I recently received this message on Facebook after introducing myself to alumni of the Foundation for Economic Education:
Hi Zak! I just read your post on the FEE FB page. My name is ... and I went to my 1st FEE session this summer. ... I am really interested in your work in the area of helping others reach their goals of building high-opportunity careers. I have a long way to go, but think I can use a lot of your ideas to reach my college goals (and beyond!). It is my intent to study in Japan and have a career that combines finance with environmentally forward thinking innovation. It’s not mainstream, but it is needed and I am certain it can be groundbreaking. Just wanted to drop you this line and say I am looking forward to more of your articles / posts.
This is a great question and I love the fact that he already has an idea of what he wants to do. Most people think that being a young person is a disadvantage to getting ahead in your career. This isn't true. For what novices can do in their careers, being a young person is actually a huge advantage.
Here's an extended version of what I told him:
1. Start a Personal Website While in High School
This is the best piece of early career advice I ever received (from Josh Blackman, whose own blog has turned into an constitutional law staple in the legal industry). It's something we required all Praxis participants to do when they entered the program. And it's the first thing I recommend that anybody do when they want to get started.
Start by navigating to Namecheap.com and buying firstnamelastname.com. So if your name is Zak Slayback, you buy ZakSlayback.com. Turn on auto-renew. You don't need WhoIs Blocker, unless you're trying to squat on somebody else's domain.
Don't try to be cute or clever with a name.
Buy your firstnamelastname.com.
Seriously, don't try to start a clever blog name. If you want to do that, you can do that down the line. Start simply with a personal site.
The reason you want to do this is because people will Google you as you get rolling in your career. Their top results are going to be your LinkedIn, your Facebook, maybe your Twitter, and your personal website. While you have some sense of control over your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, you don't own them entirely. You entirely own and control your personal site.
2. Contact an Existing Expert in the Area You Want to Go Into
Find somebody who is already doing something you think you want to do. Find their contact info. Email them.
I was fortunate that a friend introduced me to Josh Blackman (and later, different professors when I was thinking about becoming a professor), but if they hadn't, I would have found somebody like him to email.
You youth is an advantage here.
Most professionals actually like the idea of a hungry young high schooler emailing them and politely and professionally asking a few questions about their career.
You want to do this because it will give you a better idea of what you realistically need to do to get started than just googling, "How to become a finance and environment expert." They should be able to tell you what you'll need to know, who you'll need to talk to, and what resources to follow.
Here's an email script you can use:
Good morning Mr./Ms./Dr./Prof. [Name],
My name is [your name] and I am a high school student at [your high school name -- if you're homeschooled, just say you're a homeschool high schooler]. You don't know me, but I'm interested in working in [their field] and came across your information when researching [their field].
I'd like to ask you a few questions over email about your career as a [what they do]. They shouldn't be long questions and you should be able to answer them in a few minutes if you're open to helping me.
Are you open to that?
Most people will reply something like, "sure," if they're open to you asking questions.
Once you get their reply, you want to send them clear, concise, and compelling questions.
Nothing like, "why did you get into this field?" That's long, open-ended, and might not get a response from them if they're Very Busy People.
Something more like, "If you had to recommend one book to somebody interested in your field, what would it be?" That's much easier to reply to.
Do this a few times. You'll collect a library of answers that will tell you what to read, who to talk to, what to study, and how to get started.
If anybody is particularly enthusiastic about contributing to your career research, ask them if they'd be open to an interview with you. This is something you can then publish on your blog.
3. Get Started Researching Resources In Your Field
Start reading the resources the people you interviewed recommended. An old mentor of mine once told me that reading 5 books on a specific topic will give you more knowledge about that topic than 98% of people.
Go to events if you can. Conferences, lectures, and presentations about your field will all provide you the opportunity to meet and network with more experienced people in the field, who can give you more pointers about what to do, what to study, and where the real opportunities are in your field.
When I was 16, I would make a point to drive to Washington DC or Philadelphia from my rural Pennsylvanian hometown for the opportunity to go to Constitution Day events or lectures relating to economics and philosophy.
(If you live in a city, you have no idea the advantage that you have over people who live in the country.)
I get that not everybody can do this, so if you can't actually get out for a weekend or an evening to a lecture or a seminar or a workshop, see if events have livestreams online. Make a point to email presenters and tell them why you're interested in what they're talking about, and, as always, ask what you should learn about and who you should meet.
