Graduating high school is one of those moments you look forward to as a kid. When you get to 9th grade, you’re not as excited. When you get to 12th grade, you just want to get the hell out of that place.
How are we letting this happen?
We’re losing our kids and damaging the future of future generations. High school is the most important period of a person’s life because that is when you built the foundation. Yet, we’re using wet sand, instead of hard solid rocks to build the future we all want.
This is my experience after going through high school. A four-year journey with ups and downs, but with many lessons to learn.
Before we walk into the classroom, let me show you where the seats (topics) will be:
Freshman Year - Learning English in One Day
Sophomore Year - Scaling UP
Junior Year - Creating the Next Generations of Doers & Dreamers
Senior Year - A New Beginning
I was born and raised in Venezuela. I lived there for almost 14 years. We were threatened, and our days were numbered. We moved to the U.S. out of desperation to start our lives over again: with no connections, no English, and nothing familiar. We went from living a life with luxuries to living a frugal life, yet we were determined to keep living.
I was enrolled in high school. The first day of high school began on a sunny summer day in August. The feeling was overwhelming. I got outside and waited for the school bus to pick me up. The bus later arrived at this massive high school that seemed more like a college, with over 2,500 people. Somehow, I found my first-period class. A new journey was about to begin, a journey that made me who I am today.
My first goal was to learn English in ONE day. What do you think happened? Yes? No? Well, I wasn’t even close. The only thing I had was a bunch of headaches. I didn’t care and tried again. This time the goal was learning in a week. No way! I tried again, one month. I had learned some words, and phrases, but nothing close to fluency. Yet, I tried again, six months.
Watch me say my first words in English:
After long hours of dedication, hard work, courage, asking questions, and being vulnerable enough to talk to people even though they might not understand or might laugh at me, I achieved my goal.
I learned English in six months.
How did I make this happen?
Some people think it’s just because of my age, but very few kids or adults learn the language in 6 months. I wanted to accomplish this goal and was very strategic about how to make it happen. I did three things.
Took entertaining online courses
I took an MBA course on Udemy by Chris Haroun - Chris is awesome. He even endorsed my book.
I took a bunch of courses on edX.org about economic progress, technology, and Excel.
I didn’t understand 90% of the words. I didn’t care. I would pause the video and look up the words.
I bought a $10 National Geographic & Forbes magazine subscription.
Yo No Hablar Español
Was there any reason I decided to learn English in such a short amount of time?
I always set crazy goals that I know I may not achieve, but at least I try. Here, it didn’t happen in one day, but in six months.
I wanted to get to the same level as most of my peers. I was ready for more challenges. I enrolled in college-level and honors classes. The following year, I took college level and honors courses. I was doing everything you were supposed to. What everyone told me to do, learn English, study, and get good grades. I went a step beyond, I even joined several clubs and played soccer and ran track.
I had other interests and knew that grades alone were meaningless because if that were true all the valedictorians would be rich and happy, which is not the case. Grades are somewhat important, but following your curiosity is what makes a person unique. Following my curiosity makes me happy.
My desire to learn and curiosity was everything for me. I started companies, learned to invest, became a learner and doer. I started to see these opportunities and challenges to overcome. It seemed like a video game.
Was I always like this? No, I wasn’t. I was normal. Everything changed when I took responsibility. Adversity and necessity forced me to rely on myself, so I stopped being a “normal” kid, and took full responsibility for my life. When you move to a new country and start from zero, you can use all the disadvantages to your benefit. You can complain, or you can do something.
I decided to do something.
I noticed the endless opportunities to do and learn what I was curious about. I just needed to put in the work. Then, there are concepts such as leverage that give me excitement like nothing else. We have the opportunity to leverage today’s technology such as the internet to create breathtaking projects by doing things we care about. Just by focusing on the internet, the opportunities are limitless.
The first company I started was a digital marketing agency a few months after I arrived in Chicago. I noticed that small businesses in my area were not taking advantage of social media and marketing. What did I do? I taught myself about social media marketing and started finding clients by going door-to-door, talking with people, asking current clients, and even family friends. I had challenges; I realized people don’t really trust 13/14 years-olds, so I learned to talk and present well. I didn’t know everything, but I just needed to get started.
