Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Advice to My Teen-Aged Sons

Bill and Joe,

“Dad, please tell me you are not going to lecture us yet again on blah blah blah!”

Everyone hates to be lectured.  You cannot deal with the ideas of a lecture at your own pace – the lecturer forces the pace on you.  So the trick is just to pay enough attention to be able nod at the appropriate times, but otherwise sing a song to yourself until it’s over.  Am I right?  Reading, on the other hand, allows you to digest some ideas at your own pace.  Hence this little memorandum for your consideration.

“Dad, what the heck are you talking about?”

Each of you is on the cusp of big changes as you enter high school, and you are going to have to make a lot of decisions that will have a big impact to you over the next four years and beyond.  Most of your prior decisions in your life didn’t carry with them any real lasting impact.  That is about to change.

“OK, we get it, lots of tough decisions coming our way, can we stop reading now?”

Well, you can, but before you do you have to realize that while some decisions will be obvious, most of the big decisions don’t present themselves as decisions.  If your buddy at school says to you, “hey, you and I are cool guys, let’s go get some beer, drink it all, and then drive home,” this presents to you a very obvious decision point.  Less obvious is the more repeated innocuous (look it up!) version of something similar – “hey, do you want to hang out?”

“So, whether or not to hang out with my friends is a big decision?  Wow Dad, just Wow!”

In and of itself on any given day it is not a big decision at all, but cumulatively over the next four years it could be huge.  You have approximately 35,000 hours to live in the next four years.  If you sleep eight hours a day … well, knowing you guys, let’s make that 9.5 hours a day, then you have 21,170 hours of awake time over the next four years.  Subtract the time you spend in school and we get about 15,822 hours.  That amounts to about 76 hours per week, but of course in the summers you’ll have more than that, and during the school year less.

“Great dad, way to demonstrate your simple math abilities.  Is the point of this that you don’t want us to spend 76 hours per week bumming around with our buddies?”

Well, that’s up to you.  It’s your decision.  Not really, but let’s pretend that it is.  It’s time for me to introduce a little economics into the equation.  Decision making in economics is about trade-offs.  For example, if I buy a new TV, I won’t have money to go to Cancun for Spring Break.  I cannot do both, and so I have to choose where to spend my money based on what I prefer more.  Time is like money – you only have so much of it, and you cannot do two things at once.

“But Dad, look at me, I can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

I can’t look at you – you are reading this, so stop trying to be funny.  Now where was I?  Time is scarce, and doing one thing precludes other options, so you have to start thinking of how you spend your time as a decision that has lasting implications.  Time is like money in another way – in general you have two ways to spend it.  With money, you can either spend it on what economists call consumption goods, or you can invest it.  A consumption good is anything that you want, that brings you pleasure.  It could be a new video game, a trip to the movies, even travel.  An investment is different.  In general, you don’t get pleasure out of making an investment, because the purpose of the investment is to make more money down the line, allowing you to spend more money on the things you want – i.e. consumption.  So, as an example that has nothing to do with Texas, you could decide to take $20, go to the movies, and laugh at stupid Will Ferrell jokes while choking on your popcorn, or you could invest that $20 in a snow shovel.  Having the snow shovel enables you to make money shoveling walks on snow days.  Maybe one good day will net you $100.  The investment results in a recovery of the initial cost, plus $80 additional dollars that allows you to go to the Will Ferrell movie and still have $60 left over.  So when you invest, you give up something you would otherwise want today, in exchange for getting more things you want in the future.  If you don’t invest, you won’t have as much to spend in the future.

“Can’t I just ask you for the money and not worry about shoveling snow?”



No.  You can’t.
But forget about money, let’s get back to time.  Or more precisely, let’s talk about how the two relate.  At your age, you have very little money, but you have lots and lots of time. Time with no money is like having a good looking girlfriend who is sick all the time –it’s nice to have, but there are limits to how much fun it affords.  Just like with money, you have two options with your time – you can spend it doing things that are fun, or you can invest it.  An investment of your time doesn’t give you more time tomorrow, but it does give you either more money or more time doing something you really want to do. 

“Dad, the fact that I am nodding agreement is really just a way of trying to make you feel like you are making sense right now, but you are all “consumption this and investment that.’’

Yeah, I get it.  Hazzards of having an economist as a dad.  Let’s talk about some concrete examples.  Playing video games, or just hanging out with your friends – these things are like consumption spending.  They are fun while they last, but there is no later payoff to these activities, so as compared to investing your time, they come at a cost.  Namely, by not investing that time, when tomorrow rolls around, you have less money to spend, or you otherwise lose out on something you want.  Forget about money and let’s talk about how investing or consuming your time effects how your future opportunities are effected.
For example, if you want to make the high school basketball team, what you are saying is that when the season rolls around, you want the coach to pick you and then you can participate in all of the practices and games over the three-month season.  Your goal involves a decision to spend a lot of time during the season dedicated to basketball.  If you don’t make the team, you won’t have access to the gym, the coaching, and the teammates to scrimmage with, and you’ll be left with lots of time on your hands that you would rather be using to play basketball.  Now, in the months prior to the season, your time allocation decisions will affect your prospects for making the team – if you goof around and don’t practice, you won’t make the team.  If you invest your time in getting better, you improve your chances of making the team, and getting an opportunity to spend your time in the future the way you want to.  So you see, decisions about how you spend your time today effect what opportunities you have for spending your time in the future.

