The Best Advice I Could Give to a Teenager Before Going to College

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Last month, an avid reader of my website from Singapore asked with regards to “what options are available prior to entering a university.” As far as I’m aware, there is a plethora of choices for one to do before entering college.

This teenager is still unsure of her chosen field of study. But she told me her passion is working with computers. Hence, she is considering taking a break from school by attending an internship with IBM, and deferring her enrollment to Princeton.

“Instead of that,” I offered to her, “why don’t you go to lynda.com or udemy.com and learn basic coding skills. You can make websites and blogs for stores.”

“It would take less than a week to learn the basics. Then go from door to door to every store in town,” I added.

This would teach her to be independent. An internship does not pay the bills. So she would still be depending on her parents for support.

“Let’s say for S$1,000, plus S$30/month for maintenance, you’ll make their basic website or blog for them and help them upkeep it. If they require a “shopping cart” then charge them S$2,000,” I continued.

She frowned a little and said, “They will say NO. They don’t need it.”

I get it. She doesn’t like rejection. I can relate to that. I don’t like it when people reject me either.

“Look,” I said, “there are more than 100 stores on Orchard Road alone. Let’s say two agrees, that’s worth S$2,000. It will take you less than 12 hours to do the work.”

“And then you’d still get S$60 a month in maintenance work. You should be able to finish in about two hours a month,” I continued.

She was digging in hard, “Maybe.” She looked away.

Here’s another idea: to be on Wikipedia you would need about 10 media references. We were sitting in a restaurant, so I pointed to the counter, “How many reviews does this restaurant have?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged.

“More than ten,” I replied. “So you can create a Wikipedia page for them. Charge S$200. Maintain it for S$10 a month.”

Or maybe every store needs a Facebook page. I bet 1 out of 10 Singaporeans are on Facebook RIGHT NOW!

Restaurants can use their Page to get local customers to “Like” them in exchange for coupons and future messages.

Again: S$200 for setup and S$10 per store per month to maintain.

She seemed hesitated. I don’t think she’ll do it. And it’s not a skills issue. ANYONE can get the skills by studying one or two online courses in less than a week.

“What kind of computer skills do you have now?” I asked.

“Well, I know how to draw basic logo and design. I can also edit audio and video files,” she replied.

“On freelance.com or upwork.com you could do some graphic design or an infographic for S$30-50 and it would take you less than an hour,” I pitched. “You could also edit podcasts or video files before customers post them on YouTube.”

Why work for a boss?

Here’s my guess. She might be thinking these tasks are entry-level work. Anybody can do them. Why should she be the one to do them.

Okay, I get that. I would love to get paid big bucks. Who doesn’t?

But if she starts doing what I’ve suggested, here’s what she would learn:


PROBLEM SOLVING

She’ll learn to look at a situation and identify any urgent problem, find what a useful solution can be, and uniquely solve it.

Say you want to be a graphic designer, which option is more likely going to develop your skills?

  1. Memorizing facts on the history of art.
  2. Design the right logo for your customer.

If you choose option “2” you’ll be spending most of your time answering these essential questions:

  • What does my customer want?
  • What value-added service can I add?
  • How much should I charge for each project?

This is a skill no school can teach because this skill cannot be taught in a controlled or theoretical setting. You need real-world placement and deal with it in the moment.


CREATE SOMETHING OUT OF NOTHING

If you can start something and make money with just what you have now - without the long list of requirements - then you’ll always be able to do it no matter the circumstances.

Jack Ma pitched for Alibaba from inside his apartment. Steve Jobs founded Apple in his parents’ garage. Google began in a dorm room. Even Bridgewater Associates got started by Ray Dalio inside his two-bedroom apartment. They’ve all become billion dollar companies out of nothing.

Spending a couple of years starting a company, or obsessively learning a craft, or working with a great mentor, or volunteering with a charity that helps people, is far more important for creating meaningful work.

You could spend painting in your parents’ garage. Heck, spend it creating value for your YouTube channel audience. You will still learn more discipline and more about life than college and internship combined.


CAREER MOBILITY

Today, you can take a course in almost anything on the internet for less than US$100. You can even take Ivy League (Harvard, MIT Sloan, Stanford) courses online for FREE! This option allows you to design your learning schedule to fit your life.

Want to learn basic coding skills? You can take three online courses and you would be in the top 1% of the world in computer skills. Then you can charge for those skills.

Now you have the option to take on freelance work that gives you valuable experience, move to a new country to pursue an exciting opportunity, test your start-up business idea, or start a website while traveling across Southeast Asia.


PROVIDE MORE VALUE FOR CUSTOMERS

Once her venture kicks off she’ll do what most people do - expand it. There are two ways for people to expand their business:

  1. Get new customers.
  2. Offer new services to your old customers.

It seems that number “2” is the most reliable technique people have used since 3,000 B.C. This would force her to learn even newer skills and solve bigger problems for the customers.


YOU DON’T NEED A BOSS TO MAKE MONEY  

One morning, I noticed an interesting link from Huffington Post: “100 Ways to Make Money.”

Great headline, right? Hey, it made me click, and I wasn’t looking for a job or worried about paying the rent. As I skimmed through the list, it got me confused. Almost every “way to make money” usually relied in working for someone else, and it involves some kind of menial labor. Very few of the 100 ideas involved any kind of entrepreneurial project.

