Everything I didn’t learn at school

Zaha BUilding

Having completed my second year of Architecture School, I think it has become a tradition for me to write something after ending a semester or a project. As I always try to do, a process of reflection is always important, because you never learn everything in one moment, from one person, or from any particular situation. It often takes a dissection of your understanding of “what just happened” to truly learn holistically from a given situation. If I had to define this year’s overarching lesson, it’s just that – you don’t learn everything from the places you’d expect. Rather, there is a lesson to be learned from every situation, and freeing my mind to the point of being able to identify those lessons has been key for me this year.

I may be generalizing slightly, but I think it’s safe to say that to some degree, every university student is governed by a series of systems. I’ll actually go further, and say that every member of society is governed by a series of systems. While this is a theme written about extensively over the years by the likes of George Orwell, what really resonated with me this year over others has been my direct realization of this through my interactions with professors, peers, and friends. It’s one thing to read 1984 and dissect it in a classroom context, but what happens when you compare your own real life surroundings to such a disturbing reality? While my experiences at university are far less directly “dark” than those in 1984, the phenomenon of the “system” is incredibly fitting. If you really think about how educational institutions work, you begin to realize a subconscious structure of hierarchy that exists. We, the students, trust them, the faculty, with everything that they say and tell us about the topic of study. And while I am not trying to discredit professors, it dawned on me this semester just how much I had “glorified” their knowledge, subconsciously suppressing my own beliefs and opinions because I didn’t have a doctorate degree… yet.

What I began to realize is that the way we learn is very much like storytelling. We hear a story and take it for what it is. I never questioned the bedtime stories I was told. This bothered me. There had to be more to growing up than simply retelling a story somebody had told me. What if the story I was told was wrong? What if I told somebody else that wrong story who continued to tell someone else…? It was a harsh reality that hit me suddenly but once it did I began to change my attitude towards how I viewed my education. I became increasingly interested in the things I was learning outside of school. The “life lessons” which can’t be taught in a classroom. The harsh truths of failure and loss, or the triumphs of victory and success. This semester I truly realized that you can’t learn that in a classroom.

I reached out to many of my peers and asked a simple question. “What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned since graduating high school?” The responses I got were incredible. Not only did I learn a lot about each person, but not a single one of the people I asked listed anything they had learned in school. The most valuable lessons people learned had to do with real life situations. They had to do with how to react to fake friends. They had to do with how to bounce back from failure. Many spoke about the importance of balance in our lives. Others spoke to the importance of surrounding ourselves with people that are healthy for us to be around. In short, the most valuable lessons were not things they had learned in school.

This result fascinated me. The truth is that we often lose ourselves in the systems that we perceive govern our lives, and to some extent, they really do… if we let them. The process of human growth is not something that you can quantify. There is no published standard for humility and humanity, yet somehow we are all capable of knowing what things matter to us. This year has been about more than what I learned from my professors. It has been about what I have learned from living my life, reflecting on it, and hearing the stories of my peers as they go through theirs. The lesson is to constantly ask ourselves how to hear more stories, as in that process we truly grow. As a generation, we are on the brink of the rest of our lives, and it is up to us to define the paths we want to follow. I always tell myself that you can never see where a highway ends, but somehow it always gets you to your destination. Live your life being conscious of the ride. Take a moment to reflect on something that is not school related. Allow yourself the freedom to take a break from your 25 page research paper and go stand under a waterfall. Believe in your ability to learn from living, not just from sitting in a lecture hall.

As for the responses to the question that I circulated, I am working on finding a way to best express them. There are a lot and I do not want to overlook any of them. Stay tuned to hear them and if you have an answer of your own, please tell me in the comments!

“What is the most valuable thing you learned since graduating high school?”

More to come from ZULUECHO this summer. Several projects are in the works as well as new products for ZULUECHO Collection. As always, please like, subscribe, share and comment as I would love to hear your stories!

