Updated on 12.14.07

A Talk With My Niece

Trent Hamm

My niece is fifteen years old. She’s a social girl with a kind heart and just enough social awkwardness, intellectual curiosity, and introspection that after spending five minutes with her, you can’t help walking away thinking that the world is potentially her oyster. Among school subjects, she’s most passionate about mathematics, but she tends to not advertise that fact because many people identify math as being highly “boring” and “nerdy.” If you haven’t figured it out, I adore the girl and I sincerely hope that when my daughter is fifteen, she’s as well rounded as my niece.

Given all that, I can tell from conversations with her that, to a degree, she’s lost right now. I am the only person in her extended family that went to college and got extensive exposure to a life outside of our hometown. She has that same mix of introspection and intelligence and parochial attitudes and thoughts that I see in my own writings from my high school years, and though I made a lot of good moves from there, I made some bad ones, too.

I’ve decided, then, to have a talk with her over the Christmas holiday. Rather than doing the typical “preachy” thing, I’m going to basically talk to her as though she’s an adult and preface it with the simple fact that I recognize that she will probably make it “out,” too, and let her know that I think the world is her oyster.

Here are the points I want to hit.

Listen to your heart above all else when deciding what to do. Your mind’s job is to mold your heart’s desire into something great, but without that desire and passion, nothing will happen. If she enjoys math as much as she seems to, she should give mathematics a try in college. I allowed myself to get talked out of that very major by people who were under the stern belief that I couldn’t “do” anything with it – and I’ve regretted it ever since. If you know what you’re passionate about, just follow that – your passion will make you great at it and your mind will figure out how to make a living with it.

Debt will become your prison if you let it. The only way you’ll live your dreams is by spending less than you earn from day one. Never, ever get trapped into “needing” some sort of consumer item – it will come to you eventually if you really want it and keep up with the “spend less than you earn” philosophy. What’s the big payoff? When you’re in your thirties, you’ll be riding high without a worry while everyone else on your block will be drowning. If you hate your job, you can quit – the rest of them will be trapped in place.

You will make mistakes – don’t make them into excuses. Everyone’s going to mess up a time or two – I know I sure have. The danger, though, is to use that mistake as a crutch or an excuse to not do your best. When you mess up, admit to yourself and anyone else you need to that in fact you did mess up, and figure out exactly what you can learn from it, then move on with life. You’ll do so much better at every avenue of life if you do things that way instead of passing the buck.

Be nice to everyone, even the people who seem “below” you. What goes around comes around, and thus the more kindness you share with others, the more it will come back to you. Reject any urge to belittle or be snarky towards others and find ways to compliment them and lift them up. If you take a moment to lift the spirit of someone and do it regularly, it will come back to you in some way that you likely cannot foresee.

The highest paying job is rarely the one you want. In my life, the higher the salary, the more stress and responsibility the job has brought to my life. Each person has a different sweet spot in there, but I’ve rarely seen a person whose best fit is the highest paying, highest stress job. Salary isn’t everything – don’t just go for the job that pays the most. This is even true right now, in high school – the most useful and valuable ways to spend your time are likely on a volunteer basis.

Will it matter right now? Probably not. What I hope for, more than anything, is that at some point afterwards, something I’ve said will click in her mind and she’ll make a better choice than I did, and that alone will have made our conversation worthwhile.

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  1. Katy Raymond says:

    Your advice to “be nice to everyone,” even if their station seems beneath yours, is spot on. Many years ago, my husband was very kind to the secretary assigned to him at a major corporation. My husband’s superior, however, treated this secretary very badly. Basically told her she’d never amount to anything, that there was no point in her going to college to try to better herself. When the company moved out of state, my husband started his own firm and the secretary got a great job–for which she’d been preparing–at a non-profit in town. Sure enough, she contacted my husband and made sure his new business had more work than he knew what to do with. Without his “lowly” secretary, there’s no way his business would have gotten off the ground!!

