kind of good life, an admirable life, or a life of doing good, of creating something of value beyond yourself, which often involves self-sacrifice. …

We all need to find a way to synthesize the two for ourselves. How much of our energy goes toward nurturing ourselves?…how much of our energy goes to giving back to our community and to our world?

Decision Making

Everything I’ve been talking about is related to the critical importance of decision making…There is a vast amount of literature on critical decision making, and we don’t have much time, so I’ll confine my comments to one key concept that is incredibly important to be aware of, and that is status quo bias. Status quo bias is when we opt to do nothing when faced with a decision. What studies have found is that people tend to stick with the status quo even when it’s damaging to them…


I’ve dedicated my sabbaticals primarily to learning – and it took me some years to truly learn how to learn. I think it’s essential to continue to expand your knowledge, to constantly exercise your brain…Above all else, read…Whether you take any of my other advice or not, it’s vital to continue reading and learning throughout your life. If your only take away from today is the importance of continuing to read with deliberation, then my coming here to speak to you will have been worth it.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help

There’s one more lesson that took me a while to learn and that is, don’t be afraid to ask for help. We have a culture of individualism in this country, of self-reliance, that has good aspects to it but can also hold us back…Don’t wait until you’re older or richer or you’ve finally bought that new car or after the baby is born. The time to get help with something affecting you is now…


It is through knowing ourselves, through establishing our priorities and living according to them, that we avoid becoming cookie-cutter versions of each other. It’s by knowing who we are and being true to ourselves that we stay original, stay creative, and think outside the box.
Every one of you is unique, and every one of you has a unique path and destiny. Staying the course requires vigilance…

I’ll conclude with a few words from one of my personal heroes, the great Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Life is not meaningful…unless it is serving an end beyond itself, unless it is of value to someone else.”

* * * * * * * *
Aryeh Rubin is the founding partner and managing director of The Maot Group, an investment company established in 1991. Previously, he was the publisher of the New York–based KSF Group, a medical publishing company. Mr. Rubin is also the founder and director of Targum Shlishi, a foundation dedicated to fostering positive change in the Jewish world.

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