5 lessons for teenagers considering university (from the future you)

Hey there,

It’s me – yourself, in the future. I think a lot about education these days. And I am still paying off the debt we incurred during the undergraduate degree you are considering attending. I wanted to send you this letter from the future to help you consider your next steps.

I remember what it was like to be you at 17. You told yourself that you didn’t really know what you wanted to do with your life, but you actually knew quite a bit at the time. You were doing some pretty neat stuff that you’ll like talking about in the future, when you’re me. These experiences were all very important, so keep it up. Soon you will have to start make some decisions about what will happen after highschool.

I know what you’re thinking: “I can’t stay in my hometown. I want to get away. It will just be like highschool if I stay. If I don’t go to university, I will end up a loser.” I know you’re excited about going to university  – and that’s a great feeling to have. Think of the parties! Doing whatever you want! Your plan will look like this: go to university, get a good paying job, pay off the student debt easy, become the boss.

Spoiler alert! It doesn’t work out that way.

Here are my best tips for you, as someone who has lived your life. I hope these might change your ideas about going to university and your next steps after highschool.

1) Take a break, but keep learning.

You have been stuck in an institution for 13 years. You need some time to process what you have seen, and to figure out what things you like and what things you don’t like. You’ve done a lot, but there are pieces missing that you won’t find in a university syllabus. Did you know that you could work on an organic farm anywhere in the world through Woofing? Did you know that there are programs like Canada World Youth where you can live and volunteer across Canada and abroad? What about Folk High Schools? You can kick it to Norway, learn Norwegian, go mountain climbing and study world peace – no tuition needed (it’s actually illegal to charge). No. You did not consider it.  It was never an option. It may not look well with your friends or your parents to not go to university, but the alternate experiences you can find are a real asset that they won’t have.

2) Learn for free.

Go to university… for free. Visit any university and start looking through the undergraduate courses they offer – even graduate programs. Go with your friends who are in the classes and paying full price. Speak to the professor directly: tell them that you’re interested in their course and would like to audit it. Chances are they will say yes. You will find out:1) whether or not you like the topic; 2) if you like how universities teach; and, 3)about other students who are interested in similar careers. Lastly, universities are always hosting speakers from around the world for special events that are often only promoted to the university. Often, they’re free. Go for it.

3) Home work and travel work.

In the future, you will be paying for your own housing. Your own place! It’s exciting. But you know what’s even better? Not paying for rent. It’s expensive. I know living at home with your parents is a bummer. But one thing your parents can easily offer you, for at least a short time, is their  roof! They might ask you to pitch in here and there, but compared to living on your own – you will save a lot of money. Keep that crappy job you had before for a few more months, and pick up odd jobs while you’re at it. This can help you get out with a plan in hand.

Yes, get out and work some more! There are so many ways that you can earn money for the adventurer in you. You’ve got connections. Spend 6 months asking about connections around the world and I bet you’ll find something great. Work at a Hostel. Go Tree Planting.  Pick fruit in New Zealand.  It’s easier than you think for someone with energy, a good back and willingness to travel.

After that, you can go to university or commit to another direction, with money saved and no debt.

4) Hang around with successful, remarkable people.

This is hard. I know you want to be cool and hang around with cool people. But cool people at 17 are not always cool later in life. I’m not asking you to stop hanging around people who you think are cool, cold turkey. However, do consider that there is a lot to learn from people of any age. Connections with people older and younger – and people who are not like you – will be enriching and useful your whole life. The more you hang around with successful, remarkable people, the more you will be successful and remarkable.

5) Reflect and set goals.

Later in your life you might hear yourself talking about setting goals, reflecting on your needs, and blah blah blah. I know you think this lame as a 17-year old. But please, give it a try.

  • Write two lists: First,  write down everything you are good at.   Second, write down everything you like doing. Then, check out your lists. You might be surprised by the different and exciting combinations of the two lists.

This very basic step will guide you in your 17-year old life. It also helps you be unique. In the future there will be so many jobs that don’t exist in your present. Find your unique mix and soon you’ll be making up your own job. Also, try this exercise out every couple years as your ideas, opinions and interests will change – yep, change is a constant.

  • Next, think of something you want to accomplish in the next few months – or even half year. Write it down. Write down a few month-long goals. Then write down the steps you think you’ll need to accomplish each goal.
  • Find someone who can check in with you and be your “accountability buddy”. Ask them to help you keep on track.

Do this often.

Best of luck for you and your future. I am proud of you.

All my best,




How to Cheat

I have been picking through Dale Stephen’s Hacking Your Education, which so far, I would easily recommend to anyone in High School and anyone looking to transition into a new type of work. One comment caused me to reflect – shouldn’t we be teaching how to cheat? Especially in regard to learning and community development initiatives. The book quotes Joi Ito, a successful technology investor:

“Most of college education is about what you can do on your own, without cheating,” Joi told me. “But cheating involves really important skills – such as how to find the answer from somebody else and how to take shortcuts.” Instead of sitting in college learning these skills, most people are sitting in college fulfilling requirements for graduation.

