My advice for students

It's an easy time of the year to become reflective, kids are going back to school and life begins the school rhythm.  My oldest starts school again today and it's had me thinking about schooling and maximizing the school experience all weekend.

I never liked school.  In elementary and middle school I'd sit by the window and look out at passing traffic while day dreaming about escaping to do something, anything else.  High school wasn't much different.  I went to college because that was the expectation.  I never buckled down and maximize my schooling in the traditional sense.  What's interesting is neither did my brothers, we all did about average and yet all found our footing in life.  This is contrary to what society and what teachers might lead you to believe, and anyone less than an A student is a failure in life and will be flipping burgers at Wendy's.

There are a lot of very important things taught in the classroom.  But there's a lot that's never taught either.  I put together a few things I believe were crucial for my own development and they're things I want to pass onto my own boys as they get older.  These aren't universal truths, but rather things I've experienced that I value and I want my kids to value.  I've written this as a way to capture my thoughts.  I didn't write it in the corny "letter to my kids format" because my kids will never read this.  Instead I'm hoping someone out there might find some of the lessons I learned to be useful.  I also realize that most students feel they are too smart for advice because they already know everything.  And those of us who've learned these lessons wish we would have listened when we were younger.  But that's the experience of growing up.

Blaze your own path

If you do the same things as everyone else you'll get the same results as everyone else.  You'll also be competing with everyone else for a few scarce positions.  If you want different results you need to do something different.

The brutal reality is that very few people are "the best" at anything, sports, academics, business, whatever.  But we have a system where everyone tries to work hard to be the best.  The end result is a field of people all competing against each other, and if you aren't leaps and bounds better than everyone else the results will be disappointing.

They don't teach you in school that there are other ways to achieve the things you want outside of the traditional path.  I'd consider that standard advice is to do well in school, go to a good college, get a good job, put your head down and work hard then get promoted.  For some this path works well, but for everyone who isn't the best, or the cream of the crop you'll never reach your maximum potential waiting for someone else to promote you or recognize you.

Look for alternative paths to where you want to go.  You need to think creatively, but the results are rewarding.  Some of this can be by doing things others aren't doing.

In high school one of my younger brothers approached me about learning how to play guitar.  I played and he wanted to play too.  I recommended against the guitar and that he play bass instead.  My reasoning was that everyone learns to play guitar and you need to be excellent to do anything with it. Whereas there is always a shortage of good bass players.  My brother took my advice and a few years later I was watching him perform on The Tonight Show amongst other TV appearances.  He is a very good bassist, but not the best, but there is such a demand for bass players that he was able to achieve things most guitar players could only dream of.  By choosing his own path he was able to tour the US and Europe on someone else's dime and get paid for the experience.  But music isn't forever, and he talked his way into a sales job and from there into a computer programming job, which is impressive given his Psychology degree and music related work experience.

My own career path is a set of twists and turns that couldn't be predicted ahead of time.  I've created some roles for myself and fallen into others.  But interestingly enough I've only ever received one promotion, a minor one that was inconsequential.  I've created my own path and leap frogged others who are working their way up the ladder.

I love talking to entrepreneurs about how they got started and why they got started.  Not surprisingly many successful entrepreneurs almost fell into starting a company.  Some became extremely successful by taking chances and doing things others didn't want to do.  This is how you find an alternative route, you do the work, do it well, and do things others aren't interested in doing.

Ability to execute, not credentials

Popular culture has left us with the impression that a graduate from Harvard will be able to open a door at any company in the US whereas a graduate from a community college will be destined to low level white collar jobs the rest of their career.  My dad had an expression "it's not where you go to college, but what you do with it."  It's an expression I've seen lived out as I've grown older.

A related story is a good friend was hired for a job a few years after college designing bridges.  One of his co-workers at the time was someone he knew from college.  The co-worker spent a considerable amount of time working for straight-A grades in college and graduated with a 4.00.  My friend did not, yet they were sitting side by side making the exact same of money doing the exact same thing.  My friend could execute, but he didn't have the grades, it didn't matter.

Credentials and a great resume can open doors, but the ability to execute once at the job is what keeps you there.  It's the ability to execute and complete tasks that opens bigger and better doors.  An employer might care about education for the first job because that's the only information they have to work from.  But three or four jobs later it's how you'd done in those jobs that matters.  If a company is evaluating a student with proven experience verses a straight-A student with no experience the student with experience will be chosen every time.

My first job out of college hammered home this point.  It was at a start-up here in Pittsburgh.  The company hired based on experience, not on education.  This was something of an eye-opener as I had just come out of college where the college institution led us to believe that grades and college performance mattered.  This company only cared about what value people could provide, and the more value employees provided the more the company overlooked issues individuals had.  There were a number of high performing employees without college degrees.  And there was one individual who proved this entire point over and over.

