Breakthroughs happen when we guide youth step-by-step to craft a detailed vision of their independent adult life, discover their unique purpose in that life, and build real-world readiness skills. They develop a sense of direction and meaning as they learn the proportions and realities of the adult world. When they create a plan that is uniquely theirs, they are more committed to taking the responsibility to making it come true.

In the year 2000, in the early days of the web, I met a man with a workbook that he had created for his own kids. He called it True Life, and Ed wrote it to guide his kids through a process of connecting education, career, money, and lifestyle. He had tried to market it as a school curriculum for other youth but only had limited success.

True Life used a lot of publicly available resources to teach youth about budgeting, the cost of things, jobs and salaries, careers and college degrees, and how minimum wage earners missed out on most of the finer things in life.

The original True Life Chart: “a color-coded guide that illustrates the typical relationships between education, careers, money, and lifestyles. Red shows the income and lifestyle of a typical high school dropout, blue shows typical blue collar workers, white shows typical white collar workers, and green shows higher paying professional careers. It offers a visual picture, similar to a road map, of how the real world works. It provides tools to explore education, career, money, and lifestyle as they relate to you and your life.”

We quickly realized that converting it to an interactive media and putting it on the web would vastly increase access to learning resources and to the youth that needed it.

So that’s what we did — we web-ized it all. It become True Life Interactive.

Over the next five years, as we took the follow-ons to True Life to school districts and classrooms, youth centers and mentoring programs, detention centers and teen courts, homeschools and family living rooms, we uncovered hours and hours of additional programs waiting to be web-ized. Creative and dedicated teachers, counselors, advisors, ministers, and parents shared what they — like Ed — had created for their own youth on financial skills, social skills, career development, job readiness, at-risk recovery, conflict resolution, independent living, dropout prevention, and many more themes.

Bill Clinton once lamented that though many problems in the world had been solved, the real challenge was getting the people with the problems connected to the people with the solutions.

The Internet changed all that forever.

Here was our opportunity to use this new medium — the Internet — to connect the solutions with the problems.

We built it all into a national learning platform that has now served over 37,000 youth in all 50 states — and continues to. During that time, as my wife advanced in public education to becoming principal of her own school, we continued to raise our five children through their teen years. We incorporated many first-hand, hard-won insights and lessons into the platform.

This is clear: Youth with vision, purpose, skills, resources, and support will overcome many obstacles and open many doors. They will pause their natural inclination to follow their impulses and instead consider longer-term alternatives.

What follows are the best of the best from the last 18 years of helping youth across the U.S. In many cases, I’ve linked to our proven exercises, activities, resources, lessons, and tools. They are free to use.

Combined and applied in unique and specific ways, these tried-and-tested approaches use several key human development principles:

  • Active, structured skill practice on the street, in relationships, in the real world
  • Written self-reflection, followed by sharing and reflection with a peer or group
  • Awareness of and experimentation with new life concepts or practices
  • Simple, creative modeling and simulations of important life scenarios
  • Facilitated practice and rehearsal of difficult skills in a safe environment
  • Progressive, structured building and applying personal vision and purpose
  • Exploring hidden aspects of self for both empowerment and remediation
  • Modeling, encouragement, and support from caring, informed adults

Here are my best programs, approaches, tips, tricks, and proven methods to help prepare youth for our challenging world, from 18 years of perfecting these with schools and youth centers and families:

Personal Insight and Resourcefulness — learn how to know oneself, how to discover what stirs passion and commitment, and how to put it all into action.

Discover Who I Am, Where I’m Going, How I Will Get There: When we have a clear sense of purpose in our lives and a clear plan to move in the direction of our dreams, we can transform our outlook and confidence.

I’ve seen this happen again and again over 18 years of guiding teens to create visionary lives. I’ve seen it with my own kids. When we tap into the unique and intrinsic light that burns in each young person, they stir, and they change. The answer to ‘who am I’ becomes their guiding purpose and defines where they will go and sustains them through the long journey to getting there.

The Purpose How-to: The following 3-stage process, when used by teachers, counselors, youth directors, and parents with their teens, can light the spark in young people. First, use the many tools available to have teens discover their own inherent talents, aptitudes, interests, and skills.

Next, match those personal attributes to the corresponding skills, aptitudes, values, and interests of specific jobs and careers. The best tool for this is the ONET Online from the Department of Labor. Finally, work with them to build practical step-by-step plans to map out their goals and progress, year over year.