Cheating in the educational sense is about stealing someone else’s answer – the “correct answer”.

I cheat all the time. When I don’t know the answer, I look elsewhere. I search online, I ask friends, I find out what the best practice is and I share it widely. Without cheating, we would have to rely on answers we were only given permission to use and our own experience. Yet when I was in traditional school, I only got points when I remembered the answers that were given to me – instead of knowing all the different ways I might find (or steal!) the answers.

In some ways, cheaters have inspired me. All of my work has been related to taking the ideas of others and using them in the context and organization I am working with. I make and share handbooks on best practices, on case studies, on information databases, training methods – the whole time I am only figuring out ways that I can support people to cheat collectively by sharing information of things we all know work.

With this in mind, here are some pointers I have used to cheat/ be cheated on the best ways I know how:

Do/ Tell your research: Find out everything that has been done related to what you are interested in pursuing. Find out who influenced who and who they borrowed/cheated on. Tell others about the people who inspired you and how and where you learned your answers.

Re/ create: All contexts are different, but similar interest groups exist. Community projects, businesses, policies can all be recreated in similar, but not exactly the same situations. Copy objectives and methods but use your own language to fit your own context. Create. It’s ok to name those who you cheated on (or were inspired by), in fact you should celebrate and honor them regularly.

Make it last: Recently I typed up notes from a training I facilitated with a group of front line homeless services workers. I typed up all the resources mentioned in the workshop onto a Google doc, and then printed the Google doc hyperlink on a handbook. The Google doc can be revised by anyone and will last as long as Google is around. In that way, the document does not end up in the filing graveyard we have in every office, but instead it remains a living document that changes, grows and can be used for cheaters.

Pretend to/ Be someone: Find someone who inspires you and do what he or she does. Act like them. Use their language. Find out they came to be. Hang around where they work. Also: be someone. Be a mentor. Share your style. Invite people along for the ride. Help people who want to know what you know.

Assume shortcuts: I have worked with a lot of social workers the past couple years – one trait many had was never accepting No. They are always looking for ways around and through the social services system for people who have often been excluded from it. With that in mind – talk to people not papers. Talk to three people with different backgrounds but the same experience to figure out the best way through a situation. Realise that assets are not just money, there is value in all sorts of things to use to your advantage. When you have figured out the shortcuts – make sure you tell people about it.

Training & Consultation

  • Developed curriculum to train 35 local community organizers in the methods of Jane’s Walk, a global platform for free locally led walking tours
  • Designed and facilitated courses and workshops for more than 400 front line staff, managers, and peer workers in Toronto’s community services sector
  • Co-facilitated and coordinated a 12-week Participant Engagement course developed for Drop-in workers alongside City of Toronto award-winning advocate Anna Willats, with the goal of increasing the capacity of homeless services agencies as community spaces for engagement and advocacy.
  • Instructed and facilitated a curriculum based on exploring issues surrounding poverty, social inequities, social action and leadership for selected youth aged 14-18 from across the USA in Chicago and New York City with Civic Education Project
  • Coordinated Community Development and Volunteer Support workshops for more than 60 international volunteers from 11 countries with Sport Coaches Outreach (SCORE) for two years in South Africa and Zambia.
  • Designed, developed and presented training courses focused on youth leadership, sport management and HIV/AIDS education for more than 150 youth and school teachers in 4 Zambian Provinces with Score Zambia and the Zambian Interfaith Network Group on HIV/AIDS
  • My full resume of my skills and experience is available here. 

Workshop Expertise

  • Participant Engagement
  • Public Pedagogy
  • Community Engagement
  • Introduction to Facilitation Methods
  • Participatory Workshop Design
  • Sport for Development
  • Teambuilding and Energizers for Groups
  • HIV/AIDS education through Sport & Play
  • Information and Referral for Homeless Services
  • Civic Education for Youth
  • International Volunteer Orientation/ Mid Term Retreats/ End of Service

Community Partners and Employers

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Skillshop  June 1, 2013


Brief: Skillshop organises events where business + unconventional spaces provide lessons to the wider community. Skillshop’s first initiative is in partnership with the Bloorcourt BIA which held Bloorcourt 101, held June 1, 2013: A full day of free micro-lessons hosted by various Bloorcourt businesses.

Position: Co-founder and Organizer


  • 35 free lessons taught by 20 neighbourhood store owners and staff one one day.

Website and Social Media:




Partners and Friends:

Bloorcourt Business Improvement Area (BIA)

Helen Kontozopoulos