Fagan, a marketing executive who lives in Orange County, Calif. with his wife, kids and two dogs, recently spoke with The Washington Post about the pros and cons of a college education and how he and his wife start teaching their children about money from the moment they start walking.
The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your family.
I’m the oldest of six kids and I grew up in a home where if I wanted anything my parents told me hey you have to go work for it. I actually left high school in 11th grade. Later on I did do a little bit of college, but never graduated. That carried over to when I had kids. You know, wanting them to have a customized education. Not so much about college and degrees. I think there’s a lot of wasted time there.
I think there’s are a lot of people out there who are not cut out for college. I’m raising my kids knowing that each one of them is different and that each one of them needs a little bit of an experience. A lot of my kids, they go to public school but I’ve taken my kids out of school before.
They’ve been home schooled at different times but for the most part they’re all in public schools. My oldest is 17, my youngest is two. It makes things interesting to say the least.
When you decided to leave school, was it because you wanted to start working?
I was just very independent and that’s maybe one of the downsides of having too much independence. Because my parents always had me do so much things and make money, by the time I was in 11th grade, I was bored. I wanted to experience things. I wanted to work and make money and be on my own.
I think I made my life harder than it needed to be at that age but out of that came me learning what my strengths were and learning what my weaknesses were and learning how to make money. I didn’t have a college education and I also looked really young so I had to learn how to communicate with people.
I moved from a small town in Oregon to California. I sold an electronics company into hiring me to sell electronics. Cell phones were just starting to get big and computers were also starting to get big so I sold computers. They usually didn’t hire people till they turned 18. I was 17 so I had to sell them on that.
I wanted to work, I wanted to make money. I wanted to be independent. I wanted to go out and do things. But I think that’s kind of part of the problem and where a lot of teens fall short today. They’re starting to have their own dreams and ideas and instead of those things being fostered and experimented with, they’re being squashed and thrown to the side.
And unfortunately by the time they’re given that chance they have responsibilities and they have issues and they have other things going on. They have good habits and they have bad habits. All of a sudden life gets in the way and now it’s really hard. So I think early on they really need to experiment and to try things.
Are you trying to say that an education is important but if you don’t have an experience or a good work ethic, an education won’t go as far?
Mark Twain had a famous quote, “I have never let schooling interfere with my education.” And I just love that quote because it’s so true. There’s just so many things that can’t be done in the classroom. There’s so many things about the school system that are broken. That’s not news to anybody it’s just nobody’s brave enough to do something different.
So, what I’ve done with my own kids is my oldest was in first and second grade and I pulled her out of school because she just wasn’t doing very well and the teacher didn’t know what to do. So I brought her to the office with me. I gave her things to do.
Then she went back into school all the way back until the 7th grade and then in the 7th grade she was starting to do some different business stuff that I was helping her with, and other parents were saying, “Hey, how does your daughter do this or how does this work? And how does she earn all this money?” So I pulled her back out of school and started taking her on the road. I do a lot of speaking and presenting so I started taking her to conventions with me and I actually put her on stage. And I was like, “Hey you potential entrepreneurs out there, if I can teach a 12 year old girl how to do this you can do this. If I can teach a 12-year-old to start a business, you can start a business.”
So I helped her write a book and do some other things and gave her a lot of real world experience. But then in the 8th grade she went back to school and she probably had seen a little too much of the real world at a young age. Then her sophomore year we took her out of school again because she was having so many opportunities.
So she did a huge internship program with my office in Beverly Hills, and she did more traveling and she started a business called hireateentoday.com, which is a virtual assistant company made out of teenagers. Then in the 11th grade she wanted to date, she wanted to spend time with her friends.
She just wanted to be young. So she went back to school in the 11th grade and now she’s just getting ready to start the 12th grade and graduate and figure out what she wants to do next.
So much is customizing things. I think I do have some advantages that some parents don’t because I do have the ability to teach, I do have the ability to put them in different environments. But I think that’s stuff that other people can do too and that’s what we want to teach them too through this Guerrilla Parenting book.
How can children start making money when they’re young?
I’m big on teaching power plays. A power play to me is something you can do really quickly that will make you money. I’m always teaching people about proof of concept– getting things to market quickly.
One of the things my daughter, who just turned 13, will do to get money, she’ll go into an office complex and she’ll say, “I’m bringing in enchiladas tomorrow. Who wants some?” In an afternoon, she’ll sell 30 to 40 products.
She’ll do that in 24 hours and she’ll make herself a couple hundred bucks. She’s really good at sales, and that’s what I’m seeing specifically the potential in her. School is not going to teach her what I think she needs to learn next to develop those talents so I want to help her do that.
How early do you start teaching your kids about the concept of money and how it’s made?
Very early. But it’s not so much about just money. It’s really a mindset. And I find the mindset is really about teaching kids if you want something, figure it out and then show them how to get it. So the mindset starts at a year-and a half, two years old.
If I’m at a store or if we’re at a restaurant, I’ll ask them, “What do you want?” And they’ll say, “I want to order this.” “Well you tell the waitress, you tell the person at the counter.” And that may sound really silly but some kids are really shy. And if my kids won’t ask for it, they won’t get it. So just getting them in the mindset of what do you want and what are you willing to do to get it, even if maybe it makes you feel a little uncomfortable.
That is the biggest problem with our society right now. You very rarely see two or three generations of success in a row because that one person gets the success and what do they say? They say, “I never want my kid to go through what I went through.” When what they went through was exactly what made them a success.
So what do they do? “I’m going to send you to the best school. I’m going to send you to the best college. I’m going to give you this, I’m going to give you that. I’m going to give you all the things I never had” –without them ever having to work for it. And so by giving them things they’re kind of condemning them to a life of mediocrity.
That’s what I’m trying to show people. Help your kids figure out what they want and then make them do their part to get it.
Walk me through the rules of the house. If one of your kids wants to go to college, who pays for it?
My kids all know that if they want to go to college they’ve got to pay for it. They also know I’m a deal maker and negotiator and when the time comes they can pitch me whatever they want to pitch me. But the rules are I’m not paying for anybody’s college. I might pay for an individual class that they might sell me on or whatever. But I’m just not a believer.
You can ask anyone of my kids. “Is your dad going to pay for college? No.”
So what are you going to do? You’d better get a scholarship, you’d better get good grades. I think we’re putting the emphasis on the wrong thing. The emphasis is on “you’ve got to go to college.” The emphasis should be on, “You’ve got to become self-reliant. You’ve got to take care of yourself.”
I use this one Venn Diagram a lot where three circles all overlap in the middle. One circle is everything you love to do. Make another list of everything you know how to do what you’re good at doing. And then the other circle is, what are the things people will pay you to do? And where that overlaps in the middle. that’s the sweet spot. That’s where total success is at.
So I’m more concerned with the journey of helping my kids figure out what that looks like. What do they love, what are they good at, and who will pay them the most money for those things?
College might help you learn what you love, college might help you learn all three of those areas. But it’s a method. It’s a process. It’s a tool, it’s a resource. It’s not the destination. Too many people go to college as if that is the finish line. And that’s why you see all these people sleeping on their parents’ couches.
I have friends who are attorneys and things like that they basically say “David I was just told that when I graduated I would turn into money, I would be instantly rich. But you know, here I am now. I’m an attorney, and there’s a ton of attorneys and now I have to learn business.” So all the focus is on the wrong thing.
So many groups are trying to raise awareness to the fact that an education alone does not lead to success and many employers emphasize work experience. But the numbers still show that the people who have college degrees earn more on average than people who don’t. So how do you balance that?
Ask yourself this: Who are the people who make the most money overall? What are the careers? Sales people. Entrepreneurs. Maybe only 10 percent to 20 percent of those sales people or entrepreneurs are really doing well but that 10 to 20 percent of those people are drastically slanting the numbers against anything else. And I would even go as far as saying that again, are we asking the right question? You’re saying, “who is making the most money?” But money doesn’t equal happiness.
People aren’t defining happiness by the second home, the boat, the fancy corner office. The fancy title. More and more people are starting to value experiences and stability to make a decent living. To have friends. To travel, to have a hobby. To be able to have a vacation, to be able to have a balanced life. We don’t care so much about the savings account, which maybe is a problem that is going to come back to bite us. But we want to enjoy life now. We don’t want to put off our dreams till later because we don’t know if there’s going to be a tomorrow. There used to be more stability in the marketplace.
It used to be “I’m going to go to get a college education and go work for a company because it’s more stable.” But it’s not anymore. Companies are going out of business all the time. Companies merge all the time. Companies are sending jobs overseas all the time.
It may still be that college kids and corporations are the safer thing but that’s changing. It’s changing fast. I think it’s going to keep changing so if you want happiness and self-reliance then learn how to monetize your knowledge and your experiences and learn how to live a life by your own design.
So if your children do decide they do want to save money to go to college, how are you advising them to do that?
My second oldest daughter Taylor, who is 15, is perfect for college. She is saving a little bit. She’s a 4.0 student. She’s won awards for being a student athlete. I believe that she is one of those people that she is designed for school. She should go to college. She probably will become an attorney or something like that. But even then I’m going to say “okay now you have a law degree, open up your own practice but don’t go to work for someone else. Or go work for someone else for a while and then open up your own practice so you can be in control of your own destiny.”
But I wouldn’t be surprised if she graduated high school, went to college, got married, had kids. Maybe did something else on the side. But lived life totally happy, totally content and totally by design even though education played a big role in it.