Operate from Core Values: By learning how to operate from core values, young people build the confidence to say no to the wrong temptations and say yes to the “better angels of [their] nature.” And they build the wisdom to know the difference. With that core foundation, they’ll better resist peer pressure, harmful social influences, and their own teenage impulses.

The Foundations How-to: Find ways to help young people uncover and articulate their own values. Depending on your own values or spiritual background or educational system, create opportunities to discuss and explore what’s important and meaningful. Explore new and better values.

Model for them how you operate from your own core principles. Provide examples, share stories, discuss your biggest challenges. Finally, identify situations where they can practice applying their own values to important choices and decisions.

Refuse Victim-hood: I watched all my five children pass that point of no return as teens where they accepted personal responsibility for their lives. Once they got beyond the blame game for choices they made in the past and consequences they faced as a result, they were on the way to adulthood.

(Some adults still have not crossed that boundary.)

With your guidance, your teens can avoid a similar fate and master what might be the most important ability they’ll ever have: personal choice.

The Personal Power How-to: The goal here is to help teens release victim-hood, take back their power, and own their current and future choices. This works best when concrete and specific.

Choose situations where teens have brought trouble on themselves. First, have them journal about their own role and their own choices in those situations. In this personal reflection, they should consider their part, examine the consequences they faced, and explore alternative paths.

Use this to introduce ‘vectors’ on their life paths, and emphasize that small changes in vectors today can lead to major benefits down the road. Play with different scenarios to practice and model different choices.

Addiction Recovery: All of us possess some risk of addiction. It’s built into our brain chemistry. Most of us avoid excesses. But due to life circumstances, family dynamics, genetic dispositions and bad luck, some of us become ensnared.

But with willingness, help and recovery is always available.

The Recovery How-to: Teens need to know step one is always full acceptance of their own situation and facing the truth about their own past choices. From there, you can encourage them to take the second step of reaching out for support and guidance.

Here’s a journal and reflection approach to get things moving.

With your love and patience, they can apply this proven framework, as you provide guidance, non-judgmental acceptance, and encouragement. Simple awareness of all these dynamics can become psycho-active for teens or anyone dealing with addiction.

In 2001, we revealed the power of putting all the lessons and activities on the web, to create hands-on interactive learning that engages young people in their own process of self-discovery.

General Purpose Problem Solving: In the MacGyver TV show in the 80s, the main character represents resourcefulness, tenacity, creativity, and ingenuity in the face of any problem. The term ‘MacGyver’ has become a part of our common vocabulary.

How many problems will our young people face in a lifetime where a MacGyver attitude will see them through?

We can provide our young people with specific tools and tactics for any of the individual challenges they’ll face in their finances, relationships, education, and employment. But we won’t be there to coach and plan the vast majority of the smaller problems they’ll face.

The MacGyver How-to: Here’s a process to teach real-time, hands-on practical experiential learning on general problem solving skills with a framework. It’s called The 5 P’s of Problem Solving and includes specific tactics on Plan, Purpose, Perception, Partnership, and Prosperity.

These principles can solve problems in any situation. By learning this and other similar frameworks, youth can tackle almost any challenges that confront them.

Curiosity and Openness: Do you know anyone that has closed off their minds to their world and their peers? What is life without wonder and enchantment? Perhaps the greatest failing of any individual dealing with what life serves up is lack of curiosity and unwillingness to learn and grow.

All the approaches outlined here will cultivate willingness.

The Wonder How-to: This principle runs deeper in us and takes more time to foster and grow than many of the other tactics here. In my experience, the best way to enhance and encourage curiosity is by modeling it for the young people we love.

Teaching and tools and programs are essential, but at the end of the day, nothing replaces an adult of high integrity simply walking their talk. Also, by sharing any of the approaches in this article with your teenagers, you’re demonstrating your commitment to staying humble and open and learning.

Social and Interpersonal — establish the values and identity that provide the basis for all human interactions, then practice how to put them into action.

Intrinsic Empathy: We need more listening, reflection, empathy, and understanding in today’s divided world.

It seems too many of us behave like the adolescents we’re speaking of here. We act on impulse instead of slowing down and setting aside our own desire to be right.