This is to say: better work for the boss at low wages and be thankful you aren’t out on the street. Having a job pays the bills, but if you want to create independence or earn more than just above poverty line, you’ll need to find a way to take matters into your own hands.

Remember: every time you have a boss - he’s taking some of your money. And his boss is taking some of your money.

People who take jobs are not innovators or artists. People who take jobs are puppets of the machine rather than the future creators of the machines to come.

The average multi-millionaire has seven different sources of income. A job is only one source.

Guess what?

Selling an app is one source. Being an entrepreneur is also only one source. This highlights the importance of freelance work.


NOT TO FIT IN

A long time learner told me she wants to enroll in a Junior TOEFL program. Given its difficulty, she’s struggling to grasp understanding and proficiency. I told her the test is meant to be difficult. If it’s easy, then everybody would get good scores. When that happens, everyone would be playing a different game with different set of rules.

You know, I was under the same impression when I was being sold the so-called American Dream.

When I was in school, I also took tests. Standardized tests. Graduate tests. Licensure tests. I’ve done them all, and I did well; really well.

Unfortunately, when you keep doing what the world wants you to become, you don’t know yourself. In the end, I’ve merely learned how to master test taking skills, which have no real practical value in life.

I think the first lesson to understand for this learner is to be aware that what you’re doing is trying to fit in.

My advice: stop fitting-in and try to get to know yourself a little better.


IT’S OKAY TO MAKE MISTAKES

This is the most AMAZING skill to learn. Every time you make a mistake, you learn a little more about yourself, about building relationship with people, about improving self-awareness, about pushing your personal boundaries.

When I teach people about mistakes, they’re just too caught up with the definition. Knowing what mistake means from another person’s mouth versus learning mistake through experience is not the same.

I’ve always thought that parents and schools always overemphasize the right answers all the time. This leads to the fundamental conclusion that the best students in school tend to be the worst at learning from their mistakes because they have been conditioned to associate mistakes with failure, instead of opportunity.

The key is to quickly learn from your mistakes and improve quickly. If you’re constantly learning and improving, your evolutionary process will be ascending.


REALIZING HER UNIQUE NICHE

Most jobs teach you nothing. You just move some shit over to some other shit and get paid shit. The best thing in the world is when you create something out of your uniqueness.

Your talent. Your special craft. Your unique skills. These elements make you the remarkable individual. Whatever makes you remarkable, is what makes you marketable.

People with a unique mix of skills and experience separate themselves from the majority. You make yourself rare by combining two or more above average skills until no one else has your mix.

The key lies in finding the right relationship. The great painter has mastered the relationship with nature. The master chef has the connection and craft to combine various palate of taste with unique artistic presentation. The animal scientist has the ability to bond and understand with different creatures of being. Even your author is guilty of this affinity with children. How many other adults out there are capable of doing what I do? “But the kids love you,” one of my learner said. So here I am.

 

BUT...

One may say: “Taking up your advice is too risky. I want to have a safety net so I can get a job.”

Would you believe me if I told you there are no risks? That's why you need to do it when you’re young. Then you'd have nothing to lose. And even if you crash and burn, and lose everything, the experience would have been worth ten times the cost. There is nothing stopping you from doing whatever you want (except your parents, I guess).

The only thing you really have in life is time, and if you invest that time in yourself to have great experiences that will enrich you, then you can't possibly lose. So don't wait! Do something when you're young because it's a lot easier when you have no responsibility to other people.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d only change one thing: I’d do it sooner. I’d put-off school and set sail. I could always go back to school when I’m 30.

Some people say to me: how can I convince so-and-so to “find what they’re good at” or “discover their meaning in life” or “find alternatives to schooling” or …?

You can’t. Nobody can. And I guess that’s the whole point.

I can’t convince parents to reduce their children’s coursework and allocate the time to create a life full of meaning, even after I’ve proven countlessly that realizing one’s purpose in life is the only thing one ever really needs.

I can’t convince my learners to follow their hearts like I did. I’d never expect anyone to understand my journey, especially if they’ve never walked my path.

We are so used to our dull routines that we’ve developed various philosophies to justify them. Everywhere I look in life, there seems to be an endless stream of complaining about how everything is unpleasant, and we just have to accept it.

Whenever I suggest that things don’t have to be that way - that the essential problem in a wealthy modern society is how we mismanage our mental perception - people have difficulty understanding it. They are so used to the idea of “that’s life.”

What I can do is be a good example to those around me. To be a light amongst darkness. After all, that’s the best anyone can ever do.


MAYBE YOU SHOULD STILL GO TO COLLEGE

Look, I’m not against going to college, but we need to collectively think about college as one of the many options out there. And that college is not the default path for everyone.

That said, you should go to college when both conditions are met:

  1. You’d want to spend the next decade studying in a single field.
  2. Getting a college degree is the only way to work in that field.

If that’s not you, then there’s never been a better time to embrace your new life.

It’s not mandatory to spend money for college to determine what you want to do in life. A four-year undergraduate degree program in Princeton would cost you more than US$200,000 (not including room and board). I would suggest you spend four years figuring out what you want to do before you spend that kind of money.

Remember: your interest will change anyway.