What I Would Tell A High-School Graduate Today

I’ve often wondered, if I were asked to deliver a graduation speech to high school students today, what I would say to them?

The first thing I would warn them about are the personal land mines that lay ahead for young people graduating from high school, which are many.  Among these adult pitfalls are:

  • 1 in 8 will abuse alcohol and become alcoholics.
  • Another 10% will end up using illicit drugs; another 3% will get hooked on prescription drugs (opioids most likely). Be aware, alcohol and drug abusers comprise most of the homeless population.
  • Among those who marry, 40-50% will end up in the anguish of divorce.

Can students learn to navigate around these landmines that may destroy their lives?  Can they be taught to weather a crisis or failure in their lives without resorting to stimulants or sedatives?  What did they learn in school or from their parents, teachers or youth leaders to see their way through these pitfalls of adulthood?  Maybe nothing.

What you learn today may not apply to tomorrow

A modern high school degree or even a college diploma may be of little help in carving out a future.  We live in an age of information and the global volume of inforamtion will grow from ~18,000 to ~40,000 exabytes annually by the year 2020.  Whatever textbooks will be used in college, they will be years behind current knowledge.   If you can imagine, students entering college may have to prepare for a job that doesn’t exist yet!  The days of working a lifetime at one job and receiving a wristwatch for long-term service are gone.  Entrepreneur James Altucher says we will have 14 different careers before we retire.

Time to buy old US gold coins

What must a student learn then?

What kind of skills can one develop in a job market driven by fast-developing technology?  Answer: learn how to be a problem solver.  If you can solve problems, any company will hire you regardless of the industry it is in.

You value may be determined by supply and demand

A new entrant in the job marketplace needs to know their value is determined by supply versus demand.  Many people can clean homes, lay bricks, clerk at a store, wash windows, and do gardening.  These are low paid jobs because they require few skills and almost anybody can do them.  You make more money if what you do can only be done by a few.  Be aware, there may even be a glut of highly trained people such as engineers.  The more who qualify for a job the less they will be paid.

Working towards career dead ends

You may be on a track towards a career dead end and not even know it.

After the company you work for lays you off in middle age because they don’t want to be on the hook for your retirement check, you may be suddenly confronted with the fact you are too old to get hired by anybody and not ready to start your own business.  Don’t get caught flat-footed half way into your career years.

Working for someone else’s success

For example, ~1992 I was at a career turning point.  I had worked for other companies, made them millions and never shared in the profits.  In one instance the company I was working for had just introduced the world’s first ultraviolet prescription eyeglass lens.  Working without any company authorization, I contacted CNN in Atlanta about this novel development and news about it was aired on TV repeatedly during the Optical Manufacturers Assn. meeting there that year.  The stock in the company soared from $6 to $23.  Company management kept that fact hidden from me.   Eventually jealousy from other managers in the company pushed me out and I found myself looking for another job.

The next company I worked for I sold cataract lens implants and I introduced a value-added sales approach that found end users (cataract patients) for eye doctors who used the company’s product.  The company grew to $40 million in sales and sold to an overseas entity for $200+ million dollars.  But I didn’t share in any of that booty either.

Venturing out on your own without capital.

So it was time to venture out on my own, the major problem with that being lack of capital to do anything with my ideas.  You can have a lot of inventions, but they may go nowhere without capital.

Ah, someone tells you to patent your ideas to protect them.  But there are no patent police and according to the American Intellectual Property Law Association, the average patent litigation costs over $1 million.  Big companies can run over you and there may be nothing you can do about it.

Making yourself valuable

At that turning point I taught myself about nutrition at a time when there was an explosion in published research that is still ongoing.  A year of studying published reports on nutrition put me ahead of all of the nutritionists who had graduated with degrees years ago.  I had to bury my head in reading scientific journals to keep up, but I made myself valuable to the point where others were calling to seek answers no one else could provide.  I became a spokesperson for a dietary supplement company (Purity Products) and I am heard today talking about vitamin supplements on 500 radio stations nationally every weekend.

