Seven things I want my sons to know about making their way

Now that you’re both teenagers, my job as your dad is changing. When you were little, my job was more about teaching you some basics, keeping you safe, and showing you love. Now it’s about slowly letting go and coaching from the sidelines so you can go in your own direction and hopefully find success and satisfaction.

The day is coming when you will have to make your own way. You are both bright and capable, so you have a leg up. But here are some things you need to know.

1. When you do your best today, more doors will be open to you tomorrow.

How well you do in high school determines what opportunities are available to you when you graduate. This is changing; more on that in a minute. But giving your best effort always pays sooner or later. So give your best to your schoolwork. I’ll be satisfied with whatever your best can deliver, even if it’s a D average.

If you go to college (and I hope you do), better grades will get you into better schools and bring better financial aid to pay for it. You need as much financial aid as you can get, because I can’t afford to pay for all of college.

If you skip college, doing your best now will build disciplines that will carry you into whatever you do after high school, be it the military, vocational school, or just getting a job.

But don’t just get a job after high school. If you don’t have a good degree, a good trade, or the good care of Uncle Sam, the jobs available to you involve saying, “Do you want fries with that?” or “Thank you for shopping with us.” They will pay poorly and you will struggle. This will suck; avoid it at all costs.

2. People who express themselves well, verbally and in writing, get ahead.

Srsly. cuz in the real world u will need 2 work with old farts my age and if you use speling and grammer right you will pwn your txtspeak friends. and we will not lol at u behind ur back.

Translated: You will probably start out working for someone closer to my age than to yours. When you speak and write well, we will think you are smart and capable, and we will give you opportunities we won’t give to your less-eloquent friends.

3. The world is bigger than today’s pop culture.

Pop culture is great fun. You know I love the pop culture of my generation โ€“ I’ve made you sit through all the cartoons I used to watch as a kid (the good ones, anyway) and as we ride around in the car I play CDs of the music from my youth.

But there is so much more culture to experience. Try other forms of music, film, theater, and art from around the world and from times before the 21st century. There’s lots to like out there.

More importantly, see beyond pop culture. Know what’s going on in the world. Form opinions about how the world should work, find causes that are important to you, and give of your time and resources to make things better. You will find no end of opportunity to make a difference.

4. Be who you are.

This means you have to find out who you are, which will take the rest of your life. As you figure it out, do not compromise โ€“ be that person. The worst pain and difficulty I’ve experienced in my life has come from times when I’ve tried to be someone I’m not.

You have a natural personality type that makes you good at some things and not good at others, and makes you fit easily into some environments and poorly into others. The better you know yourself, the easier it is for you to choose things that you are good at and find environments where you fit.

This isn’t license to be lazy or selfish. You will grow more and achieve more when you push and stretch yourself. I’m just saying that when you know yourself and honor the way you’re wired, you are more likely to find happiness and success on your own terms.

5. Following your dreams is overrated.

I’m lucky. I knew at age 15 that I wanted to make software for a living. Through smarts, work, and luck, I’ve been doing it for more than half my life. And it so happens that living my dream pays the bills just fine. But I’m a rarity.

Except that I thought I’d be a programmer. It turns out I wasn’t very good at being a programmer. But I understand geeks and fit in with them really well, so I stuck with it. And then I was handed an opportunity to manage geeks โ€“ and to my surprise, I’m very good at it. I’m really lucky I got an opportunity to find that out. But you could argue that I’m not really living my dream. Whatever. I adapted. I started toward my dream but then let the streams of life take me where they would flow.

Look, most people’s dreams don’t come true. And for most people, if their dreams came true they wouldn’t pay the bills very well anyway. You absolutely need to have ideas about what you’d like to do with your life. Let them guide your general direction, but always be willing to take a chance on the opportunities that find you โ€“ they will find you. The good ones use what you’re good at and are in environments where you fit well. Doing this will give you an interesting life full of meaning and satisfaction.

6. Enjoy the journey.

If you fill your life with meaningful things that you enjoy, happiness will find you.

You will have to take some risks to find those things. The path that feels secure may be less scary, but my experience has been that it’s less joyful, too.

That’s not to say life will always be unicorns and rainbows. Some risks won’t pay off, some random bad things will simply happen, and you will have some unhappy days! But bad times always end, especially when you keep pushing, keep trying, keep rising above the discouragement you will feel.

Here’s the crazy thing: The ups and downs can be exhilarating! Learn to ride them, and to enjoy the ride.

7. You are going to make the world’s new rules for success.

You live in an unprecedented time when the old rules of success are quickly becoming invalid.

For a few generations, the rules have been: Go to college and study pretty much anything. Your degree will lead to corporate jobs that pay well enough for at least a middle-class lifestyle. As you gain experience, you might even get bigger and better jobs that pay more. Along the way, save money for retirement, and when you’re old you can afford to play golf every day.

Those days are pretty much over.

I’ll pay for as much of your college education as I can, and you’ll probably get some financial aid. But you will need to borrow money to cover the rest. Your first monthly payment will be due shortly after you graduate. You need a plan that leads to work that pays well enough for you to have a place to live, feed yourself, probably own a car, and make your college loan payment.

