From the very beginning, we have guidance and clear goals. Before we go to grade school, kindergarten, or whichever starting teaching location you would like to use, most of us have clear rules and direction from our parents. Life is simple and we know what to do and what to work towards. As we enter school, this trend continues. Our teachers essentially take the role of parents while we are outside the home. We have clear goals such as achieving good grades and we understand that the way to achieve those goals is to follow directions, study, and keep distractions to a minimum. This trend of having straightforward guidance holds true for over 15 years and into college. One might argue that you have an increased level of freedom and creativity in college but the underlying principle essentially remains the same. You still study and follow directions and most times simply parrot what the professor said during the lectures. This strategy might not win you creativity points but it gets the job done. It allows you to get the grades and get your degree. My experience is only until the Master's degree level so attaining a PHD might be a different story. However, the underlying premise still stands; the tactic that you learned all the way back in kindergarten essentially works without any major problems and gives your life direction, stability, and consistency. For over 20 years, you are essentially given a false sense of comfort and unless you have a truly caring mentor of some sort, you have no idea that once you leave the academic setting, the real world is going to punch you in the face; repeatedly.
And now we come back to the quote in the title. As soon as the comfort, consistency, clarity, and direction of the academic world is pulled out from under us, we enter a world where the training we had been receiving so far (both formally and informally) starts making very little sense and it's hard to tell when we're doing the "right" thing and what the right thing even is. Working hard and following directions no longer seem to do much in a professional setting. If anything, it nearly guarantees that you will be off the radar of anyone influential or important and you will blend into the background. Quality work is rarely acknowledged or even recognized because more often than not, the people who look at the "big picture" are concerned primarily with the quantity of the work accomplished and what the "numbers" show. The quality of the work is irrelevant until it causes complaints or fails an audit. Until then, it's smooth sailing as far as they're concerned.
During all this, you quickly realize that the idea of "grades" is no longer relevant. This system that you were trained to succeed under makes no sense in any real-world situation. So what do you do? Well, your next realization hopefully involves the fact that no one has actually taught you the relevant skills for attaining success outside of a tame academic setting. There were no classes offered on topics such as networking or managing professional relationships and surviving office politics. There were no classes on understanding human irrationality and how real and imperfect humans behave and what are the best ways to work with them and get them to cooperate. You didn't take the time to learn how to market yourself in an attractive and easily palatable way. You don't quite understand why most people seem to be more concerned with being right (even if they're wrong) than actually getting to the underlying truth of the matter. You don't understand why genuine humility and the ability to admit mistakes is so desperately rare. The list of the skills that you should have learned and the realizations you should have made is extensive and I can go on. The overarching point is that you enter the professional world mostly unprepared and somewhat confused.
On top of all this, you were most likely so busy with following directions and trying to chase good grades that you essentially forgot to take some time to think about uncomfortable and difficult questions dealing with life's meaning and what you would like to devote yourself to. No one told you that this would be a very important issue for you to think about as you got older and you need a way to manage such thoughts and accept them as part of who you are as opposed to viewing them as a foreign and uncomfortable presence that is infested with uncertainty.
I have been using the words "you" and "we" throughout this post. But let's face it, I am primarily talking about myself. After I shared the title quote with my brother, he said something that frustrated me. Upon thinking about it more, I guess it's oddly comforting:
Very few people ever know what they're doing or even why they're doing it
I will just leave it at that.