An Open Letter to High School Seniors

Dear High School Senior,

I know it doesn’t seem like it right now, but you’re almost done.  You’ve got two more short months left in 2017, and about five more to go once the calendar turns.  Then you’re free!  No more high school drama (except it’ll always be there), no more people telling you what to do at every turn (except they still will), and especially no more procrastinating on projects you hate anyway (except… well, just wait).  It’s been 10 years since I was in your shoes, but I hope you’ll allow me to share some unsolicited advice for these next few months and years of your life.

College Isn’t a Magic Formula for Success

We all know the equation.  Go to school + get a good job = profit.  If you don’t go to school, you can’t get a good job, right?  Therefore, we tell everyone that college is basically a non-negotiable, and it doesn’t matter what the cost is as long as you go.  But here’s the thing: that’s increasingly just not true, and even when it is true, the cost is way more of a factor than it was when that equation was written.  According to Business News Daily, here are the five best job industries in 2017, based on growth, pay, and availability: Business/Finance, Information Technology, Healthcare, Sales, and Skilled Trades.  Sure, you need a degree for a lot of those positions, but not for all of them, and certainly not a four-year degree.  And did you notice the last one?  Skilled trades.  That means like plumbers, electricians, HVAC techs, the kinds of jobs where you get your hands dirty and make a ton of money.  In fact, skilled trades had the highest job growth out of any of the categories on that list, and it even beat out Sales in terms of pay.  Tradesmen (and women) with years of experience make extremely comfortable salaries, will always be needed, and typically go to trade school for two years, plus ongoing certification programs.

If you do decide that school is the right choice for you, please understand that college has become much more of a commodity than it was when your parents lived in the dorms.  Employers these days don’t care about where you went as much as they do about what you did when you were there.  What was your GPA?  Did you do any extra-curricular activities (business-appropriate, of course)?  Do you actually have a handle on the material that the college says you learned?  How can you differentiate yourself from all the other students you graduated with, not just at your school, but nationwide?  With all this in mind, maybe you can start to see why going to a cheaper, local college that you can excel at is better than barely floating through a “prestigious” university that you’ll be paying for your entire adult life.

And finally, if you decide to go to college, please do everything humanly possible to avoid student loans.  Loans obviously have to be repaid.  If you think about it, taking out a loan before you have the money to pay it back is one of the riskiest things you can do, because you have no guarantee that income will materialize.  Take my own life as an example.  I was going to a relatively cheap, state college for a business degree, with the plan that my current employer would reimburse me after I graduated.  I took out a ton of loans, got halfway through the degree, then realized their “online” program wasn’t entirely online.  My options were to drive two hours every day for a full course load on top of working full time (impossible) or drop out.  So, I chose to drop out.  And then through a set of circumstances we don’t have time to discuss here, I ended up leaving my job as well, leaving that reimbursement behind with it.  So now, I’ve been paying student loans for the last 5 years for a degree I don’t have that was meant to advance a career I’m no longer in.  Life throws you curveballs.  Don’t try running to first before you’ve even swung at the pitch.

If you need help searching for scholarships, check out Scholarship Informer.  If you need help with the FAFSA, head over to Anthony O’Neal’s site.  If you need extra money, check out Craigslist or local businesses for weekend or summer jobs.  No one’s going to care if you spend your summers before and during college slinging pizzas, but they’ll be super impressed if you get to keep all your income after you graduate.  The point is, while going to school without loans is definitely a challenge, it’s not impossible.  And you’re up for a challenge, right?  Now is the time to start applying for scholarships, lining up financial aid (not loans), and socking away every dollar you can scrounge up to get through college and start your adult life on the best terms possible.

Chase Your Passion, but Recognize Your Talent

Everyone grows up being told they can be whatever they want to be in life.  My kindergarten class was full of future Presidents, astronauts, rock stars, and pro football players.  Guess how many actually became what they wanted to be in kindergarten?  Okay, I actually do know one girl from my high school class that’s making quite a splash in the blues music scene, but she’s the exception to this rule.  Building wealth comes from following your passion, sure, but it also comes from marrying that passion with talent.  Think of it like this: you know how to drive your car, and you love driving it.  When you’re in your car, you’re in your own world where you can go wherever you want and no one can hear you belting out the ’90s boy band pop like a crazy person.  You wash it every week, and you love showing it off.  But do you know how to rebuild the engine if you had to?  Probably not, so you’d take it to someone who was good at that and pay them money for a skill they have that you need.  We can’t all be at the top of every pyramid, but we can exercise our unique, God-given talents in a way that’s beneficial for society and profitable for our families.  Maybe aim your sights a little lower from the astronomical to the still-challenging-but-absolutely-doable.  If you want to be President, start out with your city council.  Move on to state government.  Even if you never get to the Oval Office, you still have a career that is (hopefully) helping the people you represent.  Pro sports is your thing?  Listen.  It’s a tough gig, both before tryouts and once (if) you make the team.  By all means, try for your goals, but have a backup plan just in case.  Use that competitive drive and ability to play well with others to lead teams in other arenas.  Maybe you start up a youth league.  Maybe you go into athletic training.  You don’t have to give up your passion just because your talent isn’t quite where you’d hoped it would be.