After I started this company, I had some profits. As a teenager, I didn’t have expenses, so my earnings were pure profit.
I bought a yearly $10 Forbes subscription because I wanted to learn from the most successful people. Ironically, your teenage years are the best time to start investing because you can afford to lose (I don’t like it though), yet few teens do it. I invested in companies and even cryptocurrencies with the money from my marketing company.
I started reading and learning more about the way things work in the U.S. and in English. Most of the world’s knowledge is only in English. Once I tapped into it, my brain neurological pathways changed radically. Opportunities appeared everywhere, and I became a doer.
In the summer of freshman year, I wanted to reach the same academic level of my peers, so I took a math class (geometry) over the summer. It seemed like a smart decision, but in reality it wasn’t as smart because I could’ve spent that time working on an interesting project or learning more about a topic I was interested in. I don’t know everything.
By the time I became a sophomore. I enrolled in AP (college classes) and honors courses. I joined more clubs such as the Debate Club, Business club, Biology, among others. I also played soccer and track & field.
After a year, my English had vastly improved and I was doing well both academically and in business. I enrolled in these “hard classes,” and I was doing well, getting a 4.0 GPA by the end of the year. Meanwhile, my marketing company continued growing, and I continued to learn about investing.
I would wake up at 4:00 am, read a book for an hour, research and find a stock to trade during the day, and get ready for school. I would start trading during P.E (Physical Education) or health classes. I was crushing it and was having a ton of fun.
In the summer of sophomore year, I applied to one of the most prestigious entrepreneurial summer programs for high school students called LaunchX at UPenn. It was that program where you meet the next “Bill Gates” or “Elon Musk.” Everyone was super talented and had started companies and nonprofits before the program. It was an awesome experience. I stayed for four weeks.
The goal was to create a startup within 4 weeks with a group of people. Our startup didn’t last, but at the end of the program, I was awarded the most awards ever in the program’s history. These awards include “Best Speaker,” “Most Confident,” “Most Likely To Be Millionaire,” among others. It was a great time and I will always remember the friends I met and the experience I had.
After I got back from Philadelphia, I went to a Chicago entrepreneurship center called 1871. A startup incubator called Techstars had a program there, and I asked if any of the startups were looking for interns. I was willing to work for free. I didn’t care about the money because I wanted to learn. I worked at a drone start-up and an A.I. fitness trainer. I would go with the founders to their mentors’ meetings to take notes or help with whatever they needed to do. I couldn’t be happier learning from investors, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and overall successful people.
School was becoming too easy, so for an academic challenge. I decided to transfer to a harder school for junior year. Every decision has its consequences, and this was no exception.
I continued taking honors and college-level classes, but something more opportunities showed up. “Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunities” that I couldn’t say “no” to.
When I make decisions, I use this framework, I learned from the author and options trader Nassim Taleb. The quality of my decisions is not measured by the outcome, rather by what the other possible outcome could have been. He says, “One cannot judge a performance in any given field (war, politics, medicine, investments) by the results, but by the costs of the alternative (i.e, if history played out in a different way).”
Here, the possible outcome or even the worst possible outcome was calculated. You’ll see why.
I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know this or that, but I’ve learned to like challenges so much that now I enjoy and pursue them. As 11th grade began, so did the opportunities. I played soccer in the fall and joined a bunch of clubs (at least one every day). For me, that was the way to explore and truly know what I like and what I don’t like.
I found a program at the largest museum in the western hemisphere: the Museum of Science & Industry. It was a 5-month program.
The museum was about two hours from the suburb where I live. I woke up at 5 am, took two trains, walked, and did whatever I needed to do to get there. Sometimes I had to walk in temperatures under 10 F° or sometimes I forgot the money to pay for the train (quite an experience convincing conductors to let me in for free).
If learning more about science, technology, and engineering meant waking up before dawn, walking in the snow. I was more than willing to do it.
