Why do we keep traveling down the same well-worn paths even though they make absolutely no sense anymore? You know what I mean – when you ask someone why they do something and their answer is “because that’s the way its always been done”.

When I talk to parents and they tell me their kids are going to college I ask, “why?” I get two reactions – 1.) They look at me like I’ve just sprouted a new big toe on my forehead or 2.) “Because they need to get a job.” When I follow up with, “what job?” they respond by telling me that their kid is majoring in Women’s Studies. That’s not a job. That’s information. Most of which can be had for free or at least far less expensively than a university degree.

How does this parent who probably followed the high school counselor’s recommendations, obliged their parents’ expectations, landed in debt for student loans, and accepted a job that has nothing to do with their degree end up recommending the exact same experience to their own child?

Beats me. Something about doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result?

How you can avoid setting your kids up for failure:  

Get them working 

Working while they are in school isn’t about what they want to do, it’s about learning about their attitude about work, money, time management, listening to instructions, problem-solving  

Don’t judge them for the work they choose 

Sometimes the job is a means to an end, not the end. Let them discover what that is. It’s not always white collar desk jobs, in fact, a lot of specialist and generalist jobs make more than reasonable incomes. Same for “blue collar” jobs. Are you seriously going to look down your nose at a kid that wants to work hard doing rewarding work because he or she might get dirt on them? The nursing home a pipefitter can afford is probably pretty swanky, just saying.

Talk to a career coach, not a school counselor 

Career coaches are supposed to have real-world working experience. That experience is invaluable in setting a path of discovery for doing work that actually matters to your near-adult and making money at the same time. School counselors are trained to navigate the education system, not the working world. Asking high school students to talk to a school counselor to decide what they want to do with their life is like going to a dentist for liposuction – they know how to use the little sucky thing but could they apply those tools to really getting the results you want. I don’t think so. School counselors very rarely have real-world working experience outside of education. School counselors lead discovery sessions with students and then encourage them to stay in the education system. If your kid is a candidate for college, great – but be wary of forcing them to follow a path templatized for them.

Let them do a “walkabout” or gap year

Australian cultures had the right idea, in fact, a lot of European countries apply this same concept as a “gap year”. A true walkabout is a difficult rite of passage in Australian Aboriginal culture. It is a time for personal discovery, nurturing maturity, and cultivating self-sufficiency. The concept of a gap year should borrow these ideals from the Aboriginal rite of passage and not just turn into a paid booze fest with their friends. A gap year should involve some traveling, seeing how other people live, and doing some volunteer work. Not only does travel broaden the mind, but it also prepares young people to make decisions in their own best interests. Gap years are valuable for everyone, not just the wealthy. And, with the growth of remote work and the so-called “digital nomad” lifestyle, there is no reason that a young adult couldn’t help pay their own way.

Get them to answer the question: How do you want to contribute to the world around you?

Stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. They generally don’t have enough life experience to know, and having this question hanging around like a dark cloud may pressure them into making a choice that will waste a lot of their time, and potentially your money if you’re trying to pack them off to uni. Ask them what problems they see in the world that they wish could be solved. Where does their natural, genuine interest lie? If they know they were put on this planet to be an investment banker, that’s great. But, it seems far more likely that they will look at the world around them and want to contribute their gifts in a way that will solve problems. Ask them about what they care about and see if you can help guide them in their chosen path and help them solve the problems they want to solve.

Let them define success on their own terms 

Success for them may not mean a big income while working for a company they despise. More and more, we see that success for them can be something different than just a stable income. Success to them will mean they get to do what they want to do in life.