  2. plonkee says:

    You could tell her that if she enjoys maths she can make a fortune (literally) doing maths on Wall Street, or solve the most fascinating problems in the world, or get a regular job, or do pretty much anything. Just in case someone tries to inform her that there is nothing you can do with maths.

    Your advice is spot on. Now how to get anyone to learn from other people’s mistakes… (although I’m sure Trent’s always been nice to everyone).

  3. J says:

    There are LOTS of good reasons to study mathematics. You don’t have to be a math major, but could be an engineer, scientist, economist, MBA, etc. Math touches all of the physical sciences as well as business, so the world could very much be your oyster if you are good at it.

    Also, I work at a company that makes math software. I can tell you from first hand experience that this field could do with a lot more women in it! Put another way, she’ll never want for dates :)

  4. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “although I’m sure Trent’s always been nice to everyone”

    I wish I were, but I’m human. We all are.

  5. Mrs. Micah says:

    Good luck with this. It’s very sad to see young peoples’ dreams get squashed down. There are enough miserable adults in the world and there’s no need to make more…

  6. That One Caveman says:

    “The highest paying job is rarely the one you want.”

    This is the point most young people fail to grasp. They see the $$$ and think the job is therefore better. For some, it may be, but not for most. As you age, you realize new and different priorities to which you have to assign a comparative value. For instance, I have been approached about a few jobs that were quite compelling, but even the large difference in money simply couldn’t overcome the impact to my other priorities. I think I’m all the happier for not taking those jobs, even if it does mean I have to sacrifice some material things or even extra savings.

  7. Dan says:

    Do you remember Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years? In real life she is Danica McKellar, a summa cum laude UCLA graduate in mathematics. She wrote a book this past year for junior high girls to show that math isn’t nerdy and it’s cool to be smart. It may be worth checking out as a Christmas gift for your niece. From what I’ve read, Danica appears to be a great role model and we really need more women in the US with a mathematics background. Here’s a link to a Wired article about Danica and her book: http://www.wired.com/culture/education/news/2007/08/winniecooper_QA

  8. HebsFarm says:

    Gee, wish I’d had an uncle like you when I was 15 and lost and wondering if I was going to “make it out” of my town. Well, I guess I was closer to 17 or 18 when that crisis really hit. Another thought – this is (hopefully) not your last opportunity to have a conversation with her. You don’t have to feed her all the points at once, this Christmas. But if you can establish yourself as someone she can discuss her life/goals/plans with? You will be GOLDEN.

  9. Craig says:

    Great advice, all of it. I would definitely emphasize that it’s not how much you make that counts, but how much you keep. If I had only followed this advice over the years I’d be a wealthy man.

  10. Chris Conley says:

    Great advice; I hope it sticks with her. It sounds like it will from your description of her.

    I couldn’t agree more with following your heart and your passions. If you don’t; you’ll always have an empty feeling even though it may be undefinable.

    In addition to not letting your mistakes become excuses, don’t beat yourself up about them either. It’s easy to blame yourself for anything less than perfection. Realizing that you WILL make mistakes is crucial to keeping sane.

  11. Aryn says:

    Yes, she should definitely be a math major if that’s what she loves! Female math majors are in huge demand after college. In fact, I think all math and hard science majors are in demand! She’ll probably also be able to find some good scholarships because women are underrepresented in math.

  12. SwingCheese says:

    I was the first in my family to go to college (though not to “get out” of my hometown), and am the first one to be actively saving for retirement. I’m currently trying to establish myself as a “family member with good advice” for my 19 year old cousin. It’s going well, so far. I think the hard part will be watching her make her own mistakes and learn from them without saying anything…

    *fingers crossed*

  13. Scott says:

    I recently tried to have one of these conversations with my niece only through email. I hope some of it hit home but I felt like I was preaching which usually won’t get the response you are hoping for. I guess I will have to keep checking up on them and hope for the best. It is frustrating when you want so much for someone but they just won’t listen.

