My dad recently said that he noticed a lot more police activity recently. He lives in a small rural town and told me that kids now days either leave or go to jail.

There’s lots of small towns that used to have a factory in a nearby town where people could go to work. Some of those have closed or reduced the number of people they need. Even the factories that are still doing good just don’t need as many workers. They need skilled workers. People who understand technology and,yes, people who know how to code. The problem is that there’s no longer a path to get these skills by entering the company as a regular worker.

You used to be able to operate machines and after a while understand how they worked. You could either advance through management or as a highly skilled operator. This was enough to support a family and build a good career. The management route is still open but even that usually requires some amount of advanced skills that you don’t normally gain through regular labor.

All of this is contributing to what my dad was talking about. His point was that if the kids don’t leave the small towns, then there’s no opportunity for them to gain the skills they need. They fall behind and eventually get desperate enough to consider theft. That is, assuming they don’t get trapped in drugs first.

I remember when my sister graduated from that small town high school. She told me that she would do well because she was one of the top students in the school. I told her it was not enough. Unless she was one of the top students in the country, that achievement would not carry her very far. Maybe it would have been enough to be a good student in a small town once. You could get a decent starting position in a local company or factory and make a good living. But that false sense of accomplishment usually ends fast once these students try to compete for good jobs at bigger and more centralized companies. Now the companies have a wider selection of people to choose from. And if there’s one thing I can promise you, it’s this. There will always be somebody else smarter than you, harder working than you, and luckier than you.

Don’t try to fight that. It’s a losing battle.

The only measure of success that means anything is how well you improve and advance yourself each day. Don’t compare yourself with others.

This is what my dad meant when he said that kids need to leave in order to avoid jail. At least in order to avoid being seen in the local jail. My opinion is that just leaving town is not enough. Just like being a top student in a small school is not enough. If the small town jobs are no longer enough to provide you with the skills you’ll need, then you have to take responsibility to develop those skills yourself. The public schools are not able to meet this need. They’re more interested in passing tests. They don’t teach you how to solve problems.

One of my favorite books is “How To Solve It: Modern Heuristics” and it shows the best example I’ve seen that explains why schools struggle to teach kids real problem solving abilities. The example is a simple math question taken from a grade school math book. The type of question that kids solve in a couple minutes during a test. It took me almost an hour to solve it. That’s not to say that I’m rusty with math. The real problem is that question is actually quite hard when taken out of the chapter of the math book where it came from. What I mean is that the math book contains chapters each teaching a specific topic. And the questions at the end of each chapter are designed to make use of the material in the chapter. So the students naturally apply the techniques they just learned to solve the problem. It becomes a much more difficult problem when you don’t know what approach to take.

This is why public education does a poor job of preparing kids for real life. When you have a real problem to solve in your job or even at home, I can guarantee you won’t have anything that gives you hints about how to solve it. You’ll be on your own. More and more jobs require good problem solving abilities and high tech skills. You can’t just follow directions and expect to make a decent living.

Where do you go to get these skills?

You can leave town and go to college or a vocational school. And there are still good jobs available that will train you. They’re just harder to find. The point is though, you need to always be improving yourself. Don’t let your school or job set a minimum requirement that you just barely meet. Try to learn things on your own. Experiment. If you’re studying music in school and that’s the only time you ever pick up your instrument, then you’re not going very far. If you’re studying auto mechanics and never work on your own car, then you’re not going very far. And if you’re studying computer programming and not working on your own projects, then you’re not going very far.

My dad was wrong about one thing. You don’t need to leave town. That’s not the solution. That’s just one possible path that still needs your own personal dedication to improving. It doesn’t matter where you live. If you want to succeed, then you need to always be getting better. Learning how to code is something that you can do from anywhere. You don’t need to leave town and go to a big university anymore. If you do, that’s great. Just remember that even if you’re sitting at home in a rural town on a cold winter evening and the snow has everybody confined, you can still write code.