An Open Letter to High School Graduates

This open letter will apply to anyone. However, I’m thinking about you, K, T & E.

One item on my bucket list is to deliver a commencement address. Being that not a lot of high schools are looking for a 29-year-old blogger to speak life’s lessons, I instead am choosing this open letter format as my forum.

It’s decision time. Which college will you go to, if any? Who will you take to prom? Will you use protection? Some will call the next few months the most important of your life. They’re not, but nobody wants to hear that.

It’s also time for graduation parties, graduation speeches, and most certainly loads upon loads of graduation advice. Some good advice; mostly bad. Everyone around you, whether they know you or not, comes out of the woodwork to provide advice to you on how to live the rest of your life. This article is me, coming out of that woodwork…

So, how will I go about making my advice stand out over any that other drivel? Well, let’s start by developing a rapport with each other. I’m going to help you decipher what advice is total BS; then, I’ll give you the “real talk” version of that advice (isn’t that what you kids say, “real talk?”).

Everything labeled “BS Advice” is real, actual advice from around the internet (always a reliable source), from graduation speeches, from celebrities, and on and on.

image001 (1)BS Advice on Time: Don’t grow up too fast. Don’t rush through life. Carpe Diem. Your college years are the best you’ll have. Etcetera…

Real Talk: In 10 years, you’ll recall your late teens and early 20’s quite fondly, but I promise you that they won’t be your best years. You’re going to have good years here and bad years there all throughout your life—your next few years are no different. Looking back at my college-aged years, I recall my scant responsibilities, endless energy, free love, and my general obliviousness to the real world. But, let me tell you…in your next five or six years, one or two of those years are probably going to be pretty shitty. You’ll burn out on part time work, being poor, homesickness, having three finals on the same day, breakups, and it goes on and on.

Robert Browning said, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be. I would agree with that. Life almost continually gets better. For me, living in the Army barracks as a 19 year old in Alaska, hiking around the mountains on weekends, teasing the wild moose, drinkin’ every night, and having basically zero bills was all well and good, but not for a second would I trade that life for the life I have now—going home each night to my beautiful wife and daughter. Life changes, and there’s always good and bad, but the trend is usually upward.

image003 (2)BS Advice on Love: Be careful about falling in love the first time. Share your heart, just don’t give it away. Don’t take a bad relationship out on the next one. Etc.

Real Talk: The above isn’t necessarily bad advice, I’m just realistic enough to know it won’t do you any good. I could tell you these things until I’m blue in the face—but I know better. You’re going to fall in love when you’re young, you’re going to fall hard and you’re going to fall fast. You’re going to imagine a blissful wedding and a life of pure happiness. Then, ta-da, it’ll all come crashing down in a blaze of glory and three howling weeks of Adele albums. You’re going to get jaded, start telling everyone “I’m gonna just stay single for a while,” and then fall in love again and do it all over. It’s gonna happen, no matter what I say. If I did try to warn you, you’d just say “no, this is different,” or “we’re truly in love,” or “we’re soulmates.” Yadda yadda yadda. Every person in world history has said those same things (and gotten the same results)—the very definition of insanity.

I’ll just say this: for my sake, don’t have any kids until you’re married, don’t share your bank account information, and try to limit any “domestic disturbances.”

image005 (2)BS Advice on Lifestyle: Don’t do drugs. Be kind to your body. Get enough sleep. Etc.

Real Advice: Let’s be honest, most of you will do drugs. Over 100 million Americans have used weed. One in ten of us use drugs on a regular basis. A much higher percentage abuse alcohol and cigarettes. And, among other lifestyle decisions: “get enough sleep” and “be kind to your body…” really? You’ll do neither of those things and you’ll enjoy every minute of it. For what it’s worth, your body can take it. You have tons of energy. You have an innate ability to overcome hangovers. When you hit your late-twenties to mid-thirties and you no longer have the physical capacities for such shenanigans, you’ll scale it back. Trust me—you won’t have a choice.

If I can give you some real advice, it would be to not do synthetic drugs (I’m lookin’ at you, Xanax). If that’s still too restrictive for you, then I would say, don’t do meth.

image012 (1)BS Advice on Work: No one is going to give you anything. The cavalry ain’t comin’. If you want something, you gotta earn it. Life isn’t fair. Etc.

Real Advice: I think the above is BS advice because I think it disrespects your intelligence. If you’re like me, when I was 18 I wasn’t so disillusioned to think that I wouldn’t have to work hard. I didn’t naively think I would marry a millionaire. Like most of you, I worked in high school, I worked for my grades, and when I didn’t work or didn’t study I was broke or got C’s.

