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Advice for High Schoolers Getting Ready to Go Into the “Real World”

March 12th, 2021

High school. The greatest time of your life that really doesn’t matter.

Forget High School Musical and all the other shows that show high school as the peak of existence. One of my pet peeves in school, including college, was when teachers/professors would say “when you get out into the real world…”

The real world? What is this? A safe simulation where nothing matters? Sorry kids, you are already in the real world. If your life is different than what you see in the shows, welcome to the real world. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

A friend reached out and asked me to share some of my career advice for high schoolers preparing for life after high school. If you have any advice for high schoolers reading this feel free to leave a comment below. Here are some specific topics he asked me to comment on…

What do you need to know about finances?

Financewhat? Finances, not fiancés. A word you probably have heard that will now have a lot more meaning to you than before. Many of you will be blindsided by what finances are.

(1) I remember working at Taco Bell in the 1900s. First check… I calculated what I should have gotten by multiplying (yes, you’ll use real math as an adult) my hourly pay times the hours I worked. I actually saw that number on my check! Awesome! But then there were these things called “deductions”… minus this and minus that and minus something else. What I got in my paycheck was a little more than half of what I thought I was going to get.

I felt deceived. Welcome to being an adult.

You need to know the difference between gross and net pay. Here’s how I keep track of them: Gross… the amount I thought I was going to get but I didn’t… this is gross. Net… think of all the money going to deductions slipping through the holes in a net. What you have left over is your net pay. I’m sorry… not my system, just how things are.

(2) Old boring people talk about spending less than you earn. How lame. How can you get a nice car, a TV for your apartment, a game system, nice clothes, or eat out if you spend less than you make? I mean, maybe just this one time I’ll get a loan to buy that thing I really need. After all, getting a loan is EASY.

This is a quick path to regret, and feeling like you are never getting ahead. Seriously, go without. Figure out how to live without the needed TV or the needed clothes or the needed nicer car or the needed constant eating out. One of the problems kids have when they leave their house is they think they need to maintain the lifestyle they had when living with parents… who have decades of getting their finances in order (hopefully), getting raises (hopefully), etc. You want to skip the hard parts of sacrifice and waiting… steps your parents likely didn’t skip.

How do you spend less than you earn? Make a budget. I know, I know. BORING. LAME.  Guess what? It’s how you get ahead financially. A budget is an intentional activity to help you spend less than you make and prepare for the future. This is a healthy habit that can help you with your marriage relationships. Want to be rich? Want to retire early? Want to enjoy regular vacations? Your budget is the key. Why not start now, while you have just a few items to put on your budget, rather than wait until you have poor habits and have to do some correcting? Budget monthly.

(3) Find healthy financial mentors. I believe that most of us have a bad relationship with money because of conversations we’ve had or heard at home. Money is a funny thing. I say “the more you have, the funnier it is!” But if you don’t have any it’s not funny at all. Bad money habits can ruin relationships, even marriages. Good money habits can enhance relationships. You can have a better, funner marriage when you have great money habits, and the enhanced communication that comes with it. You can find mentoring in books and articles. There are plenty of people out there that have principle-based ideas on money. Just be careful to not stray into the get-rich-quick thinking that is so toxic… and as unrealistic for most of us as being in High School Musical. By the way, my money mentor is Dave Ramsey. I listen to his short clips on YouTube.

(4) Shovels and holes. Speaking of Dave Ramsey, when people call in with their issues he’ll regularly talk about their debt as a hole and their income as a shovel. Someone with $200,000 in debt and an income of $30,000/year has a massive, huge hole and a tiny, spoon-sized shovel. The goal is to get rid of the hole, but filling a huge hole with a tiny spoon is nearly impossible. In a call like that he’ll talk about how to get a bigger shovel. You seriously need to stay out of debt (keeping your debt “hole” as small as possible) while figuring out how to get a bigger shovel. I think about this analogy regularly.

