Transcribe your podcast

A kid who grows up poor in America is four times more likely to graduate from college than a kid who goes through the foster care system. What's going on at these colleges is that's not the real world. This is the real world.


What are the best and worst things about these Ivy Leagues?


The lunacy of campus professors are being fired left and right. Self censorship is at an all time high. If I had known how hard it would be, I don't know that I would have done it.


That blows my mind.


I've never been.


I think a lot of people's eyes are going to be opened.


I was just, like, floored by this.


Your mom's deported, your dad's gone, tried.


To put on a brave face. I would trade all of it to basically have never been in foster homes.


It's crazy to say that to the guy who is living that life as we speak. Why do you think that is? Welcome to the Learning Leader show, presented by Insight Global. I am your host, ryan Hawk. Thank you so much for being here. Text hawk to 66866. To become part of mindful Monday, you, along with tens of thousands of other learning leaders from all over the world, will receive a carefully curated email from me each Monday morning to help you start your week off right. You'll also receive the first two chapters for free of my upcoming book, the score that matters if you text hawk to 66866. Now on to tonight's featured leader. Wow. Rob Henderson grew up in foster homes in Los Angeles. He joined the United States Air Force when he was just 17. He has a bachelor of science from Yale, and then rob received a phd in psychology from St. Catherine's College in Cambridge in 2022. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and many others. He's the author of an amazing new book called Troubled a Memoir of Family, Foster care and Social Class.


During this conversation, we discuss the impact that growing up in foster homes has on children and how Rob was able to beat the almost insurmountable ods and graduate from an elite university. Then Rob describes the difference between motivation and self discipline. And finally, he shared a touching story about why parents should read to their kids. This conversation's unlike any I've ever had. Rob's life story is truly a movie. He's right in the middle of it. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll certainly be inspired. Ladies and gentlemen, please enjoy my conversation with Rob Henderson. Rob, that's awesome to have you here on the learning leader show. Welcome.


Thanks Ryan, great to be here.


Throughout the course of your book, I had my eyes opened so many times. It's both heartbreaking and uplifting. I was reading it again this morning on the elliptical, and it's, like, just killing me, man. And there's definitely tears throughout. It's one of the best books I've ever read, man. And I super grateful that you sent me an early copy, but I found this wild stat that was almost hard to believe. 11% of kids in a poor family who grow up in a poor family graduate college. The percentage of foster kids who graduate college is 3%. That blows my mind. Can you go deeper on that stat, why it is? And a little bit more about that?


Yeah. So this was something that I've been curious about for a while. A lot of the book is about class. It's about differences. It's about what life is like at each sort of social strata in America. Based on my experiences going from foster homes and the military and then later to Yale and Cambridge. But, yeah, by the time I got to college and became interested in these questions, I started looking at the statistics of no one I grew up with went to college. I was basically the only one, first one in my adoptive family to go after the foster system. I was adopted. And then I'm digging into the stats, and I'm like, okay, so on average, across us adults, about 35% of Americans obtain a bachelor's degree, which I think that stat alone. It's funny, I bring this up sometimes with my classmates in Yale or later in Cambridge, and they're like, 35% seems really low because in their world, everyone went to college. That's just the reality of, like, where I went to high school, my expensive private boarding school. All of us went to fancy, expensive colleges. And so I just thought everyone went.


So that seems low to some people. To me, it seemed relatively high because no one I knew went. And then I'm going into some of the socioeconomic differences. Once you break down by income category, okay, obviously, poor people are less likely to go. And so when you look at that bottom income quintile, kids who are raised in the bottom fifth in terms of family income, 11% go, which is. That is, like, noticeably lower than the average of 35%. And then I started digging into the statistics for foster kids, and, yeah, it's 3%. There are some stats that suggest less than three, but, yeah, 3%, which is basically, to put this in very simple terms, a kid who grows up poor in America is four times more likely to graduate from college than a kid who goes through the foster care system, and so that's how long the ods are stacked against them. And there's a lot of discussion in America about inequality and poverty and how to improve social mobility for kids in impoverished backgrounds, but not a lot on the foster system. And to me, this is an important point to concentrate on as well, is just how difficult life can be for kids in foster care and how that can redirect their trajectory.