I believe most of you are quite the same. You are going into this knowing full well you’re going to have to work hard. You already know that life isn’t always fair. I mean, unfair things happens to kids all the time. You aren’t expecting the “cavalry” to come pay for your retirement. You aren’t expecting any of that.

So here’s some real advice. In nearly all circumstances, life is fair. Saying “life isn’t fair” is loser talk; it’s a victim mentality. It implies that your circumstances are out of your control; they’re not. Life is surprisingly, refreshingly fair. If you work hard every day, then you’ll probably get promoted. If you are nice to people, you’ll probably have lots of friends and good connections. Sure, unfair stuff happens. There are injustices every day, but they’re rare and are very unfortunate. If you stay up late at night, you’ll probably be late for work the next morning—it’s just that simple. I won’t presume to think you’re stupid enough to believe otherwise.

image010 (1)BS Advice on Money: Don’t worry about your college debt.

Real Advice: Most advice on money is pretty decent (pay yourself first, make a budget, etc.). I think the problem is that it’s hard to get those who receive financial advice to embrace it. Not worrying about your college debt, though, is just straight up stupid. You do, believe it or not, need to worry about your college debt. In your teens and 20’s you are filled with Popeye’s strength and a Kenyan’s endurance—you should be working. And, between the abundance of low-cost community colleges with University matriculation agreements, CLEP testing, AP classes (hopefully you took some), student aid, and part time work, there’s no reason you should graduate behind the 8-ball of debt even if you didn’t get a dime in scholarship money. I view student loan debt as a horseman riding to your financial apocalypse. If you are foreseeing a sea of debt to pay for college, then hit up the old military recruiter—very few people regret that decision (seriously).

When you graduate college and take your last final exam and walk across that stage, I want you to have options. I would love for you to tell me at your graduation, “No student loans baby! I’m going to backpack across Europe for six months staying in tents and hostels.” Or, “No student loans baby! And I just accepted this sick unpaid year-long internship in Napa Valley!” Or, “No student loans baby! I’m gonna go to graduate school!” Or, “No student loans baby! I’m gonna get a job!”

Can you sense a theme here? Student loans won’t kill you, but they will kill your options.

My Advice to You

Life is a funny thing. It’s a lot like interval training—things go really slow for a while then everything happens all at once. In the 15 months or so between the time I proposed to my wife (see proposal video here) and the time we got married, I remember about one week of it (the final week), because it was an absolute insane mad rush to bring all the wedding stuff together. Same thing with our first pregnancy. I remember the last few days of it like it was yesterday, the other 41 weeks is just a blur.

The problem with telling young people these sort of things, though, is that they can’t do anything about it. I don’t think that you’re going around saying, “I take all my time for granted.” I think you understand how fast time goes—I’m sure you’re amazed that you’re already done with school and that it probably seems like only yesterday you got on the school bus the first time. So for that “cherish the moment” advice…meh, you can have it.

I do, though, have two pieces of my own advice—apart from the above “real talk.” These are things I didn’t know at 18 that I wish I had.

image016Advice #1: Invest. Now!

You have something I don’t have. Something I will never have. You have ten more years than I do. I can’t tell you how powerful that makes you. Time, as you can guess, is your most valuable asset.

There are a lot of sayings that begin with “There are two types of people in this world…,” but there’s only one that I subscribe to:

“There are two types of people in this world: those that work for money, and those that have money work for them.”

You know these two types of people by different names. You probably call them, “poor people” and “rich people.”

You need to make your money work for you. I can’t stress this enough. Seriously. I want to take you by the shoulders and shake the daily shit out of you—I’ll do it, don’t think I won’t—to get you to understand this.

It’s darn near impossible to get somebody to understand the time/money connection before it’s too late. I was the math league captain at my high school for cryin’ out loud—led us twice to State—and even I had no clue as to how valuable my years as an 18 or 19-year-old were when it came to money. I won’t go into all the details here about how insane compound interest and dividends are (see this post, if you desire), so you’ll just have to trust me.

Somewhere behind “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” (Gandhi) and “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Socrates) is one of the most well-known quotes of all time:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

That elegant quote from the Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken,” leaves out a vital contextual component. The road divergence Frost speaks of is almost always seen only in hindsight. You might be surprised by this, but the most important decisions you’ll make in life won’t seem all that important in the moment in which you make them. If I’m not sitting next to the house phone one wintry night my junior year, I never join the military. If I decide to skip a colleague’s going-away dinner, I never meet my wife. If I choose a different seat at a team lunch last March, I never work on Wall Street. Have you ever seen the movie Sliding Doors? The smallest things have huge effects on your life.