The Mutual Caring How-to: Because social situations are so stressful, the best approach here is to create a safe environment for practice. Simple practice sessions facilitated by a caring adult where teens get to rehearse listening and reflecting with peers and adults is the key.

Model for them how to pause in a heated moment. It helps them listen and hear beyond the emotions and stresses they will encounter and build empathy for what friends and others need. This will impart a skill that can transform our culture, one mind at a time.

Conflict Management: In school, on the street corner, at home, on the job, or anywhere they go, young people encounter conflict. When they learn to manage tense situations and disagreements with others, they’ll make their lives safer and more satisfying. They’ll move us toward a calmer and more caring world.

But conflict is often charged with emotion and we need to provide safe opportunities for practice.

The Peace How-to: As with other tactics I’ve shared, the best way to teach conflict management is to provide safe, caring situations to rehearse. Teens need the confidence to face conflict and engage it. Practice helps them learn how to defuse conflicts through dialog and patience without the risks inherent in real arguments.

And by slowing down, reflecting, and finding common ground instead of defending, they build confidence they can avoid escalation.

Across the U.S., we showed teens how experiential self-guided personal development can make a difference in how they see their place in the world and how empowered they feel to do something about it.

Give Back, Pay it Forward: We are all better when we share, teach, support, and work together. If we can make generosity a standard feature in the lives of our young people, they will rise above their teen egos and self-centeredness and learn to walk a mile in others’ shoes.

The Giving How-to: Schools and communities provide many opportunities for serving, giving, and volunteering. Through those experiences, teens will see the world from the view of the less advantaged.

You can help them go beyond the specific tasks and activities by helping internalize those experiences.

Why is helping important? What causes resonate most with them? What happens when more of us make those contributions? What giving-back would they like to do on their own, to enhance their own self-esteem?

Bonus Tip — The Possible Self: Many forms of acting out and cases of missed opportunity arise from hidden factors in a person’s psyche or self-beliefs. All of us have a hidden ‘possible self’ that defines how we view ourselves in the world. That belief system determines what we’ll attempt, what we think we deserve, what we’ll ask for, and how long we will persist in pursuing what matters.

But the problem is, it’s all hidden.

The Future Me How-to: I’ve witnessed profound breakthroughs in young persons’ lives when focusing on the possible self. The process of assessing values, interests, aspirations, and self-image, determining the emotional power of each, and revealing their experience with each will reveal opportunities and barriers critical to future success.

These methods get inside the heads and hearts of teens faster than any method I’ve seen in 18 years of human development.

One of our primary goals is dropout prevention: getting young people to discover in vivid, personalized terms how graduating (high school and college) will have a direct impact on their quality of life.

Workplace and Career — decide what paths in life will build motivation and create a meaningful contribution to the world.

Systematic Employment: Working and getting off the street is a major step forward in a teen’s life. But finding and starting a job is a competitive and tedious undertaking.

With the step-by-step approach below, they’ll have a better chance to get off the street and escape the idleness and low self-worth that encourage poor choices.

The Vocational How-to: With your teens, create a simple job search plan as a table or matrix. Include goals, contacts made, jobs applied for, dates, phone numbers, and all necessary follow-up steps.

Coach them through working a systematic process of keeping records and following through on each step — ‘make a plan, work your plan.’

Workplace Self Reflection: Getting a job provides young people the chance to eliminate risky idle time. Being part of a team, serving others, earning income, building skills, and opening doors to the future are some of the significant benefits of employment. They learn teamwork and responsibility. They discover how businesses function in the market.

But to keep their job and advance, they must overcome typical teen behaviors and attitudes.

The Self-Knowledge How-to: The goal here is to help teens create objective distance from their natural, self-centered teen selves. This will benefit them in the workplace, in their educational pursuits, in any relationship, or anywhere they venture.

To get started, have them journal and reflect on their own past behaviors around each of the challenges below, how these could impact their place in the workplace, and how they will manage them in the future:

  • Socializing,
  • Avoiding and even dissing authority,
  • Neglecting personal hygiene,
  • Struggling with time management
  • Projecting a know-it-all attitude.

Then, share and discuss each of these to encourage self reflection. Make it concrete and specific, and apply it to specific workplace situations. Be intentional about how to make this self-reflection real by discussing how to put it into action.

Discover the Entrepreneurial Spirit: I’m an entrepreneur. I’m thankful for the playground that is the free market.

