In about a month, we will again be in the graduation season – high school, college or maybe even preschool. Most of you will attend a graduation, open house or other event celebrating the graduation. Let’s pause to think about the meaning of graduation.

Milligan bob
Senior Consultant / Dairy Strategies LLC
Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornel...

Graduations are wonderful occasions and truly should be celebrated. Graduations should be viewed as mileposts in a lifelong educational journey. Unfortunately, often they are viewed as an end of learning.

Let me begin by sharing a portion of what I wrote to my nephew upon his graduation from Purdue University:

Congratulations on your success at Purdue culminating in graduation today.

Let me begin by sharing an experience I often recite in my presentations. A number of years ago on the last day of spring classes (at Cornell University), I walked out of my office as three graduating seniors, who I knew, walked toward me.


They were whooping and hollering; one of them shouted “Yippee; we will never have to go to class again!” They all joined in the chorus.

That has always bothered me. I was happy they were celebrating their graduation. What bothered me was that we had excited them so much about learning that they never wanted to learn again. Shame on us.

In a similar vein, when I was speaking at the Purdue Top Producer workshop a couple of years ago, there was a panel discussion on intergenerational business transfer. What seemed to emerge from the discussion was that the senior generation had sent their sons and daughters to Purdue to learn what they needed for that generation.

The attitude embodied in these incidences will only lead to failure in today’s world. The greatest competitive advantage for any industry or any business, small or large, is continuing growth and development of its people.

In today’s turbulent, fast-changing world, growth in our career and success in our current position requires continuous learning.

I will leave the discussion of continuing one’s classroom education to another article. Here we focus on what I call the classroom of life. I think we have all heard the quotation about a 20-year employee: “Does he have 20 years’ experience or one year’s experience repeated 20 times?”

The 20 years’ experience requires enrollment in the classroom of life, enabling continuous personal growth. The classroom of life requires us to do four things as we proceed in our job and in our life:

  1. Be observant. Continuously focusing on and analyzing what is happening around us enables us to see opportunities for improvement and proactively respond to current or potential problems. Being observant applies both to things – cows and crops – and people.

  2. Reflection. We are all so busy, we have little time to think and reflect. Experts refer to this as the shrinking of the “margin” in our work and private lives. “Margin” being the difference between the time available and the committed time. To enroll in the classroom of life, our lives must have time to think and reflect.

    For me, a prime reflection time is while I exercise. I can make plans, outline articles (the classroom of life idea was created here) and resolve issues. You must find time for reflection to succeed in the classroom of life. When is your reflecting time?

  3. “Autopsies.” I am not talking about human autopsies that we see on CSI or Bones – but rather a close cousin. A classroom of life autopsy is taking the time after an event to individually or as a team go back and analyze what worked and could be improved and make plans for the event to continuously improve.

    Perhaps “after-action review” is a better title than “autopsy.” After-action review can be completed on a major event, like planting or harvesting, or on smaller events, like each time an animal dies or after each ration change.

  4. Professional development. The classroom of life must be supplemented by continuing education activities, including subscribing to online and print materials, enrolling in online learning opportunities, working with a coach or mentor and returning to the classroom in seminars, workshops or even another degree-generating program.

    The beauty of the classroom of life is that your observations, reflections and autopsies will provide ample insights to provide direction for your professional development.

Enrollment in the classroom of life is not automatic. You must make a conscious, proactive choice to focus on continuing learning and growth – be observant, reflection, “autopsies” and professional development.

Whether a graduate, an owner or an employee, I strongly encourage you to enroll or re-energize your efforts in the classroom of life.

The beauty of the classroom of life is that it will increase both your success and also your zest for life, your passion for what you are doing and your enjoyment of relationships with people around you. Enroll now in the classroom of life!  PD

Bob is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University.