PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 224 | Blank Stares

30 teenage boys stare blankly when asked about their future

In this week's podcast, I discuss a strange phenomenon that I witnessed a few weeks ago.

For context, I was asked to give a presentation on "college admissions-related" topics to a group of 30 teenage boys (ages 15-16) -- something I have done hundreds of times over the last 10 years.

To kick things off, I asked a series of anodine questions that I thought would ease us into a broader conversation about college, admissions, etc.

"How many of you have thought about college?"

"How many of you could name 10 colleges off the top of your head?"

"Has anyone thought about what they might want to study in college?"

Each question elicited the same response:

  • blank stares

Why were these questions met with such apparent indifference or apathy?

Show Transcript:

Hello friends. Welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. Today I want to share an experience I had a few weeks ago with a group of about 30 high school freshmen. Actually, it's probably more accurate to describe them as rising sophomores at this point, since basically it's the end of their freshman year. So let's call it a group of rising sophomores, all young men, 14, 15, 16 years old.

They're a part of a youth organization that focuses on service and leadership and culture and protocol. It's a great group of young men from well-to-do families, supportive parents, in particular moms who make up the administrative spirit and backbone of the organization. My son happens to be part of this group, and I was brought in as a guest speaker to discuss college admissions issues.

I wasn't given a specific mandate for the presentation. They left it pretty open. I've done probably hundreds of these presentations by now, and instead of setting up a projector and a screen and putting up PowerPoint slides, I decided to just ask the boys some questions because I thought it might be more productive, more engaging, as opposed to reading off a bunch of to do's from a PowerPoint presentation, such as make sure you optimize your GPA and take a lot of AP classes and make sure you're aware of the SAT test next year, that type of thing.

I'm not sure how well that type of presentation would have been received, but before I jumped into the questions, I tried to warm them up a little bit. And to do that, I gave them a quick lesson on how Navy Seals conceive of, plan for, and conduct operations. I figured that might spark some interest. I explained how each Navy Seal operation starts out with a mission or in civilian speak, a vision, and that leads to what's called a con ops or a concept of operations in civilian speak.

That's a plan. And once the plan is devised, it's time to execute or actually conduct the operation to go do the thing that you've planned to do. So the three steps are mission, plan and execute mission plan, execute, mission plan, execute. And we did a little role playing. And I walk the group through how this process worked from beginning to end.

And I tried to relate this progression from mission to plan to execution to our everyday lives. So we had a little bit of fun with that. The take away from the story and the role playing, I hoped, was to impress upon the boys that to lead a successful life, you needed three elements. You needed number one a vision of what you want.

Number two, you need a plan to achieve that vision. And number three, you need to work at it. And importantly, you needed all three elements, not just 1 or 2. If you had a great plan and you were disciplined enough to do the work but you had no vision, then who knows where you would end up. There's no specified end goal.

If, on the other hand, you had a great vision and a step by step plan to get there, but you were too lazy to get up and do the work, that is no execution. Then everything comes to a screeching halt. And lastly, if you had a vision and you were willing to put in the work the execution, but you don't have a plan that shows you what to do, then you're spinning your wheels and never get anywhere.

All three elements had to be present to accomplish anything worthwhile, and I gave them several examples of how this worked in my own life. First, I went through the visions that I had in my life. I had a vision of playing Division one basketball in college. I had a vision of going to an Ivy League college. I had a vision of getting a prestigious job on Wall Street.

I had a vision of becoming a Navy Seal. I had a vision of going to Harvard Business School. I had a vision of having a big family with lots of kids. I had a vision of living in San Diego. I had a vision of becoming an entrepreneur and getting on Shark Tank. And so on. All of these life experiences started with a vision, and for each of these visions I created, wait for it a plan, a detailed plan.

I must have hundreds of spiral bound notebooks in my office. Some go as far back as when I was a teenager, with detailed plans for all of these different visions. What did I have to do to accomplish A, B, or C? Daily. Weekly. Monthly plans with checkboxes. And of course, last but not least, I had to execute the plan.

I had to get up in the morning, focus on the vision, check my daily plan, and get to work. Rinse and repeat for 40 years. So with this as a backdrop, I started asking the boys some questions and I was surprised by what I heard. Rather, I was surprised by what I didn't hear. I started off by asking them what I thought was a very easy question.

How many of them had actually thought about college in any context? Let's make it easy. How about a show of hands? Who has thought about college? Blank stares from the crowd. Okay, I guess I'm going to have to be a little bit more specific here. So I ask them, did they like the idea? Hate the idea? How much did they even know about college?

Was it even on their radar yet once again, a bunch of blank stares, a few askance looks, and a bunch of shoulder shrugs and maybe a little bit of whispering. And yes, I'm aware that these are teenage boys who aren't the most communicative creatures in the world, but this still seemed a bit extreme, and I thought to myself, oh boy, this is going to be a long 45 minutes because these were very broad based, uncontroversial, non-committal questions that should have been pretty easy to drum up.