  14. Lauren says:

    It’s so nice that you have taken notice of this girl. She reminds me of myself, but I fell through the cracks. I was different from anyone in my family and desperately for someone to take me under their wing. No matter what you say, she’ll be flattered by the attention.

    other than the excellent general life advice, I might be very specific about her gift for Math. She’s right at the exact age where girls begin to lose confidence in themselves and where math gets very challenging. Stress the importance of PERSISTENCE and not giving up. On a personal note, even though I’ve scored very high on standardized and even got into an Ivy League school, I just felt that I wasn’t really exposed to many female role models. I WAS however INUNDATED with images of young beauties slathered in body glitter and eyeliner and became very insecure. What might be helpful is a book on successful women in science, or better yet, a connection with someone in math or science. I would have done anything for a summer lab job when I was in highschool.

  15. SJean says:

    As others pointed out, math can be a great choice. If she wants to major in strictly math, have a plan with where that is going to go. Teaching? Actuary? Wall street?

    Or major in something that heavily uses math. I may be biased, but electrical engineering (signal processing) is heavy in math. Or maybe finance?

    Math is VERY useful, but be careful in picking the degree, it can make a big difference in your ending job and paycheck. A girl who majored in math works here as a technical secretary, while another is a SW engineer because she got a minor in comp sci. Better job, better pay.

  16. Helen says:

    I wish you’d been my uncle when I was fifteen, Trent.

  17. Rachel says:

    I have a neice and a nephew that will be starting college within the next couple years, and I can only hope they listen to me when I tell them the same thing. Above all I don’t want them to be as in over their heads as I am before they’re thirty. Also, thanks for using the word “snarky!” In case anyone is wondering: to snark at someone is a cross between a snarl and a bark. :)

    Keep up the great posts, Trent… you have quite the following out here!

  18. Anna says:

    “Listen to your heart…” Yes, yes. My older sister, who wanted to be a teacher, majored in math because everyone told her that math teachers were in great demand, even though she didn’t especially care for math. Guess what: her first teaching job was in the fourth grade — the very grade she herself had been skipped through because she was so smart, so she had to teach arithmetic at a level to which she herself had never been exposed. She is now in her senior years, and I’ve never known what she would have preferred to major in. Maybe I’ll ask her next chance I get.

    Similarly, and also appropriate to “the highest paying job is rarely the one you want,” I once was asked to join another department of my company at a significantly higher salary. I loved where I was — the work, my colleagues, my boss — but took the promotion because of the higher pay. I was miserable. When the opportunity came to return to my old department, I grabbed it, with no regrets.

  19. Anna says:

    Looking at my post and others’ posts, I hasten to say I have nothing against math! Only when math and an individual person are not a good fit. Y’all understand, I know.

  20. T-Bird says:

    Also be realistic with her. Tell her that in order to get out of her small town and enjoy a broader world view, she will need to go away to college and even if she wins a math scholarship, she is going to need student loans. College is expensive and impossible to pay for on your own while living away from home, if you don’t have deep pockets that is. So, she might graduate with some debt, but if she acts responsibly, she’ll be in her thirties “riding high without a worry.”

  21. tarits says:

    “The highest paying job is rarely the one you want.”

    From bitter (and current) experience, I know that this is so true. Unfortunately, it is a truth denied by the majority of people around me. All I hear from my parents/relatives is “work at high paying job NOW, then when you’ve saved enough you can do what you want.” So what is “enough”? I might not live long enough to see that “when.”

  22. Rick says:

    Its great advice- I’m sure she will do very well if she follows it! I think she is very lucky to have an uncle that can give her that kind of advice. The key will be insuring that she does actually take it to heart; it’s good that you are going to avoid sounding preachy but I would suggest going a step further. Here are a few suggestions from How to Win Friends & Influence People:

    Begin with praise and honest appreciation, talk about your mistakes before making your suggestions, rephrase your suggestions as questions and let her come up with the solutions and lay down a challenge.
    You might say things like…
    I’m really proud that you will be going to college…
    I made a lot of mistakes in and after college (Not studying what you wanted to, Taking on Debt etc.)…
    Don’t you think you would be happier listening to your hear when deciding what to do? What subject do you really feel passion for?
    I bet you could have a great career by studying math- why don’t you look into it and see what you can find?