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Tota says:

    Taking time to reflect and really digest new information is always a critical aspect of learning and growing as a person. I think you did a wonderful job of synthesizing a lot of the things you learned into a series of lesson that everyone can relate to. In particular, glorifying the knowledge of professors is something that can get in our own way as students because we tend to forget there are several truths, not just the one we’re being taught. Through several discussions in theory, our professor often encouraged us to look at several theories and practices, to not only be exposed to different types of ways but rather so we can synthesize our own way of thinking by grabbing bits and pieces from all disciplines. It’s not too difficult to believe we, as student, glorify professors because of their knowledge. I think in a way we should look up to them, maybe not to the point of suppressing our own beliefs. But at this point in our architectural careers/education it is more of our intuitions, rather than beliefs, that we really rely on. Beliefs, i think, should be built on years of experience and practice; something we are years away from establishing. And along those lines, i do not whole heartedly agree with your analogy of learning to storytelling. Maybe there is an underlying story in all of them but a different lesson to be learned from every iteration. Every person, who has a different background can put their own understanding into the story. An immediate example that comes to mind is religion. Christianity, for example, has so many sects and branches from what originated from one book. But who’s to say who is wrong because to them they are interpreting in their own right. So maybe we do not have to look at it as a story that is being told ‘wrong’ but rather ask what every person took away from the story. Trying to think through my own thoughts, so might have gone off tangent. But definitely one of your best posts. Keep it up!


    1. Tota thank you for your response!

      I especially appreciate your differentiation between “belief” and “intuition”. It is a good distinction, and while I agree that an element of belief is tied with experience and practice, there is, I believe, a balance that has to be reached.

      Your comparison to religion here becomes extremely interesting. One thing I don’t think you mentioned is that what makes religion fundamentally different than education is that religion involves faith. Faith is the belief in something that is not physically tangible. That to me is the difference.
      Thanks for your comments!


  2. Michael Montalvo says:

    There is so much to break down here from a top quality post by Z | E.

    Now, I agree with 99% of the ideas/ philosophy mentioned here. I believe it to be a fact, that, in order to get a grip on this thing called life we must observe, reflect, and respond to our challenges and accomplishments. Finding a balance to be “in the moment” all the while, taking the appropriate time to, “look in the mirror”. To be the actor/actress – as well as the director of your life. We need to plan and execute. One thing I would say is the most important lesson to learn when you get OUT of college is that you have nobody telling you what to do AFTER your “day” job. One has to be self-motivated in order to thrive in his or her respective area of interest. It does not even have to be what you are currently working as a profession. A mistake made by many out of college is when a person accepts a reality they conform to, due to societal norms. Thinking to yourself, “I must take this job because it will give me “real” world experience. Even though I really want to be doing ____ (insert blank)” This is not okay.

    REMOVE YOURSELF from this thought that, “if I do not get a job after college then my life is ruined.” An individual needs to have more self-respect. If an individual chooses to go to work every day, just in exchange for monetary value alone, just to set up a future unknown. Then that individual will surely look back saying, “I wish I could’ve…”

    Be better.

    Take the time while in school to figure out yourself. Most college kids do not know what that is… the people studying at The Syracuse University School of Architecture are a minority of people who for the most part… LOVE what they do! Otherwise, they would transfer out. I am not saying you will not think of quitting something you love, because I almost stopped what I have loved multiple times. THE FACT, that you stick with it and endure with the vision of a better life on the other side is what makes a 65-year-old you, step back and say, “I am glad I stuck it out.” So for the young ones out there, I know it is hard, but think ahead to when you are 65…

    Will you look back and thank yourself for what you go through every day?

    Food for thought.


    1. Hi Michael and thanks for your response!

      I think it’s really interesting that you mention the post college graduation phenomenon. The ability to stay self motivated without the pressure of grades and exams is something that truly begins to define character. It starts to build up a work ethic towards more than just your professional life but also towards your passions. When you can follow that work ethic into your passions then they begin to come to fruition. That determination carries into your professional practice and begins to improve all elements of your life.


  3. Dale Bennett says:

    Positioning yourself as a founder of a clothing line while a University Sophomore already distinguishes you as NOT consistently “glorifying “ just what streams from Professors’ teachings. Bravo there!
    But it’s intetesting you bring Orwell and 1984 onto the stage when, in today’s lecture halls and administration offices on campuses, students are discovering that truth is not always easy to find unless you are willing to listen to your own and bring on those questions you are asking.

    I hear your comments about storytelling, although it make take many years after hearing one to deeply understand how it applies to your life. Truths set in metaphorical plot and tone are powerful stuff. But you know that already!

    As ever and always, your posts are impressive featuring all the insight and changes where your thinking lives. You mentioned standing under waterfalls as an elixir to becoming too focused on one thing. I’ve thought about that image every day since I read your post. I wholeheartedly agree, and if I could find a natural one here in the City, I’d be there. But there are metaphorical waterfalls all over this island so I’m not worried. Go find all of them this summer, Zain!


    Ms. B.


    1. Hello Ms. B,

      Thank you for your response! The classroom today is truly shifting. Or, maybe it is simply the minds of the students that are evolving… or perhaps both.

      Thank you for your continued support!


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