I want to keep being an entrepreneur. I had learned the business side such as marketing, persuasion, and selling. I wanted to learn more about the science/engineering side such as building, designing, and researching.
This museum program ended in December 2018. I wanted to keep learning about science. The opportunities for great businesses and innovation would be unimaginable.
So I signed up for the Saturday morning program at Fermilab, America's particle physics and accelerator laboratory. The program was utterly fascinating. The way it worked was that we had two hours of lecture and an hour to tour the facilities. We had researchers who talked about quantum mechanics, neutrinos, dark matter, dark energy, high-energy particle physics, among others. Then, we would go to where scientists were working on the latest supercomputers, the particle physics tunnels, and even bison. This program was one of the most rewarding science experiences I’ve ever had.
In the summer program at UPenn, I asked a speaker how he could meet billionaires and successful people. He told me about an organization where I met a girl who had written a book. I asked how she had done it, and she gave the email of a Georgetown professor. I emailed this professor and the journey started.
I worked with the professor from January until December 2019 when the book was published.
My book (Generation Optimism) is about optimism and how to create the next generations of doers and dreamers. I wrote this book because people were calling Gen Z “pessimistic, and I wanted to turn that around. Optimism is what we need to change the world. There will always be challenges and problems in the world, but the optimists are the only ones who will try to solve them.
In the second semester of Junior year I worked on my businesses, the Fermilab program, serving on my city board, writing a book, track & field, and yes school.
I was busy but had a ton of fun. It all became like watching Netflix or playing video games because I was following my curiosity.
By the end of my junior year, I didn’t do as well academically as I would’ve liked. I kept focused on the book project because I knew what was important to me.
I could either 1) Follow the herd and study super hard for school and standardized testing to maybe get into a “good college.” 2) Work on projects I cared about that helped other people and would give me real-life skills and experiences.
The summer of 2019 came and went quickly. I did some internships, participated in a Big Data program at Argonne, and had over 250 calls about the book.
Finally, senior year arrived. I tried out for soccer and made it to the Varsity team, but realized that I couldn’t really afford the time.
My book (Generation Optimism) would be published in December 2019 so I needed to finish the draft, get feedback, work with the editors, cover designers, and get endorsements. That alone could have kept me busy for the next five years.
As I was finishing the book, an article came out about me in the Chicago tribune. The TEDx organizers then reached out to me, inviting me to make two talks, one in Colorado, and the other in my hometown. Each required 2-3 meetings a week from August until October preparing, polishing, getting feedback, and practicing. That was one of my most challenging experiences ever, preparing to stand up before an audience of (700+ attendees).
I put the other work and opportunities ahead of school. The first semester of my senior year was disappointing academically, I took really hard classes (APs & Honors) having no idea at the time that I’d be giving two TEDx Talks, but I wouldn’t regret this and other choices, because if I died tomorrow, I’d rather have the book and two TEDx Talks than a great academic year. So, I went for it.
College applications didn’t go….that well. I applied to 19 schools, mostly Ivy League and high-ranked universities, but was only accepted into 4 schools, one of them a community college.
I didn’t expect them to accept me, and I couldn’t go to a high-rank college, I’d rather not go at all. Did I want to go to an Ivy League school? Hell yeah, but it didn’t happen.
I take full responsibility. It was a risk I chose to take. I could’ve focused my time and energy on the grades and standardized tests. But so much of what I learned at school just had to be unlearned. Writing in school focuses on grammar and all the formats, but the ideas are what matters. I’d write about hard and interesting topics such as changing capitalism or the history of technology instead of focusing on grammar and get poor grades.
If I had focused more on school, I wouldn’t have had the experiences I did, and I wouldn’t be writing this. I took the risk and focused on things I cared about.
Even if I had perfect grades and scores, I wasn't certain that I would get in. Ask all the valedictorians who didn’t get into Harvard.
It hurt me in the short-term, but not in the long-term. The lessons I learned from projects are irreplaceable and will give me an advantage in the future. Do I regret it? Hell no!