(5) Wealth vs. Peace. Speaking of getting rich quick, listen to Ramsey’s millionaire hour calls. These are only a few minutes long. Dave asks each person how they became a millionaire. I’m not saying you have to take your whole life to get there, but it’s really interesting to learn about his studies showing how people achieve wealth. If you were like me, coming out of high school, I was not interested in waiting years. But I’ve learned being that 20 year old rich guy on YouTube is… hard. So have a principal-based plan that benefits from the path many other wealthy people have had. But here’s a mindset change: is wealth what you are after? I was. Honestly, I still am. But I also want financial peace. Dave’s programs are all about “financial peace,” not getting rich. Can you get rich on his program? YES. But his principles and teachings are first geared towards helping you have financial peace. At my old, old age, I can attest that this is a more important lesson than wealth.

How Do I prepare for employment opportunities?

I couldn’t wait to get in the “real world” and start making my own way. I loved my family, and living at home, but I was so excited to figure out how to be a great success. It was scary, of course, but it was just plain exciting. The early part of my career went as well as I could have hoped. I worked my way through school with an okay job. It wasn’t a career job but it was good enough. Then, I took a risk for a lower paying job with NO benefits, but in a field I knew could be a real career. I forwent income to get experience. The sacrifice was 100% worth it.

My wife and I also tried to stay out of debt as much as possible. Instead of living off of student loans, which is so tempting (so you could enjoy college more), we hustled, working and schooling. I am NOT a morning person, and my brain shuts down around 9pm, but a regular day Monday through Friday was getting up around 6am (ouch!) and getting home around 10pm (ouch!). It was hard for both of us but it was worth it to leave school with a very small student loan that was paid off pretty quickly. I got my MBA while working full time and, if I remember correctly, had only $3,000 to pay off from that loan, which was also paid off quickly. I am pushing 50 now (which is crazy, I don’t feel this old) and I know people my age who are still decades away from paying off their student loan. There’s no financial peace in having this loan hanging out for decades, haunting you.

So, speaking of college:

What about college?

College is a funny topic. In the mid 1900’s getting a degree was really important. It was also more valuable because not as many people had one. Today, it’s pretty easy to get a college degree. I have three questions for you:

(1) What do you want to be when you grow up? If you want to work in a machine shop, or some other blue collar job, you need to figure out the path to success in that field. When I was graduating from college (I got a degree in Computer Information Systems… commonly referred to as CIS or BIS or MIS, depending on the college) I heard that pipe fitters (aka, plumbers) were making $250,000 a year in Las Vegas. Not sure how true that was, but I think I read it in a newspaper.

Um… excuse me, what?? People coming out of my program were looking at $30k to $50k/year starting out, and whatever debt they had accumulated.

Look, there are a million ways to make a living. You can get old aunt Ethel’s secret family BBQ sauce recipe and actually make it big. You can open a deli, and then expand. You can start a landscaping business and end up a millionaire. There’s no shame in blue collar when you have financial peace and the lifestyle you want. I started my full time tech career at Varsity Contractors, a few blocks down from ISU. Read about Don and Arlo, the founders. There are stories of Don walking across Pocatello with a bucket and a sponge to clean someone’s house. No, he didn’t drive. I’m guessing he didn’t get paid a lot. But he and Arlo built that company into a massive industry leading organization that, I think, did over $300 million dollars a year. I imagine they did pretty well along the way.

The other company I worked for in Pocatello was Simplot. Have you studied J.R. Simplot? He has a fascinating story. He had a sixth grade education, but started buying farms and growing potatoes. Who can be successful without having even gone to seventh grade, and growing potatoes? He was one of Idaho’s few billionaires. Like I said, there are millions of ways to make a living.

(2) How will you finance your education? If you choose to go to school, think about how to finance it. Ramsey has a lot to say about this, helping you find alternatives to very expensive schools, or at least choosing a degree where you will be able to get a job (instead of some of the ridiculous, unmarketable degrees that just burden you with debt and don’t prepare you for a career).  Like I said, I worked full time while going to school. We lived in some bad places. We kept our expenses low knowing that we were in a phase of life that would not be forever.

You can get loans but if you do, please don’t spend them on jewelry or other treats. Get a job (see “get an internship” below) and pay for your expenses as best you can. It might not be as fun as hanging out with the college kids but you can save yourself decades of pain trying to pay the stupid thing off. Be creative, go to a less expensive school, etc. You really can get out of school without a massive debt holding you back from financial peace.