    If you wanted to sweeten the deal you could even wager some $ to see if she can find more promising careers for a math major then you can.
    You might want also consider giving her a copy of How to Win Friends & Influence People, especially if you find this advise useful!

    Good Luck!

  23. vh says:

    Straight on: tell her to study what SHE wants to study, not what other people make her imagine is appropriate.

    A friend’s daughter went to a community college here because the nearest university campus didn’t have adequate offerings in math & science. After two years at the CC, she got a FREE RIDE at Texas A & M, where she just finished a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. She not only loved her studies, she also loved a fellow engineering student: she and her beau just got married, and they both have wonderful job offers in the part of the country where they want to live.

    Oh, and by the way: the starting salary for each job is more than dad (fireman) or mom (teacher) are earning after 30 years of workplace experience.

  24. Brian says:

    Trent, I agree with all of your points and think she’s lucky to have someone like you. However I’ve noticed over the past six months or so that you’ve increasingly written about following your heart above all. While that is a great idea in principle, it doesn’t always apply for everyone, and especially not right out of high school or college. Many of us had goals and dreams then that viewed in hindsight aren’t what we really wanted. Would traveling the world for a year really have helped you figure out that you wanted to be a writer?

  25. Ashley Albers says:

    As a female who double-majored in chemistry and math, I would tell your niece that it’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Math was actually added on just for fun. I’m now in medical school, and I can tell you that all my fellow math majors found jobs or grad school spots that they wanted. Even if she doesn’t use it, the critical thinking and analysis she’ll have to learn will make it well worth her time. If that’s what she loves, I think she should definitely consider it.

  26. I’m a college math professor. I echo all the other people reminding you also to tell her to take lots of math. But also make sure to tell her that it’s OK to *enjoy* math as a hobby, and she can tell people who think that’s nerdy and bad to go, er, integrate themselves.

    We need more kids in this country to buck this rampant anti-math cultural meme that’s been around for over a decade now.

  27. !wanda says:

    The math she’s been exposed to so far, even if she’s advanced, isn’t much like the math math majors see in college. (I thought I was good in math, until I got to college and had trouble proving that 1+1=2 in freshman calc class.) Then again, even if she doesn’t want to do pure math for the rest of her life, being good at math opens a lot of doors, like in finance and consulting.

    On the personal finances side, she should know that there are also many programs and scholarships for young women who are interested in math and science, particularly if they are also from financially limited backgrounds. Also, if she wants to do the academic route, PhD programs in math and the hard sciences are always paid (no need to pay tuition or fees, plus a stipend).

  28. Jillian says:

    Good luck!

    Don’t get discouraged if she doesn’t appear to be listening to you. I’ve worked with girls that age and they will always start to play with their cellphones or MP3 players or appear otherwise distracted the second the conversation turns away from lip gloss and celebrities, but many have assured me that they do actually listen and appreciate what you’re saying. Mostly they just aren’t used to people caring, so they’re unsure how to act.

  29. guinness416 says:

    Our interests and aims can jump around quite a bit when we’re teens. While no doubt the advice in the comments here about studying maths is good, if I were you I wouldn’t be specifically be pushing mathematics as a career too much. She may worry about letting you down if her interest or ability wanes, or your personal enthusiasm for maths takes over. The general follow-your-interests advice is enough. As I’m sure you know.

  30. Jenn says:

    I agree with pretty much everything said here – I just want to add one suggestion:

    Why not write it down for her? I mean, certainly have the talk, but then send her a follow-up letter that includes you these points. I bet she’d keep it, and maybe stumble across it when she needs to hear it all again.