The college degrees that lead to jobs that pay enough for all that are in disciplines such as engineering, business, medicine, finance, law, and science. It’s harder to get a good-enough-paying job when you major in history, literature, art, and so on. If you have a burning desire to study them, minor in them while you major in something that leads to good-paying work.

But even then, don’t count on corporate jobs. Their relative security has been fading slowly since the 1980s, and I think that security will fade to nothing in the years to come.

Fortunately, resources are available to you that my generation only imagined, thanks in no small part to the Internet. You can now do so much as an entrepreneur.

Say you want to write a book. Did you know that my first dream was to write stories? I wrote a novel when I was in the 7th grade. (It was terrible!) But in those days, becoming a successful author of fiction was as hard as getting to play for the NFL. Very, very few people got publishing contracts compared to the huge group of people who wanted them.

You no longer have to try to convince a publishing company to give you a contract. Now you can start a blog, create a Facebook page for it, build an audience, and then publish your book yourself and sell it to your blog readers.

Or say you want to make software. When I started doing it, you pretty much had to have a college degree in computer science or engineering and join a software company. Today, you can write an app for the iPhone and make money off it a dollar or two at a time, and build your own software business from there. When I think of the best young programmers that I know, most of them skipped college!

These paths, and others like them, take a ton of work. But they are possible now when they never were before. They open new pathways to success. As they replace the old, dead pathways, your generation will get to write the new rules.

I envy you; it sounds like great fun!


14 responses to “Seven things I want my sons to know about making their way”

  1. Scott Palmer Avatar

    Great blog as usual! I would like to add a few thoughts, point by point:

    1. Opening doors is only one reason to do your best. The most important reason to do your best is that it helps you be your best: to be the best person you can be, to reach your maximum potential as a professional, and to know that you are someone who deserves to have a few doors open in front of him. Then, whether the doors open wide or slam in your face, you will know that you did your part. You will have self-respect. In the morning, you will look in the mirror and see a person you like. Having opportunities, money, and career are important, but they don’t mean much if you despise the person you see in the mirror.

    2. Speaking and writing correctly are important for reasons beyond the need to please old farts like us. Language is the tool with which we formulate thoughts and describe reality. Extensive and accurate knowledge of how to use our language enables us to think clearly and communicate reliably with other people. Just like having good manners, using language correctly isn’t a matter of being prissy: it helps you get on in life.

    3. People who know about history, art, science, and philosophy live in a much wider and more interesting world than people who don’t. When you learn and read more widely than Taylor Swift’s latest exercise in narcissism, you realize that very little about contemporary society and politics is new โ€“ that all of the furious debates and so-called “new discoveries” were old news thousands of years ago. You will understand your own culture in ways that you otherwise cannot.

    4. Absolutely!

    5. I agree that dreams usually don’t pay the rent, but to forsake your dreams completely is to commit spiritual suicide. Find a way to pay the rent and still follow your dreams as much as you can.

    6. Absolutely!

    7. Agreed. Change is stressful and exhilarating at the same time. But there will still be days when you understand Mark Twain’s statement that no sane man over the age of 65 would consent to live his life over again. :-)

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks, Scott, for elaborating on some of my points and sharing additional perspective. I do want to defend myself a little bit on #5. I didn’t mean to imply that one shouldn’t have or pursue dreams. I was just asking my sons to have some realism about it. Damion may have dreams of designing video games, but the reality is that is a massively competitive space and given that he is not already a wunderkind programmer his chances of making it are extremely slim. He shouldn’t give up, but he should also be realistic about his chances and look for other ways to be involved in that industry, or in the things related to it.

  2. DennyG Avatar

    Well done to the extreme. Glad my kids aren’t of an age to compete with yours ’cause they’d probably be at a disadvantage.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks Denny! Thankfully, it’s not a competition. It’s about finding meaning and satisfaction, and that is such an individual thing.

  3. davidvanilla Avatar

    Your children will never be able to say that Dad didn’t care or offer guidance. Well played.

    1. Jim Avatar

      With any luck, some of my guidance will take root and they’ll make good use of it!

  4. Dani Avatar

    Well said. The boys are blessed to have you as their father.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks Dani!

  5. ryoko861 Avatar

    Number 5….you hit the nail on the head with that! I’m living proof. I’m still here in the US.

    Kids don’t seem to understand that we’ve gone through all this. They will have to learn their lessons the hard way until they finally get the idea “Hey, dad was right!”. DUH!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Sometimes hyperfocus on a goal or a dream closes us down to life as it unfolds, and that’s where real joy can be found. So I hope that even though your dream didn’t come true, the journey you got instead has not left you with too much regret.

      1. ryoko861 Avatar

        No, just lots of frustration and disappointment.

        1. Jim Avatar

          I’m sorry it’s turned out that way. My wish for you is that starting today, you can shape the best life possible out of the raw materials you have to work with, and that process will bring you satisfaction.

          1. ryoko861 Avatar

            A bigger house might help.

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