This might sound a little Debbie Downerish, but it’s actually kind of freeing.  You don’t have to be the best, or the most famous, or the champion of everything in order to be successful.  You just have to be valuable.  Most of the time, our passions and our talents aren’t too far apart.  If you like computers, and always get excited when new tech comes out, you probably have at least a little bit of a knack for getting them to work properly.  You know who doesn’t like computers and can’t understand why theirs freezes every time they launch an app?  Lots of people.  Lots of people that will pay to have someone else fix their problem.  The key is getting to that sweet spot where you are doing something that you love to do, and you know you’re good at doing it.  When you’re in the sweet spot, you can help other people who aren’t as good as you, make money, and succeed.

If you decide to go to college, find a major that you’re interested in, but also has value in the job market.  Majoring in art history or a foreign language might be fun while you’re taking the classes, but as soon as you walk across the stage, the fun stops if you can’t find a job.  Majoring in something like business with a minor in your passion will make you more marketable while still allowing you to pursue your dream job.  Being able to identify a true Monet or hold a fluent conversation with someone in Welsh is a great skill to have, but most companies just don’t have a need for that skill alone.


Don’t Stop Learning

Wherever your route after high school takes you, please don’t coast the rest of your way through life.  Just because you don’t have any more teachers nagging you about your homework (the ones in college don’t care if you do it or not, they get paid the same either way) doesn’t mean you’re an expert on everything.  You’ve got a solid understanding on a lot of things, for sure, but there’s always something more to learn, some new way to develop yourself as a person, some weird thing about another part of the world you haven’t heard yet.  My personal goal is to read one non-fiction book a month.  I don’t always meet that goal, but the books I read stick with me and each one changes me just a little bit.  You know what the best part about reading is when it’s not for an assignment?  You don’t have to finish them!  I always hated being told what to read and when to read it in school, so I quit reading completely for years after I graduated.  But then I realized that I could read what I wanted to read, I could pass what I wanted to pass on, and ultimately, the only person I was hurting by choosing to believe I already knew everything was myself.  There are so many great books out there from people that are great at helping other people develop themselves (goes back to that sweet spot thing, right?), and they’re passionate about helping you get better at whatever you want to get better at.  Why not take advantage of that help?  To make it all even better, remember the library?  It’s still around!  Everything there is free, and you can nerd out to your heart’s content learning all the things.

Even if reading really just isn’t your thing, we have the magical internet.  There are video courses, podcasts, audio lectures, and even YouTube filled with people showing you how to do everything from making spaghetti to changing your oil to learning how to code.  Whatever your learning style, find a teacher that suits you, and keep learning.  We live in a world that’s always changing and more complex than you could ever imagine.  Don’t get so wrapped up in your own little bubble that you miss it.  Here are just a few sites to get you started on making the most of that brain of yours:

  • Khan Academy – If you realize that maybe there’s one subject in school you should have paid a little more attention to, don’t worry. You can head to Khan Academy and go over just about any subject you can think of until it really clicks.  Keep track of your progress and earn badges in the process!
  • Coursera – Looking for something a little more intense? Coursera has more advanced courses for things like machine learning and cryptography, or even more abstract concepts like negotiating business deals and game theory.
  • Codecademy – If you think you might want to try your hand at computer programming, Codecademy is a great place to get your feet wet. They offer introductions to several different languages, and make learning them fun with projects you can do yourself, all in a browser!
  • TEDtalks – Listening more your thing? TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) has short videos, usually 5-20 minutes in length, of mini lectures given by people on all sorts of different subjects.  They’re not all by obscure people you’ve never heard of, either.  Adam Driver, David Blaine, Monica Lewinski (yep, that one), Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and even Ze Frank have all given TEDtalks.

I know that was a lot.  But I hope you’ll at least consider what I’ve said.  I want better for you than I wanted for myself.  When I graduated high school, I went with the flow, I did what everyone else seemed to be doing.  But a lot of us are pretty much where we were ten years ago.  Don’t be like us.  Push yourself, challenge the ideas of what you’re “supposed” to do, and give Future You as much opportunity as you can.  Future You (and Future You’s family) will thank you.

2 thoughts on “An Open Letter to High School Seniors

  1. Great advice. Passion isn’t enough but I’d argue passion and talent aren’t either. I don’t care how good a singer or artist someone is the chances of making a high income from either are very very low. It is far better to go the skilled trade route or a STEM college major like engineering or a health sciences advanced degree like APN, CRNA or MD and to keep the art/music as a hobby/side gig. I’m just basing that on how many performers and artists I’ve rode with on Uber and had serve me as wait staff. I’ve never yet had an engineer pick me up in a taxi or take my drink order. A whole lot of passion and dreams are in areas with terrible returns on investment. If being a starving artist is acceptable then that’s a good choice but if you prefer financial independence then it is such a long shot.

    1. That’s true, and maybe I should have thrown “opportunity” in there, as well. Passion, talent, wisdom, and opportunity all need to come together if the perfect storm of success is going to take place.

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