The final page of this month’s Southwest Magazine is a column called “One Question.” The question—“What’s the best advice you’ve received?”—was directed toward Hilary Duff. Her reply ran 73 words, of which 62 had just one syllable. Including this sentence I’m already at 52 words, with only 29 one-syllable words. This is why Hilary Duff gets to be published in a magazine and I don’t. Perhaps it helps that she’s an attractive actress whose photo deserves to take up 3/4 of the page.
Since I can’t be an attractive actress or published writer, I’ve decided to comfort myself by answering the One Question myself, but better. “Better” in this context means “more words, bigger words, and no photo.” If that’s not enough to keep you reading, here’s another hook: I didn’t even follow the advice I’m about to cite.
The best advice I ever received was, “You don’t need to go to college.” I did go to college, and I would advise each and every high school kid to attend college if he possibly can. So why do I appreciate this advice?
Let’s back up and look at the mindset I had when I received this guidance. It was the 1980s and I was a teenager in Boulder, Colorado (where everybody was middle-class or higher, well-educated, and white). The conventional wisdom was that if you went to college you would get a white-collar job and be happy and successful. Oh, and we were generally encouraged to attend the best college we could.
Contrast this to the mindset of what appears to be the typical teenager today in my kids’ demographic (Albany, California; middle class or higher; well-educated; white or Asian). The conventional wisdom here is, “If you ever get a single B in high school you will never get into a decent college and you will have NO FUTURE, and by the way, grades aren’t enough so you should be taking at least four or five AP classes and also doing all kinds of extracurricular activities that will look good on your application, but no matter what you do you’re probably doomed and will never go to a top college and you’ll never achieve the standard of living your parents now provide for you, you miserable wretch.”
Okay, that’s not entirely fair. I don’t think our current crop of teens uses the word “wretch.”
The matter of perspective
As a teenager, I appreciated the odd “skip college” advice because it opened the door, just a crack, for an alternative point of view. Of course it helped that this point of view came from a successful person. Obviously if a homeless dude gave me that advice, it wouldn’t mean a thing. But by “successful” I don’t just mean “has a nice house in Boulder and some cool toys like an actual Model-T Ford that actually runs, an actual NASA space suit, a cool working jukebox, a working parking meter, and an immaculate 1950s Pontiac 8 car with fins and chrome and an in-line 8-cylinder engine so the hood goes on for days.” By “successful” I also mean “has a really wild career that he obviously loves.”
The person dispensing this advice was Michael Aisner, who at that time was the director of the Coors International Bicycle Classic, which was the biggest, most important cycling stage race ever held in this country (and which to date has never been surpassed). I’m going to throw in a caveat here: I won’t put words in Mike’s mouth and claim that he’d still give this advice today (though I suspect he would), and I’ll add that he wouldn’t necessarily have given this advice to just anybody (though I suspect I wasn’t a special case).
I got to know Mike because I worked as a volunteer for his race—not just when it was going on, but year-round at their headquarters in Boulder, Colorado—“the race office,” as we all called it. I wouldn’t say I worked as an intern, though I suppose that’s what I was, because at that time I’d never heard the word “intern,” and had no idea that volunteering your time at a company would “look good on your college application.” If you’d asked me at the time what this job would do for my college prospects, I’d probably have just shrugged, or said, “I guess it slightly damages my college prospects since I’m so distracted from my schoolwork.” I volunteered at the race office because it was a cool place to hang, and there were great people there, and I would get to use a computer, and figured I’d learn a lot.
My perspective going into that job was thus fairly compatible with Mike’s. He just took it up a notch by suggesting that if you like to work, and you are surrounded by great people, and you learn a lot, and you just keep that up, you’ll eventually start getting paid, and will go on to have a fulfilling career, and it would be pointless to halt this progress in its tracks to go sit in lecture halls for four years and incur a bunch of debt.
A couple of paradoxes
Here are a couple of paradoxes introduced by what I’ve written so far.
First, Mike himself did go to college. (Did he graduate? I’m not sure … when I asked him he laughed and said, “Do you know you’re the first person who’s ever asked me that?”) The point is, he’s had this great and diverse career history based on his ability to execute, not his formal education. Working in his office, which had no walls and no cubicles, I got to hear him in action, mostly on the phone, and probably learned more about business than if I’d studied it in college. (I’m tempted to apologize here to any business majors who might be reading this, but who am I kidding?)
The second paradox is that I didn’t follow Mike’s advice—I did go to college. I ignored his advice for two reasons. One, I didn’t have the balls to believe what he was telling me. I felt in my very bones that without a college degree, I’d never amount to anything, no matter how inspiring his example was. (I’m still glad I have that degree, even though my most important mentor, in my current career, dropped out of college because he couldn’t bear to leave a great internship at the end of the summer.)
The second reason I went to college is that even then, I loved literature and I loved writing. Studying English for four years under brilliant professors was something I wanted to do for its own sake. I recognized even at the time that this was a departure from the typical results-oriented mindset that would have me studying engineering or business. I was prepared to accept that my major wouldn’t automatically lead to good career prospects.