The productivity trap and the importance of passive income

Which leads to another important point.  After finding a safety net income, think about generating passive income.  Doctors, dentists, psychologists, massage therapists, house painters, roofers, all exist in a productivity trap.  To make more money they have to see more clients everyday.

To keep up with inflation (~6% at the present time – source ShadowStats.com*), six-percent more clients per annum must be seen which eventually reaches the point of burnout.  To achieve high productivity and avoid burnout one must learn to (a) delegate to achieve higher productivity; (b) or open other offices and hire other professionals to work for you; or (c) write a book or invent something that will generate passive income.

* By the way, learning you must produce a yield greater than the rate of inflation is another lesson not taught in college.

Barbara Streisand sings a song, it is taped, and she doesn’t have to sing it again.  Passive income will provide you with the financial freedom you desire.  Did any college professor ever advise you about generating passive income?

Automation may make you obsolete

Americans may not have the option to just become a truck driver or take a manufacturing job to earn a decent living.  Maybe those young Americans who think they can make a career out of working at McDonald’s had better think about those automated kiosks McDonald’s recently introduced.

When I was in junior high school (now called middle school) in the 1950s I took a test that said I was best suited to become a farmer.  However, automation resulted in a steep decline in family farms beginning about the same time I was born in 1945.  Lesson: don’t rely on advice that is valid today but may not be tomorrow.  What kinds of employment changes lay ahead for young Americans today?

One obvious change would be driverless vehicles that may be operated by automobile makers using computer systems like Uber and Lyft.  Maybe 10-20% of Americans will own their cars and the rest will just summon a car via cell phone.  By the way, grocery shopping may be eliminated as entities like Amazon will deliver.  This means fewer or no retail grocery stores.  Driverless vehicles also means millions of cars would be maintained and repaired by automobile manufacturers and their dealers, thus eliminating a lot of auto parts stores, radiator and muffler shops, even tire stores.  Today’s graduates had better be thinking ahead.  Career counselors in high school and college are of little help here.

So what should high school graduates set out to learn?

I maintain that what young students learn in higher education today may be of little value.  Yes, you need to know how to write, read and do math.  But even some of that is being done by computers.

Focus on the unseen

I would advise high school graduates today to focus on the unseen, the intangibles, the adherence to principles and personal skills that are universal to any job. You don’t necessarily learn these in college.

There are a number of articles available online that question whether young Americans today should even seek a college education.

James Altucher points out some poignant aspects of a college education.  If you want a lot of friends your same age, if you want to drink a lot of alcohol and you want a lot of sex, college is the meeting place for you!  Altucher advises young people to do the following:

  • Study many things. Study things you enjoy. If you don’t enjoy anything, work on a charity or travel the world (yes, this costs money but it’s cheaper than college).
  • Work at a job. If you want to be a doctor, work at a hospital and see if you really enjoy it.
  • Read every day. Five pages a day.

Altucher advises young Americans not to fall for the “script that society gives you.”  Altucher lists a number of essential skills needed to make money that they don’t teach you in college.  They are: (a) how to sell; (2) how to negotiate; (3) how to increase productivity; (4) how to handle failure that turns into a new beginning; (5) how to network (be a leader).

Motivational speaker Dr. Rick Rigsby can be heard at a graduation speech talking about the best advice he ever got – from a third-grade dropout, his father.  His father taught him to combine knowledge and wisdom.  Rigsby quotes Mark Twain who said: “I never allowed my schooling to get in the way of my education.”

Aim high

Rigsby’s father was self-taught.  He taught himself how to read and write.  His father quoted Michaelangelo:  “I don’t have a problem if you aim high and miss, but I’m going to have a real issue if you aim low and hit.”

When my son was 9-years old attending a private school, all of the students were instructed to write on a large cardboard what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Each child displayed their career choice to parents in the audience.  All of the boys selected policeman, fireman or military, except one, my son.  He held up his card. It said: “Inventor.”  Shame on those teachers for not challenging those students to aim high and just take a government job.