I remember, I think, only knowing one or maybe two when I grew up with both my parents. Both my parents are still a huge part of my life. I'm going to go out to dinner with them tomorrow, and my brothers, like kind of the family that you write about that you wished you had. So I didn't really understand I'd have dinner. I have one of these foster kids over for dinner every once in a while. And quite frankly, I thought he's a little bit weird and we felt a little bit bad for him. But I think my parents developed in us some compassion and wanted to take care of people and try to just have a good night with a kid every once in a while. But I didn't fully grasp what that system is like until I read your book, quite frankly, and I think a lot of people's eyes are going to be open. What's the foster system like for a guy who went through it for ibis first seven years of your life? Can you explain what that system is actually like from having gone through.


Yeah, yeah. So just briefly, to your earlier point about having your family, having foster kids over and some of your friends from school and stuff. Yeah, I remember that experience of going. I'd have some friends who had. I grew up in core areas. It was often maybe like a single mom or stepparents or something, but it was still more stable and conventional than the kind of life that I had. And so I'd go over to their houses and, I don't know, they did have family dinner or they'd have cable so we could watch cartoons or. It was just a completely different reality compared to the foster system, where it's just total chaos, multiple kids coming in and out of all hours, not a lot of adult supervision. So, yeah, that was one of the questions that I got, which is, I lived in seven different foster homes when I was in the system in LA before moving to northern California. And people asked me, why did you live in so many homes? Like, why are you changing homes all the time? And one of the reasons why the foster system is set up this way is often a child's biological relative, their mom or their dad, usually the mom.


The child is taken from them for reasons of maybe neglect, sometimes an abuse, abusive issue, sometimes drug addiction, which was the case with my mom. A bit of all of the above there. And so sometimes the mom will become, they'll go through a treatment program, they'll get sobered up, and then they reenter the kid's life. And if the kid has been spending the last, whatever, two years living with the same foster family, this can create issues with loyalty of the kid is now they think of this foster family as their family, and now their mom, who they haven't seen in a couple of years, suddenly wants them back. And so the system is set up to basically keep the kid moving all the time so they don't feel attached to any particular parent. And then this also works this way for the foster parents, too, that if the foster parents get attached to a kid and then the biological relative reenters the picture, they often have difficulty letting go of the child or not fighting for keeping custody, retaining the child in some way. And so the system is just set up to create this whirlwind of different homes for the kid.


And it's really, I guess in some cases it can make sense. But for someone who was in my situation, it was really suboptimal because I never knew my biological father. I didn't know who he was. My birth mother was severely addicted. She came to the US from South Korea as a young woman. And then I was born in LA. And because she'd had run ins with the law multiple times, she was eventually deported while I was in the system. And I was a us citizen, so I remained. And, yeah, I didn't know anything about my father. It wasn't until later I took this 23 andme DNA test, and the only information I now have about him, one is his name. I was named after him. And the other piece of information is that my father was mexican, he was hispanic. I had no idea about this until I was an adult. And, yeah, that's a short story is just constantly moving the kid around. That was my experience all the time. But you wrote about the fact that.


It didn't make sense for you because nobody was coming back to get you. Your mom's deported, your dad's gone, there's no other family members. So for you, it didn't make sense to keep moving you from house to house because they weren't going to come get you.


That's right. Yeah. But the system is such a. First of all, it's such an overflow. There's, like a surplus of foster kids. I don't know if that's the right word, but there's just so many kids in the system, especially in major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, where I grew. So that's one issue. It's just this massive bureaucratic system where no one's actually really that focused on any particular child. It's just this impersonal system of, okay, this is just how things go. And there's not a lot of focus paid to any tailored to a particular child's situation. And that's, I think, the big reason why is just there's too many kids, not enough homes. Sort of social workers with massive caseloads, super busy, super stressed. So it's moving homes all the time. That was one difficulty. Another difficulty was just seeing my foster siblings taken, too. So day to day, I wasn't sure, of course, whether I would be taken to another home, but then I wouldn't know if my foster siblings would remain or not. I'd make friends with them or hang out with them or grow attached to some of these other kids, and then the next day, they'd be gone.