This employee was one of the best in the world at his given specialty, he's written books on the topic and hosted conferences.  He also had some personal failings that were quite epic.  From drinking too much and throwing up in the backseat of the CEO's car to sending out resignation emails when drunk in the middle of the night.  The company's response was always the same.  There'd be an apology email from the CEO for the employee's behavior and promises that it'd never happen again.  He provided so much value to the company that they were able to overlook and accommodate behavior that wouldn't be tolerated anywhere else.

Value people

For some in their blind quest for accolades and success trample the very people who help them achieve their goals.  The result is the person's success isn't remembered, but rather how much of a jerk they were.

Very few achieve anything on their own without anyone else's help.  It's how you treat people that's remembered, not what you achieve.

In sales books there are typically chapters written about how to handle "gatekeepers."  These are receptionists and executive assistants who answer the phone and email for deal makers.  Most sales literature includes some combination of tricks, brute force and outright lies to get past gatekeepers to the deal maker.  But here's the thing.  The gatekeeper is a real person showing up to work each day trying to do their job.  You can't blame them for trying to shut down people trying to shove their way through.

I've found a different tactic works wonders, treat the gatekeeper like a real person who is essentially an advisor to the dealmaker.  This approach doesn't use lying, or brute force.  Instead by working with them they start to work for you instead and will sell to the dealmaker on your behalf.

One tactic that's worked well for myself is to always put myself in the other party's shoes.  I try to imagine myself on the other end of whatever I'm engaged in.  How would I view myself?  When I can view a situation from all sides it helps me make decisions that aren't one-sided.  Awareness of how other parties feel and act is important, with this perspective I've been able to make headway numerous times where if I was just focused on myself I would have just been shutdown.

But it's not just people who you work with who need to be valued, value personal relationships even more.  Success, co-workers, and accolades won't love you back, and when times get tough they won't be there to help you out.  But family and good friends will.  Relationships that are built on a solid foundation will last even when there's a storm.  Relationships like this require work, they're tough, sometimes uncomfortable or inconvenient, but they pay off in the long term.  Don't ignore family and friends as you journey down your path.

I've witnessed something that remains somewhat of a mystery to me, but don't let it happen to you.  It's people who ignore their kids in their pursuit of their careers.  Yet once a career is over some of the only people left in their life their ignored kids.  It's short term thinking.  Don't burn bridges today for investments that will pay off in the future.  Spouses, kids and close friends, but especially kids will pay dividends for years and decades, invest in them now instead of putting off the investment for some other time.

Contentment is a key to life

No matter what you achieve, or what you don't achieve you'll never be satisfied if you're not content.  Discontent is a thief that steals joy from your life.  Without contentment you will always be chasing something else.

If we look deep into our souls very few of us are truly content with our position or what we have.  Some justify this discontent saying it's what fuels the fire that drives us.  The problem is that fire can become an uncontrolled raging inferno that will never be quenched.

I think the key to contentment is thankfulness.  Instead of looking ahead at what we want to happen we should look around and be thankful for where we are.  If you're reading this you're alive, that's a great starting point for being thankful.  A thankful attitude breeds contentment.  Thankfulness also breeds optimism.  If you are always looking for reasons why something isn't up to your expectations you'll never be content.

Contentment is a bit of a paradox.  I'd wager that most think if they had unlimited money they'd be content because they could do anything they wanted.  But that's not how it works.  There are people with very little who are content, and others with more money than they could ever use who are discontent.  Contentment is an attitude, not something that can be achieved materially.

If you want to see lack of contentment visit an airport.  Most everyone is complaining about something or unhappy about some part of the experience.  There are very few who are thankful that they get to fly across the world in a comfortable tube verses riding on a steamship, a cramped train or in a car.  How many travelers are thankful that they air travel enables them to do whatever lies at their destination?


These are the lessons and traits I am hoping to instill in my kids (I have three boys).  Instead of telling them to "get good grades" at the start of the year these are the lessons I want them to learn.  They're timeless, they're just as important in elementary school as they are in college or mid-career.  And they are all attitudes that work in any environment.  They're also how I measure success.  It will be nice if one of my kids is a high performing individual, but if they are never happy and always chasing the next thing while trampling people in their path I'll consider myself a failure.  But if my kids embodies these attitudes I'll be satisfied regardless of what they do in life.


