Real World 101 for Teens

What the seven essential behaviors to prepare them to be the brightest stars?

Posted May 28, 2014

Used with permission
Source: Used with permission

I have been that person to receive hundreds of resumes only to fill one or two job opportunities. Finding the best person with the targeted technical and soft skills for the position is like trying pick out the brightest star among many bright stars. Having just watched my 14-year old nephew choose freshman high school courses, I could not help but wonder; what does he really need to learn today that will help him after tomorrow? How can he become one of those brightest stars?

 Between my current roles as a professor and consultant in organization development as well as a former human resources generalist and prison counselor, I have spent over 20 years working with adults who were sorely underprepared for the real world. Small teenage behavioral faux pas that are ignored, turn into major ones which might hold them back as adults. On one hand, teens are kids and should have fun, make mistakes, and learn from them. On the other hand, actions could have positive and negative consequences in their immediate and long-term future. Thus, a little emotional and social intelligence certainly goes a long way.

1. Maintain a squeaky clean online persona. Anything controversial or overly personal that is leaked and posted could be career damaging. Hollywood is the only place where sex tapes and nude images are comparable to Executive MBAs. However, in most other industries, inappropriate internet activity could be a deal breaker. No future employer, mentor, professor, or coach wants to see private parts or read unfiltered thoughts.

2. Always use good manners. It’s never too early to meet people and give a positive first impression by simply being polite. The more people who know and have a positive opinion of the teen, the bigger his or her network (“cast your net and work it”, Luskin, 2014), which instantly increases the number of potential opportunities. People remember good and bad manners. If there is one opportunity available between two people; one with good and the other with bad manners, who do you think will win?

3. Get as much hands-on, practical work experience as possible through jobs, internships, and volunteer gigs. This is not a promotion for youth work-a-holism, but the more exposure he or she has in the real world, the more marketable and well-prepared he or she will be upon arrival. Teens need the opportunity to use their judgment to make decisions and mistakes. Employers expect real world rookies to have their learning curves, so real world exposure will help them enter on a different playing field.

4. Be participant observers in online professional groups. Teens can request to join professional social media groups and email listserves for career fields of interest. They may not post or actively participate, but they can read, listen, and learn about hot topics, as well as interpersonal political dynamics between some of the players in the field. Most seasoned veterans love to help rookies, so it’s a good place for them to post an intelligent field-oriented question to make an introduction and hear valuable advice they might not learn from family or in the classroom. It is also a good place to informally meet a mentor.

5. Show a sense of personal responsibility. As a graduate professor, it is clearly evident when students own their learning processes. They are resourceful and read what they can and follow up with specific questions, so working with them is a pleasure because we are partners in their intellectual journey. Students who are awkwardly told to “look it up” are very transparent about their lack of accountability for their academic development.

6. Be humble. Being young and carefree certainly has its perks, but it is also about paying dues: learning and working hard, as well as doing grit work. Nobody is entitled to anything, especially a teen with an attitude. Glamorous and exciting leadership opportunities require some type of grit work in the beginning. There are a lot of directions to follow at this time, so the sooner they get that, the better. Accomplishments are earned by practice, perseverance, and hard work; not by just showing up.

7. Listen actively and carefully. Listening is by far the most underrated life skill. Bolton (1979) pointed out that we are formally taught how to read and write, but not listen. There are times when important information is only shared once and it is their responsibility to learn it. Not everyone will repeat themselves multiple times to ensure they get it.

Teens leaving their nest to enter the real world will be daunting enough. Giving them a taste of reality under parental and community guidance will only help. Harry Nerenberg, College Counselor at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, insists that Dr. Seuss said it best- "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose." This relates to the entire college and employment search, as well as the emotional and social intelligence they really need to thrive and become the brightest shining stars.


 Bolton, R., (1979). People Skills. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

 Luskin, B., (2014). PCSD: Positive Commencement Success Decisions. Psychology Today,



 Nerenberg, H., (2014). id=346184606&authType=OUT_OF_NETWORK&authToken=gAUq&locale=en_US&trk=tyah&trkInfo=tarId%3A1401320486792%2Ctas%3Aharry%20n%2Cidx%3A1-1-1

To learn more about emotional and social intelligence in the dissertation context, check out Finish Your Dissertation, Don't Let it Finish You!

Follow Dr. Joanne Broder Sumerson on Twitter @drjoannbs