Thinking back, I should have treated school as a day job as Paul Graham says:
If I had to go through high school again, I'd treat it like a day job. I don't mean that I'd slack in school. Working at something as a day job doesn't mean doing it badly. It means not being defined by it. I mean I wouldn't think of myself as a high school student, just as a musician with a day job as a waiter doesn't think of himself as a waiter. And when I wasn't working at my day job I'd start trying to do real work.
School is a game, and you need to learn how to hack it. Finish your day job (school) at 3 PM, then you can start working on the work that matters.
Let me show you an example of what I value. A few weeks after the two TEDx Talks, I was invited to an event at the University of Chicago, featuring one of the authors of Freakonomics and one of the winners of the 2019 Nobel prize in Economics
I invited a friend, but he needed to study for our economic class test. Another friend, who thinks like me didn’t think twice about going and was probably more excited than me.
The friend who decided not to go might have made the right choice. While I was learning from a Nobel prize economist, he was learning about supply and demand curves. Perhaps supply & demand curves are more interesting.
I don’t blame my friend. This just shows how messed up our educational system is.
There are bad incentives everywhere in the educational system. If you learn anything from economics it’s that the way the world works is a product of incentives, and the incentives we have now are hurting us and damaging the future.
I remember a story my mom once told me. This story opened my eyes and helped me realize that grades and school mean absolutely nothing.
My mom once told me a story When she went to college, she needed a job in order to study. She made a lot of sacrifices and put in a lot of effort. She was never a perfect 4.0 student, but she graduated.
Years later, she heard that the valedictorian or summa cum laude of her class was struggling to find a job. My mom, on the other hand, who was never close to being a summa cum laude in college, had traveled the world, had a few businesses, and was doing well. If you’re so smart and got perfect grades, you can also figure out how to make money and how to be happy.
You might think the best student would be the most successful. Not quite.
Grades do not test intelligence. They test complacency, obedience, and memory. What matters to be successful is thinking differently, being creative, and following your curiosity.
My mom is brave. My mom always believed in me more than the educational system did. The educational system tests and values compliance over creativity. Why? Compliance is what makes a teacher look good rather than what makes a student interesting. We’ve gotten to a point where compliance is more valuable than curiosity or even intellect.
Curiosity is hard to measure so other things are used to make the system look good.
A few weeks ago, I asked a teacher if she could give me a grade for two projects I was already going to do (Calculating the probability of canceling school in the fall and a Monty Hall Monte Carlo Simulation), both very related to the class.
This is what she said:
I do not blame her or the people above her. They’re simply following rules. What hurts me the most is that by following these rules, we killed students’ curiosity, which is what matters in the real world.
School is more like daycare than a place for learning. There are no incentives for actual “learning.” It’s all for tests and grades.
Am I going to college? Yes, because I am interested in engineering and would like to combine it with my entrepreneurial sense to create interesting projects. And my mom is forcing me a little.
I would like to keep doing and creating different things. I even applied to the Thiel fellowship.
High school is a BS period in your life. If you think society has fouled us. Yes, they have. I’d like to think it happens because of indifference, rather than malice. There is no competition, money, or risk at play to improve the system. Therefore, it doesn’t improve.
School is made for unmotivated and uncreative students. Yet, all kids are motivated and creative. They need to be driven by their curiosity and when they are, issues such as lack of motivation, lack of attention/memory, and procrastination go away.
I’m grateful for the schools I attended. One does not attend school for mere schooling but for the friendships, community, and “life teachings.” For that, I am more than grateful. I am also grateful to some unique and different teachers, my counselors, and everyone else who helped me along my journey.
If you can learn anything from my journey, please learn this: the ability to adapt. The physicist Stephen Hawking once said, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”
Adaptability above anything else.
I was a kid who started high school knowing no English. I was a kid who had more difficulties than games. I was a kid with all the disadvantages. Yet, I knew who I was and where I wanted to go.
I thought these problems, challenges, and difficulties put me at a disadvantage, but I turned them into advantages.
If you can learn to adapt, follow your curiosity by working on hard projects and prioritize your happiness. You will succeed not only in school but in life.
Thanks to Charlie, Joseph, Jen, Doc, Scott, Johnny, Hal for reading drafts of this essay.
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