My Toughest Crowd
Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get!
A friend of mine, Katherine, volunteers ad honorem in a foundation called Lifting Hands that is aimed towards helping children from a very poor neighborhood in Costa Rica learn new skills and grow up as respectable members of society.
One day while we were talking about Big Data, Solr and the typical geek stuff we discuss all the time, she asked me if I wanted to go one afternoon and talk to her kids about what it was like to grow up to be a computer programmer and hopefully motivate them. It was two groups, 10-12 and 12-14 year olds.
What I Thought
Piece of cake. I am pretty good at presenting. I’ve done it in front of up to 850 people, spent years as a developer evangelist for Microsoft/Artinsoft and now I enjoy creating content as a Pluralsight author.
People also tell me that I am good at motivating others to get into programming given the passion that I have for this field.
So my answer was a quick yes.
“What could go wrong?”
Katherine then sat down with me to explain everything that I needed to know. These were poor kids, from poor families, in a poor neighborhood (I definitevely got the point) and they were there by choice.
Those words got stuck immediately in my mind. This was great. They were not forced to attend. This is usually a good sign. They must be motivated.
This was going to be easy.
So my next step was to outline what I was going to tell them. In my mind I was going to focus on how you can set a goal, put some (or a lot) of effort into it and then you most likely will either achieve your goal or at least improve your circumstances.
It sounded simple to me.
And so the day came and there I was walking into Lifting Hands, ready to help some kids. I got to the classroom and kids started to arrive.
Kids being kids naturally wanted to play Plants vs. Zombies and Mario Kart instead of being lectured by a stranger. They also preferred their regular and well known teacher.
So I decided to break the ice and get them to talk. I introduced myself and asked them the logical question.
“What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up”
For me this was a question for which I was expecting the usual answers, something like fireman, nurse, perhaps a lawyer or two.
When I was that age I wanted to be an economist or stock broker. Ok… I was not the most “normal” kid. By third grade my reading consisted of books like Don Quixote, which was commonly used in 11th grade – and even then barely few teenagers actually read it, or Lee Iacocca’s history of how he saved Chrysler.
I did not grow in a rich family by any means, but mu grandfather was a very important politician with a great deal of power that made my life much different than most of the people I know.
Going back to the kids, I started to get a few answers that I was not prepared for. Maybe it is me, but a very young kid saying “I don’t want to do anything, I don’t want to work” was something that I was not expecting. At least not directly.
Houston We Have a Problem
And things kept going a bit downhill. Just like a German strategist once said “plans don’t survive contact with the enemy” or in a more empathising way as a boxer said it: “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”.
And these kids were on the same side as me.
So I tried to tell them about how after the teenage years, things get better. That I was a bit of a rebellious kid, but that I grew up and once I became a father I became an even better son and the world is great.
The Harsh Reality
And then one of the 12 year old girls says to me: “my sister had a kid, and she leaves the 1 year old all the time to go out to drink and take drugs”. Immediately another young kid tells me how his brother steals from time to time to buy drugs and the mother cries every night when he goes out.
At that age my main concern was getting extra lives for Mario Kart, memorizing Rivercity Ransom’s GUID like secret key and still blushed if I ran into a JCPenney underwear catalog.
Our realities were vastly different.
But don’t get me wrong. These are not bad kids and this foundation is helping them in ways that definitevely change the odds of what they will be later in life.
You don’t get to pick where you are born. But you get to pick what you do to change your future.
The Sports Star
We went back into what did they want to be when they grew up. They kept giving me answers, some of them a bit more unexpected than others. But there was one that kept coming up repeatedly: “I want to be a famous soccer player”, and they were very specific, naming their favorite – funny enough this lives when he is in Costa Rica about 200 feet away from my house. It is a great deal for many, even adults. But I don’t care about sports. If it was a famous computer programmer It would be different. Anyway…
On one hand I it was good that they had aspirations. But on the other hand I just kept thinking “a sports star”…
My Point of View
Sports star can be great. If you are a famous sports star you can make millions. They date supermodels, have fancy cars and they are lucky if they don’t end up broke and in drugs. And their career can be short as rarely you see a 40 something sports star. Same goes for movie stars, even if you succeed you can blow up pretty easily for many reasons that I will not discuss.
But is it really going to happen? My guess is that for 99.99% of kids who dream about being a sports star, it really won’t.
Even worse, a lot of these kids will not be able to make it and they will hurt their chances of making something else of their lives.
So, what do I think they should focus instead?
The world is full of opportunities for those who really work hard and even better who also work smart. Perhaps I am biased as I am computer programmer. I did study in a 4 year, full time, not much time for fun, sometimes absurdly tough university, but in programming this is not the only way.
And that’s one of the reasons why Pluralsight has been so successful. If you don’t know who Pluralsight is, it is the company for which both John, yours truly, and other 700 authors have created technical courses with the aim of democratizing technical training. This simply means provide an affordable way of getting access to the best technical resources out there.
And you don’t need to be a computer programming major to work as a computer programmer. As a matter of fact, a great deal of programmers even in the United States started their life working in something else. I frequently run into accountants, English majors, nurses, nutritionists and many from other professions that ended up in software development.
In my case I had to take compiler classes, assembly language, complex mathematics and statistics, but in plenty of cases all this studying does not guarantee success.
Let me tell you a few things that might help.
There is a Way
First of all, don’t think that I am telling you to skip a formal education. If you have the chance to go to university, by all means do it as it is a great base.
But if you can’t, there are things you can do. Life is full of opportunities for those willing to go after them. And that’s where many fail. Many want to have, but don’t don’t want to work for it.
First Step of the Plan
“Find your passion” is repeated over and over again. But it is not an absolute must. You can start with something you like or that you are good at and don’t mind doing it.
And then get damn good at it. My example is as a software developer, but it could also be as a designer or related field. Practice makes perfect.
And try to get real world experience as quickly as possible. Keep grinding forward. There is a phrase I always tell myself when I want to achieve an objective.
“Be disciplined, systematic and constant”
So you hone your skills, get real world experience and you will most likely get a job.
And now you will be able to have a decent paying, nice job that will allow you to live decently.
But I Don’t Want a Job
That’s right. But this is me. I had a steady job circa 2004. I was touring the world on an all expenses paid trip teaching Microsoft customers how to be in the latest 64 bit hardware. All was great!
But I decided to leave a steady paycheck and fail as an entrepreneur while young.
A steady job is good, but what if you wanted to have freedom and be able to go past the glass ceiling?
If you don’t know what the glass ceiling is, it means that when you grow within a company you get to a point where you can’t move any higher. There are no promotions for you. You can sometimes tell this happened to someone when they move horizontally within an organization. And their motivation may not be the highest.
And so you can work your way into entrepreneurship. I am not going to tell you how, as this is something John covers pretty well. He calls it “separate yourself from the pack”.
But once you moved from you job to entrepreneurship, doing something you love, then you will be in a great position. Because you will…
Never Work a Day in Your Life Again
If you truly love what you do, you do it well and it provides economically to sustain you, then life takes a new meaning. You will find yourself working harder and pushing yourself because you thoroughly enjoy what you do.
That’s how I feel while I work play on some of my projects and it feels amazing!
- Something that at face value seems simple, may have a surprise or two in store for you
- Things may not work out how you planned them
- And this is ok. Just be prepared
- Some people are born with an advantage in life, but that does not define what your future will be
- It is up to you to create your future
- Work hard, move ahead, take opportunities as they present themselves
- Always strive to be better… But don’t compare yourself. Try to be a better you
And that’s my story and piece of advice that I can share with you. I hope the best is in store for you.