4. Write, Speak, Record
At this point, you should have enough cursory knowledge in the field you want to work in to outperform most undergraduates (I'm not joking). While you're learning, make a point to write about what you're learning about. Short book reviews are a good and easy place to start. Interviews with experts you reach out to are also good.
You should be able to synthesize your own answers to questions as you keep reading and learning. If you want to go into finance, for example, write about a major issue in finance through the lens of something you studied or wrote about.
Publish these on your website, but also consider reaching out to your local newspaper to publish these as letters to the editor.
As another example from my own career:
When I was a junior in high school, I wrote about highway economics (sexy topic, I know). There was a highway in my hometown that just stopped in the middle of the town. Funding had never been acquired to finish the highway. So I wrote about one way that it could be finished - through fees and advertising.
The letter was published locally in The Daily American. That was cool, but then I sent it to a niche economics website on recommendation from a mentor. They published it. That was even cooler. Then the Christian Science Monitor, a major magazine, re-published it from there. I was blown away.
Even cooler and more helpful from all of this was an email I received from a professor whose book I quoted in the article. He probably had Google Alerts set up for his name and saw that some high schooler was writing about him, so he reached out. He introduced me to Antony Davies, an economist at Duquesne University, only a few hours away from where I lived.
That started a process that set up a good chunk of my career.
You don't need to write and get published in major outlets for your writing to serve a purpose in starting your career. Just get started. This provides fodder for you to send along to other people, gives others reason to reach out to you, and is just a good and enjoyable way to get clear on your thinking.
If you absolutely dread writing, you can do short vlogs on YouTube. You just need a smartphone and a wifi connection to do that today - instead of a whole camera setup a few years ago.
You could also podcast, using a microphone, Audacity, and a subscription to Buzzsprout.
Whatever you do, get started creating stuff related to what you want to do.
ADVANCED: If you want to really set yourself apart, launch projects related to what you want to do. Launch a business. Build an app. Set up a nonprofit. This will help you gain the attention of other people in your field and bring them to you instead of you having to do all the outreach yourself.
5. Reach Out & Ask for Introductions
You've probably noticed a pattern by now.
You want to constantly be growing your network of people who are a few steps ahead of you. This helps you learn the tacit knowledge in your field (the knowledge that isn't taught in textbooks), gives you an unfair advantage in admission to programs and being hired at companies, and can also let you know if/when you should change directions.
(I originally wanted to go become a constitutional law expert - the original version of this blog featured my musings about Supreme Court cases - but it was learning more from constitutional law experts that I realized my skills would be better used elsewhere.)
As you learn more about the field and create more content on it, you'll figure out who the established, respected experts are. You should follow them. Figure out what they write, publish, and speak about. Figure out what they work on. Figure out what the biggest problems in the field according to them are.
When you see overlap between you and them, send them something you've written, published, or created on the topic. If not that, then at least send them an article you think is relevant to them.
Ask some of the people you've built relationships with for 2 introductions each. (I have a script in my 12 Done-For-You Email Scripts on this.)
This takes time, but is worth it. It can lead to job opportunities years in advance of when you would otherwise receive them.
Most careers have organizations or groups that would love to see a young person interested in what they're doing and will devote resources to taking you in under their wings. This is especially true of professional career tracks like medicine, law, and academia.
I had the opportunity to attend a Federalist Society symposium when I was in high school and felt welcomed among a crowd of law students and legal professionals. Some of the people I met there - and a good chunk of the knowledge I picked up - helped me through the next few years of the college application process and my first couple of political philosophy classes in college.
(That's me with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, circa 2011)
Learn -> Connect -> Build -> Connect -> Signal -> Connect, Repeat.
So, the process comes down to finding something you want to learn about, connecting with those who know more than you, building some kind of evidence of your interest in the subject, connecting with more people who know more than you, signaling your knowledge and learning more, and connecting again.
Most people get caught up in the "connect" part.
They either think that people will just find their work without them doing any kind of outreach.
Or they get so caught up in their heads about why people would take them seriously as a young person and they never reach out.
I was fortunate to be introduced to a great mentor early on who pushed me to write, signal, and connect directly with people. If you aren't in that position, cold email outreach will be your best bet. You can use my scripts, which I've tweaked to near-perfection over the last decade, to help make this a lot easier and get out of your head.