Notes from a talk to high schoolers

I got invited to talk to a group of 90 high schoolers at Columbia yesterday, and as usual, I didn’t prepare slides but just took a walk and thought about the things I’ve learned (and repeatedly not learned) along the way.

For one, I’ve learned always to curse when talking to either high school or college students.  They’re old enough to hear it and it makes them pay attention.  In this case, I somehow also managed to work in a comment about breast implants during this talk.

It made sense at the time.  One student asked what the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur is and I replied that, for me, it is knowing something that can make the world better and simply not having the resources to get it implemented.  To which another student followed up: when that happens, how do you get the attention of the people with resources?  I talked a bit about sources of resources, how pitching works, and then…breast implants.  As in “don’t get breast implants to impress a guy, don’t change your morals to get an investor.  Do, however, take showers and wash your clothes and be willing to be more conventional than you might want to be in order to fit in well enough to get heard.”

I also talked a lot about the fact that startups aren’t just their CEOs.  The media tends to talk a lot about the public faces of companies, because they are public and because we like our heroes.  But the majority of people at startups are not founders or CEOs.  They are employees who found a niche and learned to fill it well.  Startups are a collective endeavor and we need to get serious about training the next generation of employees.  Not just founders – employees.

My point to the students was to find what you’re naturally good at and do that.  Don’t just pick a title off the board and say “marketing sounds cool, I’ll do that.”  Actually look at what you are uniquely suited to do.  And of course, because I didn’t talk enough about how to do that, one girl actually wrote me afterward to ask how to know what you’re good at in the first place.

Which is actually a tremendously hard question.  Until you get into college and are able to experiment with different areas of curriculum, it can be very difficult to know where you fit into the workplace.  Which is why internships play such a critical part of our tech employment ecosystem: they allow people to see what different roles at a company actually do, day-to-day.  Education needs to look more like internships, and until it does, the only recommendations I can make are about experiencing as much (with as much diversity) as possible, listening to where people give you positive feedback, and carefully looking at your own projects for where they have succeeded and failed.

In some ways, that is also a challenge to innovators, HR people, and the entire adult community.  While education sorts itself out, try to create at least one new internship every quarter and do your best to make those valuable, not just “copy this” jobs.  People in tech complain there isn’t enough talent around?  If you can’t find it, make it.