My Punk Rock Advice For High School Graduates
The Case for Working Odd Jobs & Traveling Instead of Going to College
Every generation seems to have less hope staring back at them than the previous generation.
Social security and a decent retirement plan look less likely every year for the youth of today. College tuition and student debt keep increasing, and there are fewer jobs than ever.
Yes kids, you are screwed, but I am here to help.
When I was in high school, college wasn’t an option for me. I was a poor kid born and raised in Northern Michigan without the guidance and grooming that leads to college. I had dreams to see the world. As an artist, my dream was to move to New York City and become a working comic book artist, but I was told that I had better have a back up plan, but my back up plan was to be free.
I had been working since I was a pre-teen, yard work, babysitting, and a job bagging groceries and rolling shopping carts out to people’s cars and helping unload their bags into their trunks.
I worked at a grocery store all through high school, working in nearly all of the departments and paying for my school clothes and teenage needs. I didn’t learn how to manage my money, but I learned how to make it. If you were ready to do jobs that others thought were beneath them, there was always an opportunity to make money.
After high school, I flipped my middle finger at Northern Michigan’s conformist, bullying, basic-bitch environment, and began a great odyssey to find out what the rest of the United States had to offer. Back in the late eighties, you could take a bus almost anywhere for next to nothing, so a week after graduating high school I moved to the Detroit area and began working in a series of fast food joints, diners and retail positions. I learned how to cook fast and for large groups in diners. Once I learned how to cook, I waited tables in other places and was able to get jobs where I could wait tables and also cook. I stayed in the Detroit Ann Arbor area for a year before moving back to Northern Michigan for a few months and worked at a video store before moving to New Orleans where I worked in a sandwich shop for a bit before getting on a bus and heading to Southern California. Cleaning, cooking, waiting tables, meeting people from all walks of life and learning new skills.
By the time I was 25, I had worked in video stores, restaurants, book and record stores, a pet store where I raised reptiles and snakes (I had been previously afraid of snakes but had a strict “No Fear” policy and took jobs that I found intimidating and difficult). I became so comfortable around snakes that it barely fazed me the day a Colombian red-tail boa constrictor I handled daily, bit me and coiled around my wrist and lower arm.
I was so confident in my customer service skills that when I arrived in New York City with $300 and a rented closet waiting for me, I dropped off my bags to my apartment in Harlem and marched back down to Times Square and landed a job at the biggest video store in the city because of my tenacity.
Now, it is true that if you can make it in NYC, you can make it anywhere, and the life experience one receives from existing in that city is something college can’t give you and I spent a decade waiting tables, cooking, and working in video stores in the one of greatest cities on earth. I also was able to spend my free time writing scripts, auditioning for small roles, and studying cinematography and photography.
I wasn’t rich. I didn’t own much, and it wasn’t easy, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Had I been born into a rich family, I am sure I would have loved the opportunity to go to college but going in debt for an education that might not land you your dream job seems like more of a gamble in this day and age than many people can afford to take.
After a decade in New York City, I ended up back in Southern California where once again I managed video stores and ended up managing an organic coffee shop where I also cooked quiches and breakfast burritos, while building a loyal and wonderful customer base.
My secrets to being a success at your job: 1) Don't bring your problems to work. 2) Be early, always! 3) Befriend your customers. 4) Be positive, genuine, and attentive to the needs of the customers. 5) Learn to think like your bosses so you are always representing the business as they would want it done.
Another decade brought me to being a forty year old man with a new wife and baby, and an opportunity to return to my childhood home in Northern Michigan (I was no longer full of contempt for the place of my youth and was now open to understanding and contributing to the communities that helped shape me.)
Once in Northern Michigan, (where jobs are almost non-existent) I was lucky enough to land two of the most interesting jobs I have ever had, managing a skydiving phone center where I also had the opportunity to skydive and then managing a movie theater, which I currently still do. For almost four decades I worked my butt off, doing dirty jobs, fun jobs, hard jobs, weird jobs, and sexy cool jobs, and look back at every one of them as a learning experience where I met wonderful people and learned valuable skills.
If I could do it all over again knowing what I know now about money, the one thing I would have done differently is save my earnings and become money smart. I didn't know much back in my teens and twenties about credit cards, interest, investing, etc.
I would encourage all young people to weigh what skills they already possess and how they could apply it to a business, against the cost and risk of college. Clearly you can’t become a doctor or a lawyer without a degree and if you can afford college or get a scholarship, you should absolutely go and absorb the knowledge and skills available, but don’t go in debt if you don’t have to. The system is rigged against you. You are meat, and people want to loan you money if you are poor so you will be paying the criminally adjusted interest rates until you are lowered into the ground and buried.
My feelings towards the establishment haven't changed since I was a teenager and that is why I will always say “Fuck the System," and by that I mean, don't buy into the expectation that you should graduate, go to college, settle into a career, and make a family, and die. If you are an artist or creative type, this is even more vital for you because so many people don't consider creating or making art a valid pursuit. Walk a fresh path, because the results are always more satisfying and rewarding than doing what everyone else has already done.
On top of all of the jobs I have had, I have also freelanced as a photographer, acted, written and directed screenplays, turned my hobbies into businesses by incorporating and selling t-shirts, and I have enjoyed a life of appreciating art, music, movies and literature and being close to nature.
People often told me I would never amount to much without college and would be treated poorly because of my punk rock exterior and attitude, but the truth is, I traveled, I thrived and I lived by my own rules, and it was satisfying and wonderful. I listened to the words of controversial writer Henry Miller over the conventional advice society tried to drill into me. I have lived an unorthodox life full of risk and adventure. At the end of the day, and at this stage of my life, I have everything I have ever wanted, a good job, a family I love and adore, and good memories. I try to treat all people equally, fairly and authentically. I don't own much, and don't have a desire to fill my life with material things. I prioritize family and experiences over getting rich or owning flashy things. I work for what I want, and I do not want what I do not have.
My advice to young people graduating is not to listen to anyone who suggests your dreams aren’t valid or attainable. People who say something “can’t” be done are typically people who have operated out of fear for most of their life. They might be correct that you can’t do something if you take the traditional route, but there is ALWAYS a way. However, if your dream is to go to college, find a way to raise the money for it, and make it happen. I don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing a higher education, but if your options are limited financially and maybe you don’t even know what you want to major in, put off college until you know yourself better and what you want out of life. Too many kids, when finally free of their parents and comfort zones, go to college and squander the opportunity by partying and having fun and neglecting the reason they chose college in the first place.
I encourage every young person I meet to run like hell from their small town, go into the world and live, don’t have kids or get married until you are almost out of your twenties, and don’t pass up the opportunity to try new things, meet new people and expand your world view (and potentially return to your small town with your life experience and skills to invest in the growth of the community.)
People who never leave their comfort zones never get to experience the satisfaction of knowing everything you thought was the truth is wrong. Living in a vacuum, and doing the same thing year after year isn’t living, it is dying slowly.
Most people will say at the end of their life that they regretted what they didn’t do, over what they did. Don’t die with regrets. Die, having lived fully and fearlessly.