Last week I was invited to be a career day motivational speaker for my old high school, Henry W. Grady High School here in Atlanta. It’s kind of an odd ball place, being an inner-city public school. The income levels of the students’ families range from millionaires to impoverished; some students I had class with were homeless. I was ethnically in the minority at Grady, which taught me a lot about accepting and learning about others.
I know that Grady’s (and by extension, most of Atlanta Public Schools’) graduation rate is pretty low, so they put a lot of emphasis on career motivation and secondary education—a lot of Grady students don’t attend college after graduation, but having a college degree isn’t the only path to being successful. A lot of students go to trade schools, or start working after high school, and do well for themselves. So, the underlying purpose of career day was not to go to college, but to make something of yourself! I can get behind that. College taught me a ton, but, I have wonderful and brilliant friends who don’t have a university degree.
I was the youngest speaker at career day by at least a decade, and the only speaker I knew of that attended Grady—this is something pretty special to me, because as a public school student I felt very inferior to rich kid private and suburban schools. It felt like we were making do with much less. I wasn’t going to talk down to these students and make suggestions like “oh, get a private tutor for the SAT” or “get your parents to pay for college, who needs loans?” because that wasn’t my reality, or the reality of my classmates.
My goal instead was to try and instill some grit and determination early on. All of my successes in life have come down to a few things:
Saying yes to nearly everything posed to me. Want to help with a project? Want to work this event? Want to carry this camera, or design a birthday card? Yes, yes, yes, and yes! This is a great strategy when you’re young—don’t shy away from something because you don’t know what it is or how to do it. Throw yourself in and interact. You’ll become the person people depend on.
How do you start that process?
Ask to be involved! Can I carry that camera? Can I come volunteer? Can I be useful in any way? People love this, often I’ve noticed that people are desperate to delegate tasks and depend on some help, but don’t know who to ask, or how to ask. Offer!
Towards the middle of my talk was the big reveal that I used to be a Grady student, with some really embarrassing pictures of me at 15 in a Grady classroom. All of a sudden, the students would perk up and start really paying attention. I loved it.
I love talking to students, and trying to leave them with even a little bit of knowledge. I tried to remind them that they don’t know everything (at 17 I thought I did)—you don’t know anything now, or after college, or when you’re 40. Admitting that now is the best way to navigate life in the future.
I’ll be joining Grady’s advisory board to mentor young design students and work with them! Super excited.