Yesterday, I went to see Ex Machina with my great friend Terry Lickona and my new friend Jonny, and the conversation we had after the film inspired what I'm going to write here today. Apologies for any verbosity and hifalutin verbiage in here; one day (with all this practice) I'll actually become a good writer...
I've known Terry for almost six years now. He's seen a lot of my ups and downs. He's loaned me money. He's been there at my first "wedding" and not judged me as I went through a divorce. He's so full of empathy and passion, and I am blessed to call him one of my best friends. I also admire him because he takes lifelong learning so seriously, and that's what helps him ensure his work with Austin City Limits and The Grammys is so meaningful. He's got friends around his age, but also friends much younger than him, like Jonny, who are so full of energy and zest for life. I've taken that to heart and have made a point to get both older and younger friends too.
And with graduation season upon us, and many of my friends still in college or fresh out, I wanted to share a quick thought about education and learning.
This week marks the 10-year anniversary of my college graduation. Ten years ago, I became the first in my immediate family to graduate from college, and it was from one of the best public universities in the world. I was extremely proud of that moment and that accomplishment mostly because it was a testament to all the hard work and sacrifice my mother made to raise my two older brothers and me in her 20s and 30s. That's why my diploma isn't at my place, but it's hanging on her bedroom wall.
Very early in life, I looked at the struggles within my family and decided that education - not sports or music or entertainment - was going to be my way out and the thing that got the majority of my attention and focus. I think that's the primary difference early-on in life between my older brothers and me. My oldest brother Kahron is one of the three most intelligent, well-read, well-traveled people you will ever meet, but he was a bit of a late-bloomer on the academic front, which I'm sure even he would admit. Everyone has their own path, and his was one of self-discovery through travel, including nearly 9 years living and working overseas. My middle brother Ramiah is the single-most talented musical mind I've ever encountered and I've met Kanye, Pharrell, will.i.am and countless other famous musicians and artists, but he put too many of his eggs in the music basket and unfortunately America isn't nearly as much of a meritocracy based on talent as one would be led to believe. Hopefully one day, his music will reach the world, but it'll require much more than sheer talent, which many of my musician friends here in Austin can likely attest to as well.
So for me, I bet on education, early and often because I saw it as a gateway to success in life. Yes, I was in the top 1 percent in my class through high school, and making good grades came to me pretty naturally. I never really struggled with home work or class assignments. By middle school, I had UT-Austin circled as one of my top two or three ideal colleges, and by my senior year of high school I had the ideal resume - athlete, band, clubs galore, charity, work, etc. - to end up securing over $120,000 in academic scholarships.
But once I got to college, I pretty much gave up on academia. I think I graduated with something like a 2.8 GPA. It's not because I wasn't smart enough to do better - I made sure to get 3.5-and-above GPAs for semesters where my scholarships required it - it's just that I didn't see any value in making good grades anymore. Grad school was almost never an option for me. I felt that if I wanted to go into politics, I could do that without law school, and if I wanted to go into business, I could do that without getting an MBA. Instead, I felt I could focus on learning about the world. I paid for trips around the country. I interned at Southwest Airlines almost solely for the value of getting to have free flights to cities I'd never been to and today I realize how important that time was for me to better understand how to grow Localeur's community one city at a time. I spent too much of my extra scholarship money going to nice restaurants with my good friend Stephanie, but I didn't care because I was exposing myself to a world of access I'd never had growing up. Again, all this was instrumental in me understanding what I need to know today for Localeur.
I also justified my lack of focus on academic success in college by working my ass of. In high school, it was three years at Pizza Hut 30 hours a week. In college, I worked for the media relations office at the UT Athletics Department for all four years of college. I worked for two of my college lecturers, one at a PR agency and one in the Office of Public Affairs at UT. I had six other internships during college, and that's ultimately where I met several of my investors today, people like Jeff Eller and Danner Bethel and Joe Householder.
I'm sharing all of this because right now I have some awesome young people in my life who are still in college or fresh out. They're at that point where they may be considering what they want to do professionally, what they want to be known for, how they're going to make money.
The most important advice I can give these people is two things:
1. Never ever ever stop learning. School teaches you to treat education as an academic pursuit, but it's not that at all. School is about teaching you how to build your own curriculum and syllabus for lifelong learning.
I know way too many 30-somethings who seemingly gave up their hobbies and interest the moment they started working. They used to collect things and hike and paint and play tennis and play piano and do all sorts of things, but the moment they started working it became a simple idea of going to work, having friends, and partying on the weekends. They stopped being interesting because they stopped being interested. If I had stopped being interested in running, for example, I may have not stayed in touch with my high school track coach Rob, and I'd be missing out on one of the most important mentors in my life.
Hobbies and interests don't have to become businesses or ways of generating income, but they can almost always be means of learning more about yourself and learning more about the world. Once you give up your hobbies, it becomes way easier to give up on your lifelong ambitions and goals, too.
2. Write down your goals.
I worked at the most important athletics department in the country, served as a speechwriter in the most scrutinized federal agency after Hurricane Katrina, advised some of the world's leading companies like FedEx, and worked with some of the best branded events in the world in SXSW and ESPN X Games, and none of this was possible because I had a million thoughts in my head about what I was going to do someday. Localeur has 42 investors and 34 of them are people I knew before Localeur existed, and they believed in this business because they believed in me and they believed in me because I believe in myself which all starts with building up the confidence to go after my dreams despite numerous challenges and hardships and several major fuckups. If I hadn't made it a goal to work at Bazaarvoice and meet potential co-founders and investors, I may have never met Chase who I've started Localeur with or Heather Brunner, who is on my board, an investor and my mentor.
Sure, a healthy level of introspection never hurt anyone, and it's super healthy. But if what you think becomes how you perceive the world, I'd add that what you write down becomes what you actually go out and do.
I grew up the youngest boy in a low-income household that had very few academic or professional accomplishments to note. So you can probably surmise that I of all people should count graduating from college as one of my most important feats in life. And I do.
But I also know that, just 10 years later, there's so much more to do, so much more to learn, and so many more goals to go after. Bask in the excitement of graduation and the sense of pride that comes with doing something you set out to do. And then keep going.