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I graduated high school in 2005 and finished my bachelor’s degree in December of 2008—which just so happened to be the worst economic turndown in decades.  Eventually, it became known as The Great Recession.  It was no Great Depression of 1929 but it was life.

I remember as a high school student when parents, teachers, and high school counselors would say things like, “You can do anything you set your mind to!”  and “You have to go to college, and you’ll get to pick any great job you want.”  Funny how life didn’t deliver on those promises.  We all anticipated that it would be a fun college experience and then we’d snag a great paying job—only we didn’t.

We graduated from college among one of the worst economies in recent history.  We saw our parents lose jobs they had held for years and even decades.  We saw people getting kicked out of their homes.  We saw people filing for bankruptcy.  We submitted hundreds and thousands of resumes and cover letters to land only a handful of phone interviews and even fewer in-person interviews.  Jobs were scarce and pay was terrible.

We learned to distrust the institutions that once built prosperity—banks, mortgage lenders, and the stock market.  We saw those as the evils that ruined many of our families and friends’ lives.  We saw the government trying to help, but we didn’t really see the support ever reach to the level where people were living their lives.  We had trust issues.

I know a lot of people express frustration with millennials, but we inherited decades of bad policy decisions, terrible personal financial choices by the adults around us, and it affected each of us differently.  Some millennials learned from this experience and made changes in the way we do life while others continued sitting on the sidelines hoping for those jobs and great lives that were promised to them as high school students.

Fast forward to 2019—the stock market had hit so many all-time highs that it was barely news anymore, students were being force-fed the lie, “You can do whatever you want in life, but you have to have a college degree and you’ll be set for life!”  I think we can all see clearly now that some degrees are worth more than others.  So many students leaving high school and college last year had the same hopes and dreams many of us had a decade ago.  So many students were punched in the gut again this spring with COVID-19.  I understand.  Many millennials have been where you are now.  Luckily, many of us will tell to you, “It will get better.”

Unfortunately, many of the graduations you have been planning for years will be cancelled.  My heart hurts for you.  Graduation from high school was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  Surrounded by friends and family.  The pomp and circumstance of it all.  The opportunity for one last piece of good advice.  You may not get some of that, but if I were speaking at your graduation this year, here is the advice I would deliver:

Life can be like a Hoover—it sucks, but it is all how you position yourself and your strengths.  Learn to use the Hoover that life dealt to you and determine to clean up your life by following a few basic truths:

  1. Don’t get in debt. High school students—think long and hard about what you are going to do post high school.  Not all colleges are created equal and not all college debt is worthy of the time and effort you put in to it.  Consider a community college for your first two years and plan to graduate without any debt.  It’s possible even if not popular.  Additionally, stay away from credit cards—they’ll suck your soul dry for years to come. 
  2. Consider alternatives to College and Universities. Not all students should go to college.  I know that’s exactly the opposite what many parents, schoolteachers and counselors and the public at large say, but what many aren’t telling you is that plumbers and electricians can make six-figures annually and have a great life doing something they love.  Best part, training for these jobs are relatively cheap and can often be paid for by working while learning the trade.
  3. Travel far and travel long. I spent some time while in college in Europe and I loved every minute of it.  I have long spent hours explaining to people, especially high school and college students, that I learned more abroad than I ever did in classroom.  The investment of travel and learning from other cultures will benefit you more in a career than any textbook knowledge you could ever glean.  (Disclaimer in number 4).  I learned things like, “Just because someone does it differently doesn’t make it wrong.” and “Sometimes people don’t understand what you’re saying and that’s ok—learn to say it in another way.”  The world is an amazing place and you should definitely go see it.  Rule of thumb, the more uncomfortable you are during your travel, the more you’ll gain from the experience.
  4. Get the right education to succeed. I know I just mentioned that traveling helps more than a textbook, but it’s important to understand that context.  People skills are a key component of success in the work force.  BIG DISCLAIMER: If you are going to be doing something hyper technical, get the book knowledge.  I don’t want a doctor operating on my foot who didn’t go to medical school but did spend a summer in Cappadocia.  There are careers where you have to get specific training.  Make sure to get it.  Additionally, when picking a major for your college experience, pick a major that will help you get a job.  Let’s be honest, every year universities are adding majors that will not help you get a career.  Don’t drop $50,000 on a degree that won’t even pay back the student loans.
  5. Look around at what is “essential. Many of you are coming of age at a time similar to mine. We are seeing our families and friends’ parents losing their jobs that we once thought were secure.  When figuring out what you want to do, pick something that will always be there—even if the world shuts down around you.
  6. Question everything. I grew up surrounded by people telling me what to do and what to think.  I honestly believe most of them had the best of intentions, but a terrible method of delivery.  My parents are awesome and one thing they always taught and continue to teach me is simply this, “You need to know what you believe and why you believe it.  Don’t believe it just because someone else told you to believe it.”  I was a late bloomer on this front.  I found the people I wanted to be like when I grow up and I would just eat up whatever they told me.  This led to a two-year long search by my wife and I to determine, “What do we believe and why?”  We questioned religion, education, career, morals and values, and much more.  We learned that some of what we believed before we still believe and on some topics we’ve changed dramatically.  Luckily, today, I can tell you, “I know who I am, and it’s based on personal research, deep thought, and questioning everything.”
  7. Invest often and invest a lot. I lost an entire decade of investments because I didn’t trust the stock market.  I saw so many people lose everything in 2008 and 2009.  I didn’t want that to happen to me.  Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that the stock market isn’t just for Wall Street.  I can make money in it just like others do.  If I would have invested money in for those first few years after I entered the workforce, I would have made a killing.  Warren Buffet, one of the best investors of our day and age, believes, “We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.”  Simply put, when the market is down, and people are getting out is a perfect time to get in.  The stock market will come back.  It always does.    One hundred percent of the time.  When you sign up for your job, invest in yourself as much as physically possible through the company 401K.  It may not be as cool as a new car or some other fun gadget, but 50-year-old you will be so grateful you invested as much as possible in your company retirement in your 20s.  I didn’t.  I regret missing out on those historical gains.
  8. Earn it, don’t expect it. Millennials have been given a really bad name by a few goobers who, right out of high school and college, thought that they would be handed everything their parents worked for 30 years to achieve.  The alternate and much quieter millennials had the stuffing kicked out of them, suffered in relative silence, but then realized that hard work would still afford a great life.  There was not a one-size-fits-all experience, but generally, those who decided to “earn it” have achieved it or are at least on a trajectory to earn it over time.  Work hard on the task in front of you and let the job outcomes speak for you.
  9. Be in the right place at the right time. I understand that this is easier said than done.  Some of the best opportunities I’ve had since I graduated from high school align with being in the right place at the right time—and working incredibly hard waiting for those opportunities to arrive.  This truth could also be titled, “Find a great mentor.”  I have had four people who I would consider true mentors.  Sure, they each taught me specific pockets of goodness related to the career trajectory I wanted to be on, but I was luckily enough to find mentors who helped me shape my views on family, politics, and people skills.  I have had fantastic job opportunities based on two main themes:  hard work on the task at hand paired with asking for more duties and being close to my mentors when new jobs became available.
  10. Get to the mountains. Ok, that is incredibly specific and not possible for many people.  Allow me to explain.  I grew up in the Rocky Mountains.  When I needed to get away for a bit, I would go to the mountains.  Your “mountain” might be in a green field, somewhere with your toes in the surf, or perhaps (as my Bay Area wife would say) in a quaint brunch spot in your favorite neighborhood.  Like her, you may not enjoy the great outdoors, but the point of this truth is you have to find a place where you can get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, put down the technology that fights for your attention daily, and create time to think.  Get lost in your thoughts.  There is nothing like the view from a mountaintop or from a beach looking at an endless ocean to make you realize how small we are in comparison to the wonderful creation of planet Earth.
  11. Finally, Hope. Don’t forget that the sun’s coming up in the morning.  It might be bleak and dark today, but it will be sunny again tomorrow.  The rain won’t stay forever.  This virus, these jobs reports, this economic downturn are not normal.  This too shall pass.  Don’t lose hope.  Find Hope and don’t let go.  Emily Dickenson said it in a very memorable way,

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.”

In conclusion—it looks bad and it is bad currently.  Let’s not sugar coat anything.  Luckily for all of us, it won’t always be bad.  It will get better.  As my grandfather used to say, “Focus on the job at hand.  We’ll get to the rest after we finish this.”  Let me encourage you to think about today.  Tomorrow will take care of itself if we can focus on what the goal is for today.  And if all else fails, sing a little song from an orphan named, Annie.

“The sun’ll come out
Bet your bottom dollar
That tomorrow
There’ll be sun…”

Chase Eskelsen, Verano Learning Partners, Chief of Staff | The Verano team has been tasked by their board to launch new and innovative school models and they are currently opening new schools worldwide.  Mr. Eskelsen has his Master’s in School Administration and wrote his thesis around the topic of Education Policy for Virtual School Programs.

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