(3) Why are you going to college? Years ago there was a debate about why go to college. The person asking the question is someone I have a lot of respect for. However, we disagreed on why college. His answer was to learn, of course. We need to gain knowledge to improve our lives, circumstances, the world, etc. Ignorance won’t lead us to progress, and college is the path to get out of ignorance. My answer was that, no, we don’t go to college to learn. I don’t think I knew anyone who spent tens of thousands of dollars and years of their life just to “learn.” We were all there to get a degree. A degree meant a career. Sure, I learned stuff. But I felt like the learning process was painfully slow. I also knew that learning could happen without a professor and tests. I could learn with books from the library, or online with courses, articles, blogs, etc.

If you want to go to college to learn you’ll likely be a little disappointed. Just realize that your education is a life-long adventure. You could, and should, strive to learn for the rest of your life.

So, why college? Want to be a programmer? Get online courses (I do courses for Pluralsight, the leading tech course library that costs around $300/year… compare THAT to college expenses!) and read articles. Join the #100daysofcode movement. But do it. Don’t take it easy… put some SERIOUS time into learning and building your skills.

Want to work in construction, welding, plumbing, etc.? Find the right trade school for you (ask others who are in your desired trade what they would recommend) and give it your all.

Want to own a landscaping business? START ONE. Seriously, you don’t need to take history and English classes in college to help you learn how to own and run a business. I have a business undergraduate and an MBA and I’ll be the first to tell you that you DO NOT need a degree to start a business. Oh, but the entrepreneurship degree… um. No. You DO NOT NEED IT to start and run a successful business. If you are an entrepreneur you’d have been doing entrepreneurial stuff since elementary or middle school.

There are plenty of good alternatives to a traditional college education. Most alternatives will get you what you need at a fraction of the cost, and get you earning money in your chosen profession much sooner than a 4+ year degree.

In case you think I’m a college hater, I’m not. I think it’s a great alternative for some people. But it’s not the only alternative, and it certainly doesn’t mean people who choose something else are lesser than those who have gone to college (many of which call Dave Ramsey and ask how to get out from a ton of debt).

What professions should you look at?

Which of the million professions should you look at? I have no idea. I don’t know you. Here are some thought processes to go through:

What is your risk level? If you have a high risk level you are open to doing some weird, unproven things to create income. Realize that if you are in a family or household that depends on your income you might have to consider the risk level of others. High risk might mean trying and building and failing and trying again. Low risk means you get a “steady” job, which, by the way, is usually more socially acceptable. Being an entrepreneur is hard for many reasons, including not knowing when you will get paid and being different than your peers.

What kind of lifestyle do you want? You have to figure out if you need the big house on the hill or a decent and clean house in an okay neighborhood. Of course, most of us would love to live in a castle in Genovia, but I’m guessing you weren’t born into royalty. What you get will come from what you earn. Want to shop at thrift stores or do you want expensive clothes from expensive retailers? I don’t care what your answer is… that’s your preference. But you have to consider the lifestyle you want as you choose your career. Working at a job for $16/hour might seem like an amazing job while in high school but it’s hardly enough to live on your own with your own little family. Going back to the shovel concept, you need to figure out how big your shovel needs to be in order to finance the lifestyle you want, and then do what you need to do to be able to earn that shovel.

Do you want your earning to be capped? If you want unlimited income then either own your own business or go into sales (only in a company that doesn’t cap commissions). This can be such an exciting world, but it can also be really stressful. Maybe talk to people who look like they have a lifestyle you want and ask them for career advice. You might find that a career you were really interested in is too limiting, while something you never considered actually looks fun and can earn you what you want.

How important is stability and security? cough cough… I have a news flash for you: NOTHING is secure. Not a government job, not a big, bureaucratic  job. Your income security has to do with your ability to learn, your soft skills, your ingenuity, your ability to manage change, your network, and your brand. But if you want an illusion of security, consider this as a part of the career fields you look at. Talk to people who have been in that field for decades and ask them what it’s like (see “informational interviewing” below)

Do you want to travel? There are some jobs where you are travelling all the time. Sounds fun, right? It is… the first time you get on a plane. But it can get really old after that. I know people who HATE travelling. Business travel is not the same as vacation travel.