Young people who visit my office to repair a copy machine or fix a computer or plug a broken water pipe, I show them a check for $1 million I once earned.  I show it to them and say, you know more than I did when I was your age.  What not aim high and see if you can earn one of these?”

When teachers take responsibility for their students’ performance

I recently had occasion to speak with Richard Garcia, a math tutor who has had great success in teaching the unteachable – kids who can’t for various reasons learn.

Says Mr. Garcia: “I went to a conference called NO EXCUSES UNIVERSITY.  We were challenged to eliminate any excuses kids bring to school.  Some excuses for non-performance are legitimate, like no one to help them with homework. The only excuse that was acceptable were kids with learning handicaps.”

“I read an article on leadership.  That article said that leaders need to talk about their failures in life.  I realized I was not the teacher my students needed.  I realized I was failing my kids.”  Their bad grades were a measure of my failed instruction.

But going from failure to success may not be that obvious.  We can be off track says Mr. Garcia.  “A drunk man looks for his lost keys, not where he dropped them but where the light is.”

“That was the turning point.  I made a pact with myself I’m going to get these kids to be proficient in mathematics, regardless of the circumstances.”

“I stopped trying to get these kids to learn math facts by rote and repetition and began to teach them how to solve math problems.” This led to development of Basic Math Solutions, a course for homeschooled students.  I learned that kids first needed to learn to count in their heads.  We presume they know how.  Many don’t.  Numbers are only an abstract representation of a quantity of something.

Research backs up Mr. Garcia’s teaching.  A study published in 2011 reveals “1st graders first need to understand numbers and the quantities those numbers represent.”  Students who know basic math facts progress faster.

Let them fail

Mr. Garcia says: “Leaders should not talk about present failures.  They should be talking about failures in the past and how they got back up off the mat once they were down and out.”

He continues: “I think it is a harmful thing that schools are attempting to make perfect kids.  That it is not OK to fail… The pressure should be on the teachers, not the kids.  We’re not letting them just be kids.”

Mr. Rigsby says to his children: “I’m worried that you won’t fail from time to time.”

Applying what he learned to big business

Mr. Garcia was invited to speak to managers at a very large company.  As he entered the company headquarters he was in awe at all of its largesse.  Feeling intimidated, he asked himself, what could he have to share with a company with such large resources at hand?

He says: “Yet I knew what I had to say had value to that company.”  Mr. Garcia wanted to teach them that: “whatever they make significant in their lives makes them significant.”

“I started by asking the company managers what the word significant means to them?  I listened to their answers.  By doing so, I made what they said SIGNIFICANT.  They became significant.”

Mr. Garcia went on to say to his audience that day: He said: I know some of you are spinning your wheels.  You just come to work and go home.  Others tell you what to do.  Your boss is the force behind you.  Everything is OK when things are rolling downhill.  The thing that makes a difference is that you need to believe what you do matters.”

He went on to share his own failures.  “My first evaluation as a school teacher was horrible.  I was an inept teacher.  The principal of my school challenged me to (a) focus on measurable data to evaluate my work; (b) get my students engaged in their learning, and (c) read instructive sources on how to teach.”

Success breeds jealousy

“As I began to make inroads with my students and read books on classroom management, I became popular with students and their parents.  Other teachers became jealous.  I had to reach out to them.  I baked cookies for every teacher’s birthday in my school.  I baked Christmas cookies. Once I was dismissed from my teaching position because of cutbacks and parents demanded my reinstatement.”  If you become successful, you too may face jealousy.

Lessons from the Karate Kid

Mr. Garcia recalls the lesson from the movie KARATE KID.  The “kid” in the movie was being taught to wax a car, sand the floor, paint a fence.  The student rebelled because he was paying the instructor and he and wanted to know why his karate teacher wasn’t teaching him karate moves.

His teacher had the student show him the hand moves required to wax a car, sand the floor, paint the fence, things he was instructing his young student to do.  These hand moves were the same moves he needed to learn to perform karate.  This moment of revelation in the movie can be seen online.

He reemphasizes: “The pressure should be on the teachers, not the students,” says Mr. Garcia.

