Zak Slayback is a communicator who writes and speaks frequently on education, innovation, and social change. He has authored and contributed to several books. Zak resides in Pittsburgh, but also spends time in South Florida, where he has family. That’s where we caught up with him for an interview for Episode 36 of the Agents of Innovation podcast.
Zak dropped out of an Ivy League school and wrote a book, The End of School: Reclaiming Education from the Classroom, which was an Amazon best-seller in the non-formal education category. His forthcoming book, tentatively titled, How to Get Ahead When You Have Nothing to Offer seeks to give you people the tools and resources to accelerate their careers.
Zak was part of the founding team of Praxis, an organization that prepares young people for the real world through apprenticeship opportunity. Today, he speaks to various groups across the country and writes prolifically at zakslayback.com as well as on his page at medium.com.
“A lot of teachers know that schools are not preparing students for the real world … for a lot of them, the teachers don’t make the curriculum,” says Slayback.
Zak constantly meets ambitious, entrepreneurial young people and thus has concentrated much of his communication in reaching them with some simple messages about how to succeed. But while these young people are very ambitious, he says that, “I meet many young people who either just totally lack [a] sense of efficacy in themselves or they have no idea what they want to do.”
“On an abstract level people need to develop that sense of efficacy and they need to figure out what they want to go after and how to get there.” On a more concrete level, he says that there are particular sets of skills people should develop that will make them attract no matter their career trajectory: the skills of communication – both written and verbal. “Develop how to write well, how to write well in the right context, and how to understand this web of connectivity, that’s a hugely valuable skill to have.” And then, practice!
“Knowledge is potential power. You actually have to apply the ideas in order for them to actually be useful in your life,” says Slayback.
Regarding how to become a better writer, Slayback suggests to “write more and read more.” His formula: “Consumption, creation, consumption, recreation: that’s all that the writing process is.”
Zak’s advice to young people doesn’t just start or end with the professional training. He also extends his advisement to physical and mental health. “You fundamentally start with hardware … if the hardware that your mind runs on – your body – doesn’t work right, it’s really, really hard to be the most effective version of yourself,” says Slayback. “You have to be able to take care of yourself first and then you build from that.”
His forthcoming book will be focused on teaching young people how to make themselves more valuable even when they have nothing to offer. He says the advantage younger, inexperienced people have in the workforce is low opportunity cost. “When you have nothing to offer that’s the opportunity for you to take things off the plate of people who are much more busy than you, “says Slayback. “You can take advantage of the fact that you have low opportunity cost. Somebody who has nothing to offer is somebody who can try many different things.”
Zak is not only an entrepreneur who communicates about entrepreneurship, but he has also added a philanthropic dimension to his work with the Slayback Grant. While the applications have already closed for his year, Slayback says he is looking for young people who are trying to start businesses. Despite the optimism of Gen Z, entrepreneurship among young people (under 35) is at it lowest level that its ever been. He’s really looking for people under the age of 23 to be recipients of the Slayback Grant. And, he is especially interested in investing in people in the rustbelt area of the country (Appalachia), an area that that has been particularly hit hard by deserting jobs over the past half-century.
“I think that one of the reasons people turn to self-destructive habits – like drug use – is because they don’t see a worthwhile future in front of themselves, ” says Slayback. “For Americans in particular, but especially for men, a big part of that worthwhile future is work. People need to know there are worthwhile jobs that they can undertake – whether that is their own business they are starting or that’s working for a small business man or small business woman.”
Zak’s biggest advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to work. “Go out and get some kind of work experience,” he says. “Whether you do that in lieu of school or while you are in school, I really don’t care. You actually need to go out into the world and meet people and work.”
You can listen to our full interview with Zak Slayback by searching for the Agents of Innovation podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or Soundcloud. You can also follow the podcast on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
Hot take: Check out Zak Slayback’s 18 Rules for Ambitious Young Men in 2018.