What jobs will be great stepping stones to your desired career? There are early jobs you can work in for a few years that will really propel your career. Plenty of people get an accounting degree, work in one of the grueling Big 4 companies for a few years, and then go to work for a company as a CFO with decent pay and much better hours. Sometimes you need to think about your job as a stepping stone to get you closer and closer to what you really want. That could be because you are learning your craft, or expanding your network… don’t discount the early years of your career. They might not feel rewarding, but they can be an important part of your journey. I wish I would have enjoyed those years a lot more than I did, understanding that it was temporary and a great learning opportunity.

Get an internship (or, experience)

I was lucky to get a programming internship, during my junior year of ISU, at Simplot. I was luckier that my boss treated me like a full time programmer, which meant she gave me real jobs instead of little time-wasting jobs. This was the job I was saying I took for less money and no benefits. It seemed backwards and more than one person pulled me aside to tell me I was making a big mistake. It was no mistake. The value I got working as a programmer helped me get on a fast track when I graduated.

The value was so significant I would have done it even if they didn’t pay me.

That is a very unpopular opinion, and I’m not here to debate it, but I’ve thought about it for years, and it’s true. I would have loved to have an unpaid programming internship, even working another job just to pay my bills. Getting experience I got in my internship was invaluable.

My internship was about 18 months long (then I graduated). You can look for summer internships but if you can let me advise you to find a role that you want to be in so you learn the skills for as long as you can. Great if you can get paid for it… definitely look for someone who pays you to train you, but do anything you can to get experience.

Job Search Skills

Alright let’s jump into what I think John was asking for when he sent me a request for this blog post :) If you read through my blog here on JibberJobber you’ll see that job search is what I do. I’ve travelled the world and have done countless webinars on how to find a job. I’m all about high impact activities that will get you closer to the right job. I’ll share three ideas:

Networking: This scares some people but you need to get over it. Talk to people. You don’t have to go to networking events and mingle. For a lot of people that is intimidating. For me it is largely unfruitful. I encourage you to talk one-on-one with people. Maybe talk to your friends’ parents, or neighbors, or other adults about careers. Most adults would be happy to give you their opinions. We tend to want to help people transitioning out of school, who have a lot of decisions to make. Heck, look at this super long blog post, and I don’t even know you. But I want to share some ideas that I wish I would have heard when I was getting out of school.

Use your status as “student” or “recently graduated” to your advantage. “Hey, I’m looking at some career options and am really interested in what you do for a living. What would you advise me to do right now?” People generally love talking about themselves and giving advice, and that’s exactly what you want. Just soak it up. Learn from everyone. Don’t discount anyone.

Informational Interviews: This is easily the most powerful job search tactic I’ve come across. Most people do them wrong, and I haven’t talked to a career counselor who knows how to really do them. It’s such a powerful tactic that I created the Job Search Program. This isn’t free but it’s a powerful job search strategy where I help you, daily, for six+ weeks. Informational interviews is “networking on steroids.” It is “having the right conversations with the right people.” It is one of the fastest ways to the job you want.

Personal branding. I had no idea what this was when I started my big, first job search. Your brand has been “high school kid.” Maybe it was punk or band nerd or geek or jock or quiet one. Whatever it has been, once you graduate, things change. Your brand might become “graduated and has since lived in his mom’s basement playing video games for the last three years.” Think anyone wants to create that brand on purpose? No, except maybe a few youtubers. But that brand happens. I invite you to think about what your brand could, or should be, and figure out how to create it.

I have courses on career management, informational interviews, personal branding, etc. but you can get some good info from your own research. One of my messages is to be intentional in your career. Have goals, and plans, and get to work.

Feeling overwhelmed?

You should. But you should also feel excited. The world is literally at your feet. You have a lot of choices, and that can be scary, but you get to write your own story. Most people your age are sick of living at home and want to do things better… their way. This is natural. Realize you’ll get beat up a bit, and life will be harder than you thought. You’ll learn that your parents weren’t as dumb as you thought, and some people who seemed to have made bad choices didn’t really have other options.

You’ll also learn you are more resilient and smarter than you might have thought. You can do this. Billions of people before you have done it. Listen a lot, and do things on purpose.

Good luck!

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