Why Mike’s advice was so good
What made Mike’s advice so good is that it conveyed a simple but evasive message: there are many paths to success. This is true even with conventional notions of success (e.g., big money, big house, cool toys, respect and prestige). I’ll concede that college is probably more important to one’s prospects than it was a generation ago, but Mike’s basic idea still holds true: the path everybody assumes is mandatory—that is, Perfect grades à AP classes à extracurriculars à great college à great career à happy life—isn’t the only path, never was, and never will be. While I didn’t follow Mike’s specific advice, his overall message may have emboldened me to choose the major I wanted, and worry about my prospects later.
I try to pass along this wider perspective to my daughter Alexa, who’s in high school now, but she won’t listen. After all, my cred as an alternate-path happy person is ruined because I graduated summa cum laude from a great college. Nor does it seem to matter that I took an alternate path to get there: my high school grades weren’t good enough for Berkeley, so I went to UC Santa Barbara for a couple years and transferred in later. She counters that it’s harder to get into good colleges now, and you practically have to have perfect grades even to get into UCSB. (I have no idea if this is true.)
The problem, I think, is her peer group. These are high-achieving nerds (a lot like I was at that age, except higher-achieving and more socially comfortable, because nerds are cool now). But evidently somebody is feeding them doom-and-gloom scenarios involving the necessity of perfect grades, the importance of AP courses and extracurriculars, and the implication that any deviation leads to being a hopeless miserable wretch.
Why should this be? In general, the parents in my community don’t preach this perfection-or-else paradigm. A number of my fellow parents went to non-elite colleges and more than a few like to laugh about what screw-ups they were in high school. That said, the parents of some of Alexa’s friends came here from other countries, had to work really hard and make serious sacrifices to get here, and never had the luxury of growing up in Boulder and just assuming everything would work out fine. I can’t fault their perspective, but I also can’t compete with it, because it’s easier to apply pressure than to remove it.
The best advice I can give
One of the great things about Hilary Duff’s column is that, in just 73 words, she not only passed along her mother’s advice (“do as much as you can in one day”), but turned it on its head with contrapuntal advice of her own (“I’ve learned the importance of stillness”). So I’ll try my hand at dispensing advice, too.
The best advice I can give is “Take on a hobby that is fun but competitive.” The point of this hobby isn’t to “look good on a college application,” but to learn how to stare failure in the face instead of trying to avoid it all the time. As a recovering bike racer, I’ve had to accept failure hundreds of times, which has really sweetened the deal on those rare occasions I’ve managed to succeed. The pressure here comes from within, not from some rule of thumb like toeing the line and keeping your school transcript in order.
This isn’t to say I don’t accidentally put pressure on my kid. For example, I inadvertently added to her stress in the moments before her very first mountain bike race, by the very act of trying to help her relax. It was a cold and rainy morning, and the race course—highly technical to begin with—had turned to mud. Figuring this alone was a lot for any kid to take on by itself, not to mention the head-to-head competition, I casually said, “The important thing is just to hang in there and try to finish.”
Who know this simple statement was like lobbing a grenade into Alexa’s pre-race psyche? Here is her own eloquent description of this exchange, taken from her race report:
My dad looked about as nervous as I felt, and mentioned offhandedly that his goal was for me not to drop out. This was worrisome for a number of reasons: a) my dad clearly wasn’t super confident about my abilities, and b) it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that I could drop out. The fact that I was [now] aware it was a possibility made it seem likely, and I was suddenly convinced that I would be possessed by forces beyond my control, forces that are less stubbornly competitive and ambitious than I am, and these would cause me to quit.
Of course she did finish, and placed higher than I think either of us expected, and she even took it upon herself to write a self-deprecatingly funny essay about it all. I’m cheered to see that her embrace of the “perfect-transcript-or-NO-FUTURE!” ethos hasn’t turned her into a complete CV-building, book-pounding drone.
Again with the alternate perspective
I suspect that, whatever success my daughter ultimately has in cycling, it won’t end up on her college application, and I applaud that—it means she’s doing this for its own sake, as I had. Meanwhile, this pursuit will give my daughter something more important than bragging rights: the all-important opportunity to fail at something without the world ending. She will drop out of races, and will lose races, and she will get the kind of results that don’t earn an A—but none of this will besmirch any written transcript. Moreover, as Alexa races her bike over the next four years she will realize that the traditional path toward sporting excellence—which is something like The right parents à big talent à big drive à small victories à big victories à big glory—isn’t the only one, and that alternatives exist, such as Wrong parents à embarrassing mediocrity à fighting spirit à venom à big drive à technical mastery à cunning à small victories à moral victories à ability to eat a pile of tri-tip the size of a human head and still hear people say, “I wish I had your metabolism.”
And maybe, just maybe, that accumulation of experience will give her some peace and help establish the radical idea that there are many paths to take, and an alternative path can still lead you to the success you sought, or perhaps to an alternative success you hadn’t even thought of. This process may ultimately have the same effect as Mike Aisner’s radical, incendiary words—“You don’t have to go to college”—and their subtext, “Dive in, do something you love, do it for its own sake, do it well, and you’ll be fine.”
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