“So you want us to spend 76 hours a week practicing basketball?”

No.  I want you divide it evenly between baseball and basketball.  Just kidding.  All I want is for you to realize that there is a connection between how you spend those 76 hours and what opportunities will become available to you.  How you spend your 76 hours per week over the next four years is going to determine a lot, but most people don’t relate their goals, which they regard as decisions, to the allocation of their time, which they simply roll with day by day.

So, for example, you may decide on a goal to make the U.S. curling team for the 2018 Winter Olympics.  Saying that out loud to your buddies doesn’t really commit you to anything.  If it’s a decision you truly make, you have to make it every day thereafter leading up to the Olympic trials in how you allocate your ...  I am sure you can complete the sentence.  Oh, you can’t?  Time, you nimrod!  It’s about allocating your time.

If you spend your 76 hours per week playing NBA 2k14, don’t expect to get any better at silly activities like sweeping ice vigorously in front of some smooth stone – that takes hours of practice sweeping ice vigorously in front of some smooth stone.  The grand decision is to set a goal to make the team, but this is followed by thousands of little micro-decisions that are either consistent with that goal, or incompatible with it.

“But what if we spend 76 hours practicing curling with our buddies?”

Yes, that is a great idea.  You will hopefully make friends who share the same interests and have similar goals.  So if playing high school basketball is a shared goal, it is a great idea to make practicing together one of the main ways that you hang out together.  So there is some potential ability to do both.  But if your friends don’t share that interest – it is an “either – or” decision – either I get better at baseball, or I hang out.

Remember, when you invest money rather than buy something for consumption, you are giving up something fun today.  Investing involves a sacrifice with the hope that in exchange for giving up something today, you’ll get something you want even more tomorrow.  It’s about delayed gratification.  And the thing about it is this – most things you will want in your life require sacrificing other things in the short-term in order to make the necessary investment needed to deliver those goals. 

“OK, so you want us to hang out with our friends only if we are all sacrificing something for the future?  76 hours of pure investment?”

Ahh, here’s the beauty.  You can get by on a lot less than 76 hours and realize a lot of your goals.  But you can’t get by on zero hours.  Many kids rely on zero hours, and then they are left to wonder why opportunities don’t come their way later on.  Think about how you spent your free time in just the last week, and then ask yourself what long-term goal is served by how you spent that time.  If you spent it watching TV and playing video games, the answer is it didn’t serve any long-term goal.  So if you are starting at zero – and many kids are – even just 30 minutes a day dedicated to some goal will lead to a big improvement.   

“But dad, you know we have a lot of homework and studying that we have to do for school, so that kills a lot of hours as well.”

Yeah, you are right.  And that, in addition to the hours you spend in school, is a large investment of time in learning things that will provide you better opportunities tomorrow.  In the most obvious case, if you never learned to read and write, you would have a difficult time learning how to do any skilled job, and your income prospects would be very limited.  Let’s pause and think about that investment for a moment, because you don’t even realize how much is being invested.

From your perspective, since you are a free-loading teenager, all you think about is the time aspect.  From first grade through high school, you will spend about 36 hours per week attending school and doing homework.  So that is a pretty big sacrifice, but it is not the entirety of the investment, because schools cost money.  We have to pay for teachers and facilities and for the byzantine bureaucracy (but that’s another story).  That costs us roughly $120,000 to get you from first grade through high school.  And then there is time that your mom and I spend helping you with homework, keeping you on track, driving you to and from school.  Hopefully, you’ll spend another four years in college, requiring the same or more hours per week, and costing you, in combination with good old mom and dad, another $200,000.  By that time, with a high school degree, you are probably also foregoing $100,000 of potential earnings.  In total, that is $420,000 and 30,000 hours of your time to get you from being a kid carrying a Sponge Bob lunchbox to a college degree.

“Wow, I never looked at it in that way before.  You oughta be an economist, dad!”

Yes, I’ve been told I have a knack for that.  So here is the bottom line – think about how much of your extra time is going to add to that investment, and in what way.  Because guess what – all of those numbers and hours just puts you on par with anyone else with a college degree at the end of the day, and the world is chock full of Starbucks barristas that have a bachelor’s degree.  The good news is it’s not chock full of kids who have a degree in a technical field from a prestigious school.  And if you can achieve that, you’ll be on the right end of that Starbucks counter on your way to a promising job.  The bad news is that who falls into that category will depend in part upon who adds the most to that baseline investment. 

