A Decade Removed: 7 Tips for High Schoolers to Consider

A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.
A frustrated and stressed out student looks up at the high pile of textbooks he has to go through to do his homework.

Planning ahead at age 15 -- and some might argue far beyond this age -- is a difficult concept for most young men. But over the Thanksgiving holiday my nephew initiated several conversations focused on my life after high school. I am often reminded, by him, that I'm getting old. But this recent trip home also reminded me that my little nephew is not so young anymore either.

I was a bit surprised by our conversations, but mostly relieved. The word relieved is an accurate reflection because under 50 percent of black males in Florida, where he lives, graduate from high school. In seven other states completion rates are even worse, with New York topping the list at 37 perent.

Graduation from high school is a significant milestone in our culture. Ten years have passed since I experienced this rite of passage. Although I can be a slow learner at times, life has taught me a great deal over the past decade. Since the holiday season inspires us all to share a bit more, below are some tips that I hope are helpful for him and other young men (maybe young women too!) who are starting to plan their own roadmaps for the future.

1. Problem Solvers Wanted. College Graduates, Not So Much.

Don't feel pressured to attend college. Not because you are the next Mark Zuckerberg, Jay-Z or LeBron James -- each passed on getting a degree, but let's assume they are outliers. It's just better for everyone to avoid wasting time and money on college if it's not the right fit for you.

Many adults with Ph.D.s are confused about what role higher education will play in society moving forward. Students should be cautious. In reality, more than half of recent college graduates in America are unemployed or doing something that doesn't require a college degree.

College plays a critical role in America's war against ignorance. So, many students should continue to apply. But, they should also consider other options such as virtual courses, community colleges or technical programs. Ultimately, our generation must get really creative about how to best position ourselves as the solution standing between a problem and the community that is impacted by that problem.

2. Mind the Gap

Press the pause button after high school graduation and do something interesting for a year. This concept is an embraced tradition in the UK, where I lived for two years pursuing graduate school. It's known as a "gap year" and enables space for a student to think, travel and mature before heading off to college. For some, a healthy dose of partying is likely involved, but this is part of the learning experience.

The argument could be made that the American model of a "gap year" already exists. It's called being a freshman. Student's should consider eliminating the extra overhead of college tuition and fees.

Get an internship that gives you the chance to develop valuable skills and make a little money. Maybe take time to volunteer with an organization that inspires you and allows you to travel to interesting places. College, and the mountain of debt that accompanies it, will be awaiting your return. Trust me.

3. NBA vs. Facebook

Since it's the holiday season, imagine I baked a pie and mixed together the net worth of the NBA's five highest paid players with the net worth of Facebook's five founders as the pie filling. The Facebook "dream team" would account for 98.5 percent of that enormous and tasty pie. Again, while LeBron James and Mark Zuckerburg are both outliers. There is clearly a far greater demand for good programmers than good ball players.

I had the chance to talk with Tony Dungy a few years ago, while he was still head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He mentioned that out of all the youth playing football in the state of Indiana in a given year, only three would ever make it on an NFL roster. I wonder what the number is in your state?

Don't get me wrong, I love sports and competed at a high level in college and on the professional track circuit. Like most athletes, sports taught me invaluable life lessons and I developed meaningful friendships that will last a lifetime. These important takeaways are clear in hindsight, but too many young men bet on sports as their ticket to financial security and are setting themselves up to be disappointed.

4. Be Entrepreneurial

If you haven't noticed, it's a tough job market out there. Technology and startups are making it easier to reduce the need for human labor. For example, in the 1950s General Motors employed 400,000 people. Today, Apple employs around 40,000 people. Lots of jobs have disappeared and they are not coming back.

But, research suggest that as many as 400,000 jobs have been created directly or indirectly by Apple's App store. This includes the college student sitting in her dorm room building apps that cover all of her college expenses. Did I mention she's likely wearing pajamas and flip flops?

5. Racism Sucks

Racism and prejudice continue to exist. It is a sad but true reality. Whether because of your skin color, zip code or other irrational reasons, some people will express their hate and attempt to be hurtful. That's their problem, so rise above it. If you permit them to influence your trajectory, they win.

I have found that the vast majority of humans want to associate with and invest in the best. Approach every relationship as an opportunity to give your best, with no expectation of return, and the negative energy of others will prove less of a factor.

6. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, gave a commencement speech in 2005 to Stanford graduates and his final words encouraged them to, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish." As he pointed out then, it's impossible to foresee how the chapters of life will connect into a coherent narrative. Dealing with the highs and lows can be disorienting and discomforting. We are forced to believe that the dots will eventually line up if we don't quit.

My recommendation? Do what you love. Follow your passion and approach each day as if tomorrow is not promised. If you live like this I can't guarantee it'll be easy -- in fact I'm almost certain it won't be, but it will be exciting and that's what everybody really wants.

7. If Not You, Then Who?

As simple as it is brilliant, "It not you, then who" is among my favorite quotes of the past decade. Never be afraid to raise your hand, to take the risk or to be the first. Someone has to do it, so why not you?