This moment, my friends, (yes, right now) might be one of those moments for you. If you take the next hour to quickly set up an account at Sharebuilder, Loyal3, or TradeKing (these are all discount brokerages insured by SIPC), and throw in just $50 or so and buy a share of stock, I promise your life will be forever changed for the better. How can I promise this? Because, I know that once you’re “in the game,” that you will crave knowledge on how investing works, how compound interest works, how dividends work, how companies work. And then, you’ll see for yourself the magic that I’m speaking of. Sure, you can try to learn all of this before you invest, but I assure you that going into “analysis paralysis” will cost you. Just do it. Buy a share of Nike, or Wal-Mart, or McDonalds—a company you know and a company you know will be around for a while. Do that first, then learn. For what it’s worth, I know full well you won’t do this. I can see the outbound clicks from my site and nobody ever clicks on those brokerages I listed. That’s unfortunate, because it’s so easy to dramatically improve your situation in life with just a few minutes of effort.

When I decided to start this blog, I wrote my first three posts right away. At that time, I didn’t have a computer or an internet connection—I just wrote them. I knew I had to start. I could’ve first read “Blogging for Dummies” and learned to code HTML and CSS, but that would’ve taken a month (or more). Doing something is almost always a good decision, because doing nothing is almost always wrong. So, just do it. Here are those links again: Sharebuilder, Loyal3, or TradeKing. I make nothing by you clicking on them, I just simply care about you.

Advice #2: Take the Red Pill

In The Matrix, Morpheus says to Neo:

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

What the heck am I talking about? Well, let’s suspend reality for a second. I’m Morpheus (although I could never pass myself off as the handsome Laurence Fishburne), you’re Neo.

You probably have a very general sense of how the timeline of life goes:

0-18: You grow up, go to school, make some friends, try not to have any childrenimage018 (1)
18-23: College, partying, follow U2 on their European tour
23-27: First job, play the dating game, learn the club scene
28-32: Find your soulmate, settle down, buy a house, make a couple kids, get a promotion
33-39: Raise kids, become a mid-level manager
40-50: Raise kids until they get into college, figure out how to pay for it, progress further into career, now a full-blown manager/VP. Mid-life crisis.
50-60: Start sockin’ away a solid retirement nestegg, you’re making good coin at the job now
61-67: Retire
67+: Enjoy a solid 15-20 years of retirement. Doing all the fun things you never used to have time for, so long as your knees and back hold up.
TBD: Die, all worn out.

That, my friends, is the “blue pill” version of life. That path of life you’ve seen taken many times. Probably by your parents, your uncles and aunts, your teachers. Almost everyone.

Here’s the “red pill” version of life:

0-18: No Differences
18-23: No Differences, except you make sure you graduate with no debt. You live smart. You have a ton of fun.
23-32: Your working years. You continue to maintain some of the lifestyle you got used to in college, living smartly and efficiently. Avoiding consumerism. You spend less than half your income. You invest the other half of your income in solid, dividend-paying stocks. You get your significant other on the same wavelength as you, doubling your saving efforts and splitting your expenses. Over ten years you’ve sock away 20x-25x your yearly expenses.
33: Retire
33+: Enjoy a solid 60 years of retirement, living a life of total freedom and ownership over your time.
TBD: Die, happy and fulfilled.

There is a lot going on behind the scenes in the “red pill” version, but it’s not impossible—far from it. Many people have done it (Here are some: RoG, MMM, FS, FIF). I’m going to do it (although 34 will be my retirement year, not 33). Look at my earnings history and you’ll see that I didn’t land some amazing job after college, I just had to make a decision to do it.

You can do this, and I want to help you on your way. Take the red pill. You can always work (most do), but I promise that it doesn’t have to be that way. Your life is a gift from God, it is meant to be enjoyed, to be fulfilling, to be amazing. Spending 70% of your life under artificial lighting for most of your waking hours is not the path for you. I promise that it’s not.

Do you want to know the first step in taking the “road less traveled?” You want the first step in the “red pill” version of life? See Advice #1.

In Conclusion

I’ll borrow one more quote from Mr. Robert Frost:

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

Indeed, it does. Godspeed to you!

Thank you for reading,


If you enjoyed this post, I strongly encourage you to forward it to somebody who might find it useful at their stage in life.


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