  31. Jason says:

    I sure wish someone had told me at 15 that “debt will become your prison if you let it.” I’m still working to be paroled for good behavior!

    You’re a good uncle – I’ve tried talking to my cousins (15-18) about same and they give me that “yeah, yeah” look. I’m thinking about giving them a finance book for graduation – maybe something mainstream like The Total Money Makeover to get them interested.

  32. Peter says:

    You know, the lessons on the back of business card, with very slight variations, might be a good thing to do here. Why not use it as an opportunity to consider the possiblity to present it to people her age, and ask to use her as a sounding board? It lets you talk about many of these areas in a constructive “what do you think?” vein without being preachy, and opens the door to a lot of the kind of discussions you want to have. In addition, you can potentially gain a new audience for the presentation with her honest input. Anyway, just a thought.

  33. PiFreak says:

    Wow… are you MY uncle?

    Math is something I’m highly passionate about, and I love to find my own ways to do things in math, but my teachers always talk me out of my ways.

    I love being nice to people, even those who would normally be considered “lower” than me, and I fit in with them just fine. It’s high school, so I do have some limits on how far I can extend my range, but I’m a Junior in all advanced and several college courses, and my two main groups of friends are freshman, a mix of super-intelligent ones I’ve known for a while, and some others that are their friends, and a group of juniors that are just plain crazy. Most people of my age and intelligence at my school are incredibly boring to talk to.

    I knew a lot of seniors as a freshman, and people my age would gasp in shock as some “super-hot senior BOY” would smile, and call me by my name. I was just friends with them, but it was cool knowing upper-classmen. Regardless of whether or not that had happened, I’d still be hanging out with freshman now, but a lot of them are guys (I fit in better with them – they’re crazier, and don’t think it’s weird to talk about something besides clothes, boys, or makeup). I see the guys in the hall a lot, and I always say hi. I don’t know what their classmates reactions are, and I don’t care, but I hope at least one of them has benefitted from having me as a friend.

  34. Fathersez says:

    It is really great for you to take an interest in your niece and prepare yourself ahead for the talk.

    I do not want to say anything about the line / direction of the talk.

    Just the fact that you have noticed and that your niece will listen to you is a clear indication of your good nature and great relationship building skills.

    Uncles and aunts make great role models, especially when the children are in that akward neither adult, not quite still kids stage.

    Over time, you can add and elaborate on the topics you have chosen. One talk will not resolve everything. The point is she will listen to you. This must be the result of your concern and investing in quality time with your niece during her younger days.

    Good for you and well done. And she sure is lucky. She’ll find out soon enough.

  35. Louise says:

    I definitely agree with your advice about the highest paying job. I’ve seen friends end up in high paying jobs that not only came with extra stress, but also a lot of unpaid overtime and a timetable that made taking any holidays almost impossible. They ended up taking work home with them, being interrupted on their days off and being expected to travel considerably for work. I live in a regional area where a lot of people travel up to 100kms each way to work in the capital city because the wages are higher. Their travelling time increases by 2-3 hours per day, their increased travelling costs take up quite a lot of the extra income, and remember those travelling costs aren’t tax deductible (of course sometimes they’re travelling because they can’t get a job in the city where they live).

    I also agree with your comment about being nice to everyone. Not only does it make life more pleasant all round, it also makes it more productive. I worked in an office where my boss complained that his secretary wasn’t willing to take on tasks that were out of her job description, however that had more to do with his attitude and the fact that he wasn’t willing to take the time to train her. On the other hand, because I was nice to her, she was always willing to help me when I was swamped, and many a time she helped me reach a deadline.

  36. LC says:

    Great advice. You could probably even write it up and publish it.

    As a female engineer, I would definitely encourage you to encourage her interests in math. Especially in engineering, girls can often do better than guys because of their softer skills. I had the math aptitude but one thing I wish someone had exposed me to is more hands on stuff, like working on cars and building stuff, so I would also encourage you to give her opportunities to do that kind of stuff with you if you get a chance.

