The Doors of Opportunity Are Not Closing

A dark hallway with closed doors

Do you worry that your teenager is throwing their future away by making bad choices? That, by doing poorly in high school, they’ll be unable to attend college, greatly limiting their career opportunities?

Are you afraid that the doors of opportunity are closing? That your kid is just incapable of long-term thinking?

This parental fear is both common and understandable. It’s very difficult to watch your teenager make poor decisions that will have a negative impact on their future.

But this parental fear is also wrong.

The Conventional Timeline

It’s true that if you do poorly in high school, you won’t get to attend the university of your choice right after graduating. And that means you probably won’t get to start the career of your choice in your early 20s.

But these limitations only apply to the conventional timeline:

High School → College → Career

Many people do well in life without following the conventional timeline.

Let’s look at three examples of people who’ve done just that.

The Slow Path

a tortoise walking

High School → Crummy Jobs → Community College → University → Career

A good friend of mine named Samantha did poorly in high school. She’s very bright, but family dynamics and personal difficulties caused her to deprioritize school when she was a teenager. She graduated, but not with the kind of grades that would get you into a good university. And since she wasn’t interested in school anyway, she moved to Snoqualmie Pass to be a ski bum.

For the next eight years, she worked crummy jobs for the ski area, barely making more than minimum wage. The lifestyle was good, though: snowboarding all winter and hiking all summer. Mountain life is low-stress and high-fun. But she eventually got tired of it and found herself craving something more. So she applied to Peninsula College, and moved to Port Angeles.

Samantha wasn’t sure what she wanted to study, so she tried a variety of courses. The exploration eventually sparked an interest in engineering. At 27 years old, she now had a clear goal: get an associate’s degree that set her up to transfer to a 4-year university to study engineering.

Samantha was paying her own way, so she couldn’t afford to be a full-time student. She took her time, careful not to overload herself. Getting an associate’s degree normally takes two years, but she took four.

During this time, she learned how to be a good student, got good grades, and impressed some of her professors. She applied to the University of Washington and was accepted to the aerospace engineering program.

Three years later, Samantha graduated and accepted a job with a prestigious aerospace company that works with organizations like NASA and SpaceX.

When she was floundering in high school, or when she chose to become a ski bum, there were surely adults shaking their heads saying, “Samantha is squandering her potential. She’s throwing her future away.” But they were wrong. She just needed to take her time. And now she’s literally a rocket scientist.

Rocket engine construction

The Road Less Traveled

Another friend of mine, Johnny, took an even less conventional path to success:

High School Dropout → Crummy Jobs → GED → University Dropout → Crummy Jobs → Career → Entrepreneurship → Early Retirement

He dropped out of high school junior year, got a job at a fast food restaurant, and moved into a studio apartment. For the next year and a half, he lived that way, causing his parents much anxiety about his future. Then, when his best friend graduated from high school and made plans to attend Montana State University, Johnny decided to come along.

He got a GED and applied to MSU, where he was accepted. (It was not, at that time, any more selective than a community college.) He studied computer science sporadically for two years, before deciding it wasn’t for him and dropping out.

Over the next several years, Johnny worked a wide variety of crummy jobs, the last of which was washing dishes for the deli of a local grocery store. One day, the store was having trouble with its computer systems, and Johnny stepped in and fixed them. Upon discovering that he was very skilled with technology, they hired him to be in charge of IT.

While enjoying this accidental career, he kept learning and exploring opportunities at the frontiers of the internet and technology. He hit upon a very lucrative niche, and through some creative entrepreneurship, made a boatload of money in just a few short years.

Johnny, the two-time dropout, was able to comfortably retire at the age of 35.

an empty winding road

Figuring it Out Late

High school → University → Crummy Jobs → Career → Self-Employment

Unlike my two friends, I did very well in high school. I could have gone to a selective university and gotten my career started on the conventional timeline. But alas, that was not my path.

My priority in life, at that time, was having as much fun as possible. So, rather than choosing the best college I could get into, I chose the college with the best skiing – Montana State. After graduating, I didn’t pursue a career or graduate school; I moved to Snoqualmie Pass to become a ski bum.

I lived that lifestyle as long as my body allowed. But after five years and a half-dozen injuries, I was forced to move to the city and finally grow up. I stumbled into Northwest Educational Services (on crutches) and was hired as a tutor and blog writer. This eventually blossomed into the career I now enjoy, working for myself as a tutor, writer, and habit coach.

Because I figured out my career a lot later than most people my age, I’m “behind” my peers. But so what? It’s not a race. It’s life.

When One Door Closes, Others Open

The supposedly poor choices your teenager is making right now might actually be for the best. Obstacles frequently turn out to be opportunities. Failures make great lessons. And the pain of working a crummy job for a few years can be very motivating.

The path to success is not necessarily linear, and it doesn’t have to be walked at the conventional speed or in the conventional way.

I’m happy with where my path took me, and I wouldn’t change it if I could. And I’m sure Samantha and Johnny would say the same thing.

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