An Old Guy’s Advice for High School Graduates
A few years ago, I was giving a presentation to a group of students at my alma mater. A woman in the audience raised her hand and asked, “What course most prepared you to run a business?” This question grabbed the attention of everyone in the room, and I felt all eyes on me. “That’s easy,” I replied, “It was chemistry.” I could tell my answer was a letdown and a bit confusing; it was obvious I needed to elaborate.
I explained the primary role of the CEO is to focus on complex problems with no obvious solutions and that you must overcome these seemingly insurmountable obstacles for your business to succeed. In college, chemistry was the insurmountable obstacle blocking my path; passing the course was a requirement that I initially lacked the skills (and interest) to master. The exercise of learning chemistry gave me the lifelong ability to chart a course through chaos and confusion. There is good science that supports my experience.
We are born helpless and needy. Unlike the speedy gazelle who leaves the womb and hits the ground running, we can’t do much after birth. Neuroscientists believe much of our later success in life requires this precarious period of childhood and adolescence. It all has to do with a fatty substance called myelin. Chimpanzees, our closest biological cousins, are born with about 20% of their brain neurons coated in myelin. We humans are born with none. This lack of white matter allows our brains to wire according to our surroundings and experiences. We learn to lift our heads, walk and talk, and at the completion of all these feats, the neural pathways that make it possible are coated with myelin and solidified. This process continues until about age 30. As the myelin closes in, so does the opportunity to wire our brains differently. Once it’s done, we can learn new skills and absorb new facts, but we can’t change our process for problem solving.
Today, I’d have a difficult time drawing a hydrocarbon molecule or calculating the area under a parabola. Like most, I don’t rely on the specific courses my degree required. But that was never the point of going to college. The basics I learned in elementary school, the study skills I developed in middle school, and the writing organization and structure I was taught in high school—all of this monotonous work prepared me for the experience of working on the difficult problems presented in that organic chemistry class. I learned how to think.
Many people equate the value of a college education with a good job, and many schools now prominently display their post-graduation employment statistics. This is unfortunate. If the true goal of education is to connect those final synapses that help you become a critical thinker and problem solver, then the value should be measured in your resilience.
So my parting advice to high school graduates is simple. The world will always change—trust me on that. You might be running your own business one day when a global health pandemic strikes. You’ll need to figure out how to function while working from home, how to return to the office, how to replace lost revenue, and where to focus next. Your ability to adapt to these changes is what you’ll gain through higher education.
So don’t worry so much about your major. Don’t get hung up on the “perfect school.” Just be certain to spend the waning days of your adolescence exercising your brain. Learn to write, learn to be creative, learn to argue a perspective and, most importantly, learn to ask great questions. And if you’re feeling ambitious, study organic chemistry. It might save your business one day.