07/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Need for a Life Skills Education in Schools

As part of my business school curriculum, I recently read reflections of former MBA students on their lives 10 years after graduation. Though successful professionally, many depicted themselves as unfulfilled in their personal lives -- some were divorced, others rarely saw their families and few described themselves as "happy." This exercise made me reflect on a stark reality in our society -- in our push to train for professional success, we are neglecting to prepare each generation for the extremely difficult decisions they will face outside of their careers. In essence, we all have two lives -- one professional, one personal -- to juggle. Today, our educational system emphasizes preparation for the former. What is hastily neglected yet desperately needed, however, is a focused attention on the latter.

In my academic career, I have been offered a diverse menu of courses, in topics ranging from finance to dinosaur history. I've also had the opportunity to sing, debate and engage in athletic events. Reflecting on my academic experiences, however, I can count on one hand the number of times I've been engaged in discussions about potential life decisions outside of the career realm.

The reality is few of us are prepared to face the challenges of everyday life -- from how to handle bullies in the playground to selecting the right spouse to deciding when to have children. These issues are critical and often very taxing on each individual, in part because the majority of us have never taken the time to think deeply about these issues prior to their occurrence. When we take a step back and ponder how much time we spend contemplating career compared to personal decisions, it is obvious that more must be done to help our nation's youth prepare for the daunting challenges ahead.

Some may argue that such "life skills" training is not the responsibility of our academic institutions, or that teachers would inevitably impose their own personal views on their students. Ideally families and communities would prioritize these kinds of discussions. In reality, however, this is much more the exception than the rule. If educational institutions do not step in to fill this void, it is likely that students simply will not have a chance to discuss these issues in any organized fashion.

So how can such training be facilitated in an impartial yet effective way? We must encourage educational institutions to present hypothetical cases to students -- a parent who must choose between a new career opportunity or spending more time with his/her children, for example -- and facilitate a class discussion about potential reactions. Doing so on a regular basis -- at the very least once per month -- would encourage conversations about critical life decisions that every student will eventually face in his or her life, and at the very least send a message to students that such questions are vitally important to consider before they become a reality.

Would these discussions definitively result in happier people who more effectively balance work and family? Unclear. But it may evoke more thoughtful consideration when such a life decision presents itself. And that, in my view, would represent significant progress.

Daniel Arrigg Koh is a first-year MBA candidate at Harvard Business School. He holds a B.A. in Government from Harvard College. He can be reached at