In our culture today, almost nothing is expected of our youth until after they reach adulthood, that glorious day that we have held up for decades, the day one graduates from college. It’s the beautiful day in which all young people are supposed to magically stop wasting all their time, blowing all their money, get their first job, start saving for retirement, start paying their own cell phone bill, car insurance, health insurance, food, rent, and begin paying off that little mountain of student loan debt. They are expected to do this with a perfect job that was going to be handed to them upon graduation. Instead, record numbers are back living with their parents, in debt up to their eyeballs, unemployed or underemployed and completely disillusioned.
If I could go back and advise my younger self, these are ten of the first things I would say.
1. Don’t let anyone rush you into a decision. I learned a long time ago that if someone is trying to rush you into a decision with the hollow threat, you should usually say no. You are going to miss the train and there will never be another one, people will often say. Or this is the last time it’s ever going to be on sale, the salesman says. You need to go to college right away or you will never go, and you will be forever banished to a life of poverty! Wise decisions aren’t made in a rushed, wild panic. This is especially the case when high school students are making important decisions about their lives that will have long lasting implications.
2. Start backwards. Everyone says that you should go to college and then figure out what you want to do the rest of your life. I think students should work until they figure out what they want to do, and only go to college if you absolutely have to for your particular field. Limit your risk. Get an entry level job in the field you want to go into and see if you can stick it out for a year. If you don’t like it and decide to change your mind, you have a pocket full of cash that you’ve saved up over that year instead of 20 grand in student loan debt. Plus you have some job experience.
Ask yourself what you want to spend the rest of your life doing? This is not an easy question and can take years to figure out. If you don’t know for sure, don’t rush off to college and get into debt up to your eyeballs before you have any sort of plan. That would be foolish. If you don’t have a clear goal, or endpoint in mind, then that needs to be first priority. It doesn’t matter how long it takes for you to figure it out. Remember, don’t let anyone pressure you! I was delivering a dryer to a lady about a year ago who had been pressured into law school by her family. She never finished, got married, had a child, and is not at home with 200k of student loan debt. Two hundred thousand dollars. Give yourself time to wrestle with what you really want to do.
3. Stay out of debt. If you are a high school student right now, hopefully you don’t have any debt. Keep it that way as long as possible. 80 years ago, taking on a little debt to get a college degree was usually a fantastic investment. It almost assured a person a great job and a bright future. Because of this, everyone was encouraged to go to college to get the education that would be this magical ticket to success. Then, over the past 80 years, the world has changed beyond anyone’s possible imagination. The internet has revolutionized people’s access to information and you can now learn almost anything you want from anywhere in the world. The internet has upended the marketplace and allows anyone with a product or a service to reach enormous amounts of potential customers, often for free thanks to websites like Craigslist. The internet has exposed students to a world of possible career paths and is slowly destroying the barriers-to-entry in almost of them. And yet, the advice for young students has not changed. Everyone is to go to college after high school.
All the while the price of a college education has increased 1140% since 1978 thanks largely to unlimited, easy access to student loans that the government is doling out. This, coupled with a very poor, and rapidly changing employment market has caused record enrollment over the past few years. This has caused increased competition for fewer and fewer jobs leading many college graduates to be unemployed or underemployed for years following graduation. So, in summary, a bad job market is driving a record number of college students to take out huge amounts of loans that must be repaid, all to compete for fewer jobs that have wages that are either flat or are decreasing. It’s a bubble and it’s going to pop very soon. Everyone but the computer programmers, a handful of engineers and healthcare professionals are going to get the shaft. These students are basically buying homes right before the bubble is going to burst except they absolutely cannot walk away from student loans. They follow you to your grave.
Stay out of debt.
4. Talk to former college graduates. Interview a good range of them. How much money did they spend on their degree, including room and board, books and lost wages because they weren’t working during school. Are they currently employed? Do they have the job they were hoping for? How much money are they making? Then ask them if things are getting better or worse as far as the job market in their field and the competition.
I have a friend that got his physics engineering degree that told me a story a few years ago. He was in his first or second year of school when a former student emailed the entire department, including all the current students and told them that they were all being lied to. There were no jobs waiting for them! There were way too many qualified applicants for a very small number of jobs and these poor students were still years from even graduating. Needless to say, he along with most of his peers are not working in their field of study.
5. Work hard and make money. There is absolutely no reason that a high school student that is willing to work and use their time wisely couldn’t graduate from high school with 50-100 thousand dollars in the bank. Most high school students live at home and have very little, to no expenses. If you can make $250 bucks a week for 4 years, it will add up to almost 50k. I’m going to soon be featuring some high school students that are now running their own appliance business. They are working hard, learning a trade and putting themselves in a great position to succeed in business.
6. Save your money. One of my biggest regrets from my high school years was how much money I wasted. I blew every penny I earned or was given as fast as it came in. All I could think about were the pleasures of that day, and never considered saving money. You might not be able to go to as many movies with your friends, but when it’s all said and done, and you have a giant pile of cash that you’ve saved through the years and can now invest it, you will not regret it. Ask any person in their 20’s or 30’s and ask them if they wish they would have saved more money when they were young.
7. Increase your marketable skills. Do you enjoy sales? Sales is an incredibly valuable marketable skill. Start your own business where you are forced to learn sales, or get a job for a business where you sell their product. Learn everything there is to know about sales. Read books on the subject. Write down what you learn and focus on what makes a good salesman. Do you enjoy programming? Reach out to some programmers and ask them where to start and what some of the up and coming programming languages are. Focus on becoming as proficient as possible in those programming languages. Not all forms of knowledge and not all skills are equally valued in the marketplace. Some are in short supply and are thus valued much, much higher. Take inventory of your strengths and your interests and focus on increasing your skills that will help you succeed.
8. Get as much work experience as possible. Experience is beginning to trump degrees. As much as people hate it, especially those with college degrees, many degrees are carrying less and less weight as the number of college graduates continues to rise at a rapid pace. Employers are starting to care more about what you can show them you are able to do, rather than what a piece of paper says you supposedly know. They want to know that you are able to solve problems and not just memorize facts and pass tests. Get as much work experience as you can, as early as you can.
9. Read as much as possible. Read biographies of great men and women that have gone before you. Read the stories of how the greatest companies were started. Read books about problems that are facing people all over the world. Find people you want to be like and read about their lives, read their books, their blogs or follow them on twitter if they are still alive. Through these channels you can learn things and be challenged by people in ways that you will never get from your peers.
10. Focus on quality of friends, not quantity. Pick a small handful of quality friends to hang out with. View them as investments. Choose wisely. Pick friends that will help you go against the foolish current of your peers. Quality friendships take a lot of time to cultivate, but the work will most likely reward you the rest of your life.
One of the reasons I have been writing on this blog these past years is to help and encourage others navigating the seasons of life. Though it doesn’t do much good to dwell on the past, to this day I regret how I wasted so many of my younger years. Spend the early years of your life as productively as possible. Grow up before you graduate. Have fun, enjoy your life, and make your decisions with the long term implications in mind.
What is one piece of advice that you wish you could go back in time and give to your high school self?