“Dad, it seems like you are flipping between school work and sports, so which is it?”

It’s both, because both have their place.  And both have similar attributes that help you to develop certain crucial lifelong skills.  Both involve setting goals.  Both require work to achieve the goals.  Both provide important feedback about your success or lack thereof.  Both will involve setbacks, and learning how to trip without falling is important.  Both will also involve the realization that certain goals are beyond your reach, and you will learn that there is honor in giving it your all even against the odds, and even if it comes to nothing. 

“What if I fail in reaching a goal?”

I don’t know.  That’s never happened to me… Just kidding.  If you are not failing in some goals, you’re not setting the right goals.  Coach Chris had a great comment one night after your basketball training – “what they don’t tell you is that you have to fail and fail and fail again in order to succeed.”  He was talking about basketball, and it certainly applies there. If you are practicing a new move in isolation, you will not be very adept at first.  You’ll dribble it off your foot, or your footwork will need work, etc.  You have to repeatedly fail until it becomes easier.  And then you get into a one on one game, with a defender, and you try the move, and you fail again and repeat until you can do it with some degree of success.  And then finally you do it in a real game situation, where there is helpside defense, etc., and you repeatedly fail until you don’t.  But it applies in other areas as well.  Venture capitalists are people who lend money to entrepreneurs who are trying to start new businesses, especially tech businesses.  There is a rule among venture capitalists – never lend money to an entrepreneur who hasn’t already failed two or three times in trying to launch a business.  Venture capitalists understand that a would-be entrepreneur has to fail before he can succeed. 

“Does it make sense ever to abandon a goal that seems unreachable?”

Wow, that’s a great question, and the answer is yes.  One of the most useful white lies people tell kids is that they can be anything they want to be – it is important for kids to believe that, even if it’s not true.  Looking at sports as the most obvious example, practically every athletic kid growing up wants to be a pro athlete, and probably 1 in 10,000 achieves that goal.  That 1 kid does not make the pros because he is unique in being the only one who believes that he can, and acts accordingly – it is more likely that he made it because he is 6’10”.  No matter how much you may believe you can someday play pro basketball, you cannot believe yourself into growing to be 6’10”, and there are millions of athletic 6’2” guys. 
And here we get back to the limits of your time.  Frankly, if your grades are good, I have no problem with you pursuing a completely unreachable goal that has no chance of success, because you still learn the value of hard work.  But what you may find is that other opportunities become available to you that become comparatively more attractive, and you cannot pursue both at the same time.  I got cut from Freshman basketball and was devastated.  At that point I had to make a decision – do I try to improve and try out again next year?  If I decided that, it would have been wise for me to quit cross country and track, because those two sports obviously took a lot of time.  But I knew if I stuck with cross country I’d probably be part of a state championship team eventually, and all of my friends were on that team.  The two goals were incompatible, so I had to choose one. 

To be perfectly honest with you, in looking back on it I failed to make the basketball team as a freshman because I wasn’t really committed to that goal.  To be more precise, I was afraid of making it a goal, and then failing.  That summer I could have gone to the public courts and played two hours every night.  But I made the “decision” not to.  I didn’t sit down one day and say – “I will not go to the courts this summer to practice” -  but how I used my time was completely consistent with that kind of statement.  Even though I preferred playing basketball to running, because I was afraid that I might try and still fail, I effectively decided to not try and see what happened.  That way, in the back of my mind, I could look back and say I could have done it if I had tried.

That is the only kind of regret you should have in life.  You should never regret trying and failing, but you should always regret not trying because you feared you would fail.  The world is full of people who say they could have done this or could have done that followed by some excuse that exonerates (look it up!) them from responsibility for the fact that they didn’t.  Don’t be the kid who could have made the team if he had practiced during the summer.  All you are telling people is that you have a talent that you were too lazy or scared to develop.  If you try and fail, there is no shame.  Your talent is God-given, so it is not to your credit; what you do with that talent, however, does speak to your character. 

Getting cut from freshman basketball is really a small thing in retrospect, and to be honest, as a 5’9” player my upside was limited anyway.  But the same dynamic nearly did me in on a much larger scale when I was working toward my Ph.D.  I had a profound fear of failure that nearly led me to just not try, so that I would be able to rationalize my failure by claiming I could have complete the Ph.D. but I just really wasn’t interested.  But one day it dawned on me that if I was going to fail, and there was a good chance I would, I didn’t want to have an excuse.  I wanted to be able to say that I gave it my all, but just wasn’t up to the task.  I wanted the reason for failure to be a lack of God-given intelligence, not a lack of commitment or effort on my part.  That fortunately worked out for me, and financially it has probably made a big difference.  But even if I had failed in that way, I knew I would never regret the effort, whereas if I had just given up I would always have a nagging regret.