Entrepreneurs created most of the great innovations in our long economic history. Invention and innovation are inherent in some people, and if discovered, can lead to a life of prosperity, leadership, wealth, and excitement.

But most teens don’t realize this path exists for them. Helping young people explore this alternative to ‘The Job’ benefits them and our world. We can help them discover in themselves their own passion for creating value and taking initiative.

The Entrepreneur How-to: Find actual shadowing experiences with entrepreneurs or small business owners. Explore how innovation and entrepreneurship play a role in what they observe.

When they get a job, examine their employers’ business and how it operates. Follow those experiences with further reflection on what interests and resonates with them about working jobs vs. being an entrepreneur. Emphasize that employment isn’t the only path to success in the working world.

Once young people realized they are independent financial entities and they have the power to enhance their own economic conditions, they begin to make better choices about money, spending, and earning.

Financial, Economic, and Spending — develop the skills and gather the tools necessary to avoid debt and build foundations for future prosperity.

Connect the Financial Dots: Discovering the connections between lifestyle, expenses, income, and education is the hard lesson we all learn at some point, often the hard and painful way.

But what if we could provide teens a lasting, concrete wake-up call on those dynamics of the real world before they hit the street? What if they could rise above unrealistic dreams, set meaningful goals, and discover the actual value of education and credentials for themselves?

The Life Simulation How-to: Here’s a simple 4-step process that shows teens the practical, day to day, on-the-ground realities of real life. Start by having them craft in detail their preferred lifestyle: what do they want, hope, expect from day to day living?

Next, guide them to map out what that life will cost in detail. Write it down and total up the cost. Then, what jobs will pay enough, and then what education will quality them for those jobs.

This simple approach provides teens a way to simulate a real life, in the real world, before they get on the street and pay dearly for their own lack of knowledge and experience.

Here’s a short set of exercises to get them started.

Economic Self Worth: This example introduces the basic dynamics of how the financial world operates and how a young person can assess their place in it. With this, they’ll have a framework to manage their financial choices and track their own economic health.

They’ll be able to see where they are headed and make adjustments. They’ll learn what immediate steps they need to take to steer the small vectors today that make a big difference in a year or 5 or 10 years.

The Net-Worth How-to: In this activity, you’ll introduce the concept of net worth. The goal is to help them to see themselves as an independent financial entity. You can use their own current financial status, use your own finances as a model, or creative fictional examples.

First, total up assets and income on one side of the equation. Then tally debts and expenses. Here’s an automated tool to work through this. Compare the two: is the result positive or negative?

Discuss each of those four components as you go. Discuss tactics and basic practices to increase their assets and income while reducing debts and expenses.

Make Interest an Ally: Albert Einstein called “the power of compound interest the most powerful force in the universe.” Interest is a double-edged sword. It can bring us wealth and prosperity or lead us into destitution and suffering.

But how many teenagers have a clue about what it is and how it works? Do they know how to choose from the many loan and debt options available in this world? Do they know the many saving and investing opportunities available?

The Interest How-to: First introduce the concept of compound interest. Share your own experiences and lessons about borrowing and interest and include concrete examples of how interest works.

Then, discuss the differences between risky forms of debt and interest such as credit cards and payday loans, and productive options such as mortgages. Emphasize how interest can work for them instead of against them.

Money Awareness: What if we could help our kids make better spending choices and avoid the crushing debt so many young people and adults suffer from today? If they start now while they’re young to build monetary awareness, they will sustain their financial health for a lifetime.

By using simple tools to track spending, they become aware of where their money goes and how they make it disappear. In the long run, this will help them establish financial stability and avoid debt.

The Money Mastery How-to: To teach young people the power of ‘intentional attention’ with their money, create a simple spending log where they record every dollar spent.

They can do this on paper or on this worksheet. Have them carry the log with them and record every dollar spent.

Then regularly meet with them and have them sort their entries into needs and wants. Discuss how to apply their discoveries to future spending choices.

The lessons, activities, practice sessions, tools, and resources above will help provide young people the power, determination, and skills to soar on their own. With these proven approaches, you can:

  • Instill in them a sense of purpose, vision, and direction.
  • Help them discover their own intrinsic values and motivators.
  • Give them the building blocks for a successful life and show how to apply them.
  • Support and encourage them as you model for them the character qualities that will carry them through their greatest challenges and biggest opportunities.