  37. Linds says:

    What if she reads this post, won’t she feel a bit like you are sharing her “struggle” with thousands of people?

    Still, I to would have loved to have somebody like you to mentor me when I was that age.

  38. MVP says:

    Some good points there, although I don’t necessarily agree with the “follow your heart” mantra when applied generally to life. Too many people follow their hearts and end up in bad places because they don’t use their heads to make solid decisions. I followed my passion into my current career, but when I was making the decision, I was too immature to consider how viable this job choice would be in supporting a family and being an important part of a family.

    Also, I’m not sure a 15-year-old will be ready to hear all this at a holiday family gathering. Could be a little overwhelming. You might get a better response if you take her out and do something with her at another time and approach the topics more subtly. Just my two cents about how teenagers generally operate. Good luck!

  39. Lise says:

    What a fantastic post to wake up to on a Sunday morning. Loved all of it, wish I had an uncle like you when I was a kid just as someone stated above but it ain’t it a grand time in the world’s history when we all share such great stuff every day! Thanks for your wonderful blog! Lise x

  40. Your niece is lucky to have you as a mentor. I have a few financial and business mentors whom I feel very fortunate to have in my life, though they only appeared when I was much much older (in my 30’s actually). They’ve provided me perspectives on investing and business that I’ve found very enriching.

  41. Sarah says:

    You can make a sick amount of money on Wall Street if you’re really good at math. The 46th richest man in America today is a former winner of the top international prize in geometry who walked away to start a quantitative (i.e., extremely math-driven) hedge fund. The more important lesson here, though (because intellectual talents do change and develop) is that people in your little hometown are unlikely to have perfect information on what sells in the wider world.

  42. Meg says:

    I was lucky enough to have a lot of uncles, aunts, and grandparents growing up. I only saw them a few times a year–usually around the holidays–and I can tell you that I vividly remember a lot of the things they said. I’m sure I’ve heard countless hours of well-intentioned and potentially valuable advice from many of them, but the things that stuck with me and meant the most were the supportive and encouraging words.

    One grandfather used to always tell me how smart I was, specifically that I was “from a good gene pool.” He used to caution me not to ever be arrogant or proud about my intelligence, but rather that I had an obligation to use it to help others. Another grandfather repeatedly told me that he was so proud of me.

    Even though I knew my grandfathers were seeing me through rose-colored glasses, I carry their words with me to this day. Knowing that someone she looks up to is impressed with you and expects you to be successful will carry your niece farther than any advice you could give her.

  43. Caeli says:

    Trent, this post really brought tears to my eyes. I can’t help but think that if someone had taken the time to sit down and say such things to me when I was that age, I would have made drastically different choices. Instead all I got was “you should go to college because it’s the right thing to do” which just made me roll my eyes and want to party all the more.

  44. Heather says:

    As a first generation college graduate and mathematics major, I applaud your interest in your neice. We girls need to hear that kinda thing from positive male role models. I totally understand what you mean by “get out”; I had to do some of the same from my small, rural hometown.

    I thought of one crucial thing worth mentioning. Too many women get sidetracked by pouring themselves into relationships with people who do not support them and their dreams. My male cousin spoke words to me 12 years ago that saved me so much heartache…”Any man who wants to be in your life should treat you as well as well as your dad does. You deserve to be treated like a queen; don’t settle.”

    Your neice is lucky to have you in her life.

  45. Sharon says:

    Trent, you clearly love this girl. But I hope you will reconsider this ‘talk,’ because it does seem preachy.

    15-year-olds are told what to do every day of their lives. More than anything, she probably needs someone who will *listen* to her and be enthusiastic about her passions and answer her questions like an adult.

    Ask her how you can help fulfill her dreams. You might be surprised what she says, and you can have a conversation instead of giving her a speech.

  46. degas says:

    You might consider giving her the book Datable: Are You? Are They? To help her decide not to spend time she could be developing herself obsession about boys instead!

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