“How do I know what goals to set?”

It’s less important that you set a specific goal than that you set a goal period.  At one point in graduate school, I was going nowhere with my progress toward my Ph.D., and thought constantly of dropping out.  Writing a Ph.D. thesis is not something you can simply sit down one day and do, and I really had no idea where to start.  So I came up with a goal that had nothing to do with my Ph.D. – I was going to run a marathon.  Now I had something to motivate me to get up in the morning, and every time I stuck to my training it was a validation of my ability to stay disciplined.  It spills over into other areas.  It is not surprising that high achievers are high achievers in many areas of their life – professionally, in their family life, in their community, and maybe even as an amateur athlete or coach. 

“So you don’t know what goals we should set?”

Of course I have my own ideas.  Let’s start with school.  With respect to your education in high school, your main goal should be do what you have to do to create good opportunities for yourself when you graduate.  That is, work to be able to get into a good college.  It’s pretty simple – take challenging courses and learn to develop the study habits to do well in them.  Getting good grades is not necessarily about how smart you are.  Your habits will matter a lot.  I was a very efficient studier – I didn’t screw around and I developed the ability to hold my concentration for an hour at a time without taking a break.  In college, I’d see guys heading to the library to study for a final all day long – eight hours with books spread out over a table with a few friends – and I’d get as much done as them in 2 or 3 hours of intense study.  It’s quality, not quantity that matters. 

Right now I see how you guys do work – and this is partially a function of your age – you cannot hold your concentration that long to learn complex things.  This is why, for example, when you see your teacher go through a math problem in class and it seems to make sense, you can still have difficulty when you get home.  It is one thing to understand the logic as she goes from step to step.  It’s another to have the working memory to whip through the steps and do the simple things in your head rather than dragging out a problem for twice as long as it should take.  It’s just like basketball in that respect – your speed is going to be slow at first in working through new problems.  You have to keep your concentration and try to work through problems as fast as you can in order to do well on a test, because a good test is testing not only your comprehension, but your speed.  Writing is similar – I do a lot of writing, and it requires sustained concentration.  If you space out every two minutes and start thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, it will take a much a longer span of time to get anything achieved.   

Intelligence is partially a function of your working memory – and you can do exercises to improve your working memory just as much as you can improve your muscles.

“How do I keep track and make sure I am working consistently toward a goal?”

You have to have a plan, and the plan has to include mini-goals along the way.  It is also important that you try to measure results.  There is a saying in business management – you can’t manage what you can’t measure.  You should work to try to convert a “big” goal into a series of measurable mini goals.  For example, if your goal is to become a better basketball player, you could have several mini goals that are measurable, such as 1) increase your vertical jump by 3 inches; 2) increase your foul shooting percentage (gauged by a weekly test of 20 foul shots); improve your dribbling (again, measured against some test that you construct). 

And here is the importance of measurement – if things are not improving, this is a sign that you are not progressing, and at that point you have to step back and think about why you are not seeing results.  It could be due to fatigue, it could be due to bad technique, it could be due to lack of directed practice.  But you have to figure it out, especially with respect to errors of technique.  If you are not progressing because your hitting form or shooting form is bad, more practice will just further ingrain bad technique, and it will be harder for you to change your technique.  Coach Chris has said it to you guys – you have to be a bit of a scientist about your practice; if something isn’t working, like your shot is consistently short, you have to address potential reasons why.  You may not be at the right 90 degree angle, you may be bending your back, you may need to focus on the back end of the rim, etc.  But you shouldn’t just continue to take short shots – you need to step back, diagnose, and correct.

You should have a journal to record your workouts and your progress.  This helps to keep you motivated as well, because you can see your measurable progress.  Without measurement and tracking, it is easy to lose sight of your progress, which reduces your confidence that you can improve by continued practice.  If you see how far you’ve come, it makes you more confident you can make further gains.
“Jeez dad, this is a lot of very small font pages to read – can we be done now, or is there a quiz?”

No quiz, but you are not done yet.  Your work is actually just beginning.  It is extremely important that you take the effort to write down some goals.  For academics and learning, I want you to set a goal for your entire high school tenure that covers both grades and SAT scores.  Based on that goal, I want you to set mini-goals for your freshman year.  With respect to the SAT, I want to buy you guys a practice test book that you can work through this summer to get a baseline of where you stand.  Based on that, we can set some mini goals for you to work on through the summer.   With respect to sports, I want you to set a major goal (or goals) for your freshman year only, and then set some mini goals.  Based on your mini-goals, we can work together on a practice and workout schedule that is consistent with those mini-goals.  It is very important that you actively drive and motivate this process – if you don’t think it through, you simply will not have the same level of commitment to it.


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