Four elements of success

There are four elements to success in Mr. Garcia’s playbook: (1) have the right philosophy (approach); (2) have the right strategy (priorities, narrow things down); (3) have the right method (routines); (4) practice the right techniques (standard operating procedures).

You may not have friends or money, but you always have: (a) time, (b) energy, (c) thought, (d) and you can rely on mentors (learn from people you talk to).  Mentors are free.

“Everyone has unique talents.  Your failings are maybe just things you are not called to do.”

“Believe what you do matters in this world.”

The unseen

Mr. Garcia: “Pay attention to little things, the microcosm.  These little things have magnanimous impact.”

Robbie Grayson, a Franklin, Tennessee-based educational entrepreneur who founded a school to work with students who had anxiety patterns, says: “Invisible doesn’t mean unimportant.” What does he mean by that?

What is the invisible?  The invisible deals with the imagination that Mr. Garcia talks about.  The invisible are those “timeless principles rooted in wisdom” that Rick Rigsby speaks of.  The invisible is what Mr. Altucher talks about, learning how to sell, negotiate, communicate, and yes, even how to fail.

The Bible says it this way: “While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (II Corinthians 4:18)

When a student learns the unseen, these lessons will stick with him/her for the rest of their lifetime.  They may even be transferred on to their children in a timeless way.

When the new coach arrives the team begins to win

I have often asked, when a high school gets a new football coach, why the team suddenly wins the state championship.  Did better football players somehow appear at the school just when the new coach arrived?  No, wining is all about the coaches and teachers, not about the players or the students.

Failure in public education equals failure by the teachers.  Ask Mr. Garcia, the students in his special education class are performing better at math than their non-learning impaired peers.  How did that happen?

Mr. Garcia’s emphasis on teaching has profound application in failed public school systems today.

The learning curve

A student doesn’t know what they don’t know.  If a child takes a test with 100 questions and answers all of them correctly, what did he or she learn?  Nothing.  If that child takes the test and answers 89 of them correctly and the other eleven the teacher grades and notes the correct answer to the student, don’t the corrected answers represent what the child needed to learn?  That is when learning occurs, when there are wrong answers.  The goal of the teacher should be to hand out challenging tests where students don’t know all the answers to, so they can learn what they don’t know.  Ironically, we downgrade students for revealing what they don’t know, but that represents their learning curve.

A final question:

Another important question in life is “Who are you?”  In my endeavors as a health journalist I often visit MedScape.com where various doctors introduce themselves on instructive videos.  They always start by saying something like: “I am chief of radiology and professor of diagnostic radiology at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.”  No, that isn’t WHO they are.  That is what they do for a living.

We can answer the question where we were born (birthplace), how we were born (by Cesarean or natural childbirth), when we were born (birthdate), but we can obtain a college degree and never be able to answer the question: “Who am I?”

The only answer to that question is rooted in our lineage.  “I am my mother and father’s son or daughter.”  Following that lineage backwards in time we might answer that question by saying “I am a child of God.”  College can’t help you answer that question.  Know who you are.

Finale: back to the invisible

Mr. Garcia underscores the unseen.  Mr. Garcia: “Everything starts with imagination.”  Is that taught in college?  Every invention.  Every book.  Every creation emanates from imagination.  Is there a course in college for imagination?

Even in romance, the intangibles reign.  It was Nat King Cole who sang LET THERE BE LOVE.  Here are the lyrics:

Let there be you,
Let there be me.
Let there be oysters
Under the sea.

Let there be wind,
An occasional rain.
Chile con carne,
Sparkling champagne

Let there be birds
To sing in the trees,
Someone to bless me
Whenever I sneeze.

Let there be cuckoos,
A lark and a dove,
But first of all, please
Let there be love.

Yes, even when pursuing romance, it’s not the chocolates or flowers per se.  Sex is physical.  Love is intangible.  It’s not the Chile con carne or sparkling champagne.  And what is love?  That is not taught in college either.  There is more to learn about life outside of college than inside the classroom.  Your soul may be deprived of learning the real lessons of life even though you have multiple college degrees.