And then I'd ask another one of the older kids or one of the foster parents, like, what happened to Jimmy? Or whatever. He's off. His mommy got sobered up and she's taking him back. Or the kid would come back two weeks later. It's like, what happened there? Oh, his mom. And so it was a lot of just day to day uncertainty like that.


And then you get adopted, right? You have a family, a mom and a dad and a sister named Hannah. And here we go. You're moving. It's like, wow, I'm going to get a family. At least that's what we think. But what happened at that moment and then what happened, I guess, after that, that kind of puts you in turmoil once again.


Yeah. So I was adopted by this working class family. We settled in this kind of blue collar town, this dusty town in northern California called Red Bluff. And, yeah, it was the picture perfect kind of conventional family. I had a mom and a dad, and I remember at first I would call them Mr. And Mrs. Henderson, because that was just how I referred to all my foster parents. But then my adoptive mom was like, oh, you can just call us mom and dad. And I remember feeling elated by this, like, wow, I have a mom and a dad. Because I would hear kids at school save my mom and my dad, or I'd see kids on tv. And I would just think, why don't I have a mom and a dad? And suddenly I did. And, yeah, I had a sister. It was their biological daughter, but she became my adoptive sister, and we became very close. And so for a little over a year, it was just really nice. I remember in the foster homes, I was changing schools all the time. Different schools, different homes. And I was just really unfocused in terms of academic work.


My grades were always really bad. There was a period where they thought I had a learning disability. But then when I was adopted and my life stabilized, and once I fully came to accept that I'm not moving anymore, my sister is not going to be taken. Like, we're just two kids living in the same home with the same family all the time. And once I fully accepted that and directed my attention to my homework and my schoolwork and my grades and my mom and dad giving me that reinforcement and checking in on me. Are you doing your schoolwork? Hey, your teacher called. Where's your science project? That kind of thing. My grades improved a lot. I had to teach myself how to read in the foster homes. And I always found that, like, a difficult experience. But then after I was adopted, I got third place in the school spelling bee. Let's say this was third grade or fourth grade. And, yeah, my mom and my dad, they were really happy about how things were progressing because that was one worry they had, was like, a lot of the documentation from my social workers and reports from foster parents are like, robert is not a very good student.


He may have a learning disability. We're not sure. He's having some difficulties. And so I remember they were really worried about this. But then once they saw that I was doing fine in school, their concerns evaporated, and it was a really nice sort of year or so. And then they got a divorce. They separated. And for the first couple of months or so after their divorce, we went back and forth. My mom moved into this gloomy duplex behind this gas station in town rundown area. So we'd go back and forth between her place and my adoptive father's place. And then one day, my mom, my adoptive mom, she sat me down and said, that's just going to be your sister this time. She's going to go basically explaining to me that my adoptive father was really angry at her for separating from him. And this was basically his way of retaliating and by cutting off ties with me because he knew this would be really painful for her to see that. And it was really hard. I tried to put on a brave face, and when my mom explained this to me, I didn't want her to be hurt, and so I tried to be strong for her, but it was still really hard on me after never knowing my birth father and then all the foster homes and then having a dad for a while and then basically being abandoned by a second father.


It was just hard from that point on. And then my mom, she was a single mom, so she was working all the time. I was left unsupervised. I was this kid who had spent most of his childhood in foster homes, and I befriended a lot of other troublemakers, and we'd go off and nine years old, I was smoking weed and drinking and taking pills and that sort of latent sort of tendency toward misbehavior. So it was always there. It was contained when I was in this family. But once the supervision was gone and once that emotional security I had was gone, it all came back.


Man, the book reads like a novel. That's why I told you before we started recording, I fully expected to be the rights to be purchased and made into a movie. It's crazy to say that to the guy who has actually not only lived that life, but is living that life as we speak. You're still a really young guy. We'll fast forward a little bit, though, and I believe there's some people who believed in you as you progressed in school and maybe saw something in you. And I think this is a leadership podcast, but this is a little bit of a departure because I'm just blown away by your story, and I think your story alