Before You Fly The Nest: Advice for kids heading to college

Brent Donnelly is a senior risk-taker and FX market maker, and has been trading foreign exchange since 1995. His latest book, Alpha Trader, was published last summer to great acclaim (by me, among others!) and can be found at your favorite bookseller. I think it’s an outstanding read, and not just for professional traders.

You can contact Brent at his new gig at and on Twitter at @donnelly_brent. Also, check out his substacks at  and

As with all of our guest contributors, Brent’s post may not represent the views of Epsilon Theory or Second Foundation Partners, and should not be construed as advice to purchase or sell any security.

My son, and a number of my friends’ kids, are heading off to college in the next few weeks. One of these soon-to-be freshmen asked me if I had any advice for her before she heads off, and my first thought was: “Wow, that is a hard question!” My second thought was: “If you saw how I conducted myself in college, you would not be asking me this!” My third thought was that any advice I might offer could be too specifically tied to my own personal lived experience.

So, I asked a bunch of people who I consider wise to offer me some wisdom. Today’s note is my best effort to write a useful summary of the responses, comingled with my own advice.

Most of the suggestions fall into a few discrete categories, so I’m going to structure things that way, with some extra credit material at the end. I am using “college” and “university” interchangeably in this essay so that Americans, Canadians, Aussies, Brits, and everyone else around the world can enjoy it equally, regardless of what brand of English they prefer.

There is no correct way to do college, and this note is not meant to tell you what to do. Follow the advice here that resonates with you and discard the rest!

Explore, get outside your comfort zone, and experiment

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I know exactly how to get there.” - Boyd Varty

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  1. All good advice. My best advice these days, however, is “skip college, go do something real”.


  2. I think the advice about avoiding mistakes with long-term consequences is great, but perhaps best given as kids enter high school, perhaps earlier.

    Object lessons of people who did not expect one decision to stick with them the rest of their lives abound…and we found encouraging kids to have compassion for those whose decisions resulted in lasting harm both helps form full hearts, and them avoid the same bad decisions.

    So yes to this, but long before they’re tempted to “experiment.” Those experiments have been run, the longitudinal results are available. This time is not different.

  3. My sage advice is to listen to your professor.

    About halfway through engineering school, I noticed if a professor repeated a point, it almost always happened to be on the test. Learn what they are trying to teach you.

    Don’t waste time exploring philosophically interesting or controversial topics, especially if they piss off your professor.

    Your professor is the customer. They are always right. You need to figure out what they want to make them happy. That’s your goal.

    Deal with the cool and interesting stuff on your own time - when you graduate.


    After a hard dose of the real world, I figured it out. The result was a step-change in performance.

  4. Avatar for Caspa Caspa says:

    You make your plans, then life happens anyway. Don’t beat yourself up when your expectations don’t materialize. I totally aced all aspects of university right through to two post-grad degrees, then got no traction in my life for the next twenty years, and I sure beat myself up around that.

    Everyone studies what “successful” people did, but nobody studies what “failures” did, and very few spend much time defining success and failure.

    My advice to all: Learn every skill you can, learn to live on a shoestring, take care of your health, and stay out of debt.

    Let’s not split hairs about “good” debt and “bad” debt. You know what I mean.

    I second the advice, “Don’t half-ass it.” If something is worth your time, go all in; if not, go home.

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