  1. Nate,

    Thanks for sharing your heartfelt reflections. This was a personable message that goes beyond the usual investing fare but is no less meaningful for that. I think it's funny you think your boys will never read this. Unless you shut down your blog on purpose at some point, I am positive your sons WILL read your blog and probably even this post-- if they can search your name on Google, they can also figure out how to search for references to themselves, "I wonder what Dad said about us?" And I hope they do. Instead of typing out things their dad told them, like you did with your dad, they might be able to hyperlink to your verbatim post on their own future blog!

    I liked this comment: "I've witnessed something that remains somewhat of a mystery to me, but don't let it happen to you. It's people who ignore their kids in their pursuit of their careers."

    This puzzles me as well. I had two comments. The first is that, I have been reading a lot of political biographies later (especially about early American politicians) and it seems consistent that those who achieve "greatness" in politics do so at the expense of their family life. What is the value of leaving a great legacy for your "people", when you end up a stranger to your own family and children? The second thing I thought of is how such decision-making seems to be a flashing sign of egotism. You must think your own contribution to the world and affairs is SO vital that it comes before the needs of the people you brought into the world in a state of dependence, your kids. But why have the kids?

    Life forces us to make choices. And if you set yourself up to sacrifice your children in pursuit of your goals, I'd say you've chosen poorly and have not thought ahead.

    One of the rather obvious tones of this post is that American conceptions of the value of schooling are confused and perhaps overrated. You went to college, even though you felt you didn't get much from the experience. How do you feel about your kids not going to school? Do you have this feeling that college isn't that important, but you'd feel bad if they decided not to go (or if you somehow couldn't afford to send them)? Or do you have confidence that if they decided not to go, they really wouldn't miss anything?

    Personally, I'd actually feel much more successful as a parent if my children determined they DIDN'T need or want to go to college. In this day and age, such a determination I think would indicate a high level of independent thinking and personal maturity that would imply they have a good chance of being successful on their own terms, as well as society's, without the time and expense of attending formal school. But I am curious how you and your wife are thinking about that.

    1. Taylor,

      Great comment. I think a few of the bullets could encapsulate your comment on ego. If you are trampling people, ignoring kids and always striving for more there are serious ego issues.

      In terms of college. This is something I've thought about some. Granted I have no idea what college will be like in 12-17 years, but if the current course continues my thoughts apply.

      I am ambivalent on whether my kids go to school. If they want to pursue a profession where college is necessary such as medical school, law school or something else like that then I think they won't have a choice. But I don't view it as a requirement, and if there isn't a defined path that generates a positive ROI on the college cost I'd say it's a waste.

      Whereas in the past people could go to college and gain the "college experience" of living in a dorm and attending a state school cheaply that door has firmly closed. I think now students need to view college as a means to an end, if the end isn't defined then the means shouldn't happen just to happen.

      My oldest continues to maintain he wants to be a pilot. He'll have to take some training, but as far as I know a college degree isn't required. He's said he'd like to be a fighter jet pilot, and I guess if you want to be a pilot that's a cool goal. So in that sense maybe the Government would pay for whatever schooling he'd need.

      I have two other thoughts on college. The first is if any kid wants to attend a traditional school one of my requirements is that they at least minor in business. This is because regardless of what one does you need to sell your time or wares to pay rent. I've met a local artist here who has a studio and he has stories of how learning to sell and run a business have been hard, but important and vital lessons. The painting is easy. He said he sold his first work for $300 and was thrilled to sell anything. A friend pulled him aside and said he should be tacking one or two 0's onto the price, which is what he's doing now. An art major is ok with a business minor. The theory being the business minor will give the kid the skills on how to practically apply the major.

      The second thought is if the education is what's important, and not living in a dorm partying, then I'd prefer if the kids did two years at a community college then transferred to a University. This is under the presumption that my kids, like most kids will fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. If we did happen to give birth to a very special little flower then maybe a high end school is appropriate. Although I know a Harvard MBA working at a pizza shop here, and a guy who never went to college who's extremely wealthy and has built an empire for themselves via hard work and grit.

      In the end the choice will be with the kid themselves. Although I would much prefer to spend their college savings helping them start a business verses spending those four years in a class room, but that's my preference. To me that'd be an adventure, helping a kid get started with their own business using saved funds. Maybe one day..


  2. Agree, there's way too little focus on actual knowledge and skills compared to the name of the seat of learning. Top universities are great for the networking opportunities they provide, but anyone who honestly thinks they've learned more becuase their university is more prestigious is fooling themselves. Looking at the money being poured into edtech, my guess is that we'll se a lot of changes in the coming decade or so.

  3. That was great. Exactly what i needed to be told at this point of my life (32yo misfit). Thank you.