Some responses. So I had to press and cajole and warm them up even a little bit more. Again, this was not overly surprising. I have four sons. This is not my first rodeo with this cohort of students, and I'm sure some of this reluctance can be attributed to boys being teenage boys, everyone scared to look dumb in front of their peers.

God forbid somebody says something that shows any type of vulnerability. I get it. And so we danced around the topic and tried to crack a few jokes, and the boys finally started to open up a little bit and I mean a little bit. Then I asked them how many of them could name ten colleges? How many had a college in mind that they might be interested in?

How many of them had thought about what they might want to study in college? In the broadest sense, how many of them were considering using sports to help them get into college? How many of them had thought about why they were even going to college? What was the point of college? How many had thought about what they might want to do once they graduated from college as a career or a job?

Did any of them have any career ideas in mind? And the only answers I took away from all of these questions were one. I need to go to college to get a good job. Two I want to be a pro surfer. Three I plan on using my sport to help me get into college, and when I asked for which sports I heard baseball, football, lacrosse, and water polo.

All of them, by the way, claimed they wanted to go Division one, of course. And then lastly, number four. I liked science. That was about it. I'm being serious. That was the depth of engagement with these very basic questions. So I pushed a little bit more. I said, no really. Does anyone have any idea what kind of college they want to go to?

Big, small, close to home, far away, academically challenging, big sports culture, anything. Ivy League, big state schools, small private school, California, Minnesota, the East coast, anything. Do you have any thoughts about this? Blank stares. Has anyone thought at all about what they want their working life to look like in a few years, say, after graduation? Do you want to work inside, outside, in a cubicle, in a studio, on a team, in a factory, in the woods and the city?

Do you want to make a lot of money? Do you want to work with your hands, with computers, anything? Blank stares. In the end, I was able to squeeze just a very few inklings of interest out of a small group of 2 or 3 brave boys, and when I left the session, I couldn't help but wonder why were these questions met with such seeming indifference and apathy?

These were young men from well-to-do families, surrounded by lots of examples of what life might look like down the road. Many have older siblings who've been through this process before, so it's not like these concepts are far into them. It's not like they don't know what colleges most of them have intact families with supportive parents. They should have a relatively high level of awareness about these things.

So I'm thinking, was I just that bad a presenter who was pushing all the wrong buttons? Did I not establish enough rapport with them before hitting them with some deep questions? Was I too aggressive? Were they too intimidated? Was I asking them questions that were too challenging? Were they in shock because no one had ever asked them these questions that directly before?

Were they scared that they'd be ridiculed by their peers if they opened up about their thoughts or dreams or concerns, or maybe this was all real. Maybe this was all authentic. Maybe they really haven't thought about college or career or their future at all. So before I left, I tried to harken back to the framework we had established earlier, which was one mission, two plan, and three execute.

If these teenage boys were really as unengaged as they appeared, then how are they going to be successful? Because none of them had any vision about their future. If we're taking them at their word, nobody aspire to do anything minus a few who claimed that they wanted to be Division one athletes in college with no vision. There's nothing to plan for.

If there's no plan, there's nothing to execute. If there's nothing to execute, I guess it's back to the phone and video games. How convenient. Now, I hope, and I pray that this is not the case. I really hope that the setting itself and the self-consciousness of the boys among their peers was the thing that was holding them back and not a complete disengagement from thinking about their future.

And if I had to bet, I would say that this is probably the case, because I have one on one zoom calls multiple times a day, every week with students just like these students who are far more willing to disclose their hopes and their dreams and yes, their worries. But it's in a more private setting and the conversation is vastly more productive.

So if you have a teenage son, 14, 15, 16 years old, I highly recommend, if you haven't already, getting a pulse check on what they're thinking about with respect to their future college career, major lifestyle, you may be surprised what you find out. If you want me to have a one on one session with your son or daughter to help them think about these important topics and themes, I'd be happy to do that as well.

I do it all day, every day. I really enjoy helping students think about a vision for their future. College is usually the next step, but sometimes the vision extends beyond that. And the truth is, if your child has zero interest in the future, zero ambition and zero vision, then Prebble Academy won't do much for them because Prep Academy fulfills requirement number two, which is the plan.

Once your child has a vision for their future and ambition, something they're shooting for, then I know how to steer them. I've got the plans, prep Academy has different plans for different visions. Ivy League military athlete scholarship. These are visions for their future and once they have the vision, they pick a prep well program. And then of course comes the execution part.

They actually have to watch the videos, take the action and execute, execute, execute. All three elements need to exist for them to reach escape velocity, which is what every parent wants. They need a vision. They need a plan, and they need to execute. Please let me know if I can help. That's all I've got for you today folks.

Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports Prep Academy's online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships.

Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schoolers enrolled in PrepWell Academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman or sophomore year. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing in these podcasts and you'd like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child, for their specific grade and with their specific goals in mind.

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I'd love to hear from you until next week. Goodbye! Good luck and never stop preparing.

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Podcast Host:

PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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