February 28, 2019

How courage, tenacity—and an occasional burrito—can help you pursue an extraordinary life

3 lessons from young people who are changing the world.

Want to get the attention of a CEO? Entrepreneur Zak Slayback challenges young people to get ahead by asking first how they can provide value, for example, by putting together a marketing plan for said CEO’s company and hand deliver it with a burrito.

When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to do something to make a difference in my community. Rather than run a clothing drive or volunteer, I chose to build net-zero energy, affordable housing for low-income families.

After a couple years of hard work and persistence, the organization I founded built Delaware’s first straw bale home.

[Help a nonprofit win $20,000 from Allstate—Vote for The Renewal Awards]

While it was an exciting journey, it was also challenging and sometimes very lonely. Because of that, last year my friend Rob and I decided to travel around the country to meet other young people doing extraordinary things. We interviewed them to learn their tips for other aspiring changemakers.

After interviewing nearly 100 incredible young people, from Shark Tank entrepreneurs to MasterChef Junior champions, I have learned a lot. In this article, I want to highlight a few of the lessons these extraordinary young people have taught me and that may be helpful to other young people getting ready to begin their own extraordinary journeys.

As a teen, the author founded an organization that built Delaware’s first net zero energy, straw bale home. Photo courtesy of Brennan Stark

It’s Never Too Early (or Late) to Start

Our interviewees ranged in age from 9 to their mid-sixties. We consistently heard, from both young and old, about the value of pursuing whatever it is that you want to pursue now.

Henry Adelson was one of my favorite interviews. We met Henry at the Next Gen Summit, a large conference that brings together over 1,000 young entrepreneurs every June. At age 9, Henry owned the room, talking with everyone he met (including Mitch Modell, the CEO of Modell’s Sporting Goods) and pitching them on his idea for hand baseball, a sport where you use your hand as the bat. Awesome, right?

Henry’s confidence was remarkable, but I felt myself asking: why aren’t we all like Henry?

When we are young, we are not afraid of failure; we’re unfiltered. Adults like to attribute this youthful audacity to “kids not knowing any better,” but perhaps kids are the ones who know better. After all, what’s the worst that could happen to an adult version of Henry? Probably that he gets rejected a bunch. But is that really so bad when the upside of putting your ideas out there is that you get to pursue the thing(s) that you love?

Young people often view their age as a barrier to accomplishing their audacious goals, but Henry shows how, counterintuitively, youth can actually be a huge benefit. When you are young, it is easier to get your foot in the door with people that are normally harder to reach. Who would say no to a conversation with Henry? Sure, it may be harder to get people to take you seriously at first, but if you know your stuff, anyone worth talking to will put what you know ahead of how old you are.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are older, it might feel like you missed the boat for getting started. When I was 16, I remember reading about the 12-year-old entrepreneurs and thinking that I had missed my opportunity. Even now at 20, I wonder how different things might have been if I had started earlier.

Chris Doherty embodies the “better late than never spirit” perfectly. At 33, Chris repeatedly said that he felt like an old guy compared to the rest of the Next Gen Summit crowd. Rather than feeling discouraged and telling himself that it was too late, Chris just recently launched his own company, Active30, to help millennial entrepreneurs boost their fitness and productivity.

If you think you know what you want, don’t be afraid to work hard and go after it, even if it takes you off the conventional path.

ust as it’s never too early, it’s never too late. Remember, there will never be a perfect moment to get started. Why not start now?

There’s No One Correct Path

Growing up, it often feels like there is only one “correct” path to a successful life: good grades in school and then go to a good college. Somewhat surprisingly, we are finding that most of the extraordinary young people we meet are forging their own path, often outside of school.

Walcott Denison IV is a great example of this. Walcott was homeschooled for most of his life and graduated from high school at age 12! After graduating, he immediately enrolled in community college and took his first college course while still only 12.

While Walcott always did well in school, his real interests were outside the classroom. As a kid, he started to teach himself to program, eventually developing into a talented full-stack developer while still a teen. Along the way, he worked for NASA, helping to design test rockets.

After getting a couple years of experience, Walcott decided to accept a job at a promising startup halfway across the country. He was only 18, but he was living on his own in a new city and working a challenging job in his desired field.

Walcott might sound like a genius, but in his own words, he’s just a regular guy who knew what he wanted in life and worked hard for it. If you think you know what you want, don’t be afraid to work hard and go after it, even if it takes you off the conventional path.

Provide Value First

Zak Slayback is an entrepreneur, author, and career expert who has helped young people land their dream opportunities. In order to get ahead, he recommends first figuring out how you can provide value.

Have a job you really want? Instead of just submitting a resume, do some research, put together a marketing plan for the company, and then hire someone to hand deliver it along with a burrito to the CEO. This was just one trick Zak shared that he has had clients use.

Providing value before you ask for something is a great way to grow your network and meet some amazing people. Even if you are asking for something, try to think about whether you might be able to frame it as something that adds value for the person you are approaching. By mentioning the value you can provide, you make it much more likely you will receive a positive response, whether you are sending cold emails or approaching people at networking events.

* * *

While we learned a lot of valuable lessons speaking with these extraordinary young people, one of the things we heard consistently is that it can be lonely and isolating to go on this journey, especially when you are young, because most of your peers cannot relate.

One of the people we heard this from was Logan Guleff, a young chef who won season 2 of MasterChef Junior. Logan is a talented, kind, and generally fun kid to be around. We spent a day hanging out in his hometown, going rock climbing and eating barbecue before we did our interview.

Despite everything Logan has going for him, he talked candidly about how it can be isolating to be in his position. It’s hard to meet new people because they see him as Logan from MasterChef Junior instead of just Logan. Logan is also homeschooled so that he can focus on his cooking and he travels a lot, so even for the close friends he has, he often does not have much time to spend with them.

It’s hard to choose to be extraordinary. That’s why not many people do it. But if we’ve learned anything, it’s that it can also be incredibly rewarding to chart your own course and pursue your own vision for an extraordinary life.

To hear more extraordinary young people’s stories, check out www.extraordination.tv.

Subscribe to the “I Choose Extraordinary” Youtube Channel here.

Subscribe to the “I Choose Extraordinary” Podcast here.

Brennan Stark

Brennan is the co-founder and CEO of Y Innovations, a nonprofit organization that is building affordable net-zero energy housing for low-income families in Wilmington, Delaware, using natural materials. For his work with Y Innovations, Brennan was recognized with the 2017 Youth in Philanthropy Award. He was also named a 2017 Sustainable Development Goal Talent, which afforded him the opportunity to travel to Denmark to work with various NGOs, government officials, and investors to pioneer new solutions to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In addition to running Y Innovations, Brennan is also a Partner at Teen Capital, a venture capital firm that invests in high school founders. Brennan believes passionately that entrepreneurship is at its best when it is used as a vessel for self-discovery and he enjoys speaking to students about the life-changing power of entrepreneurship. In his free time, Brennan enjoys reading, backpacking in the woods, and spending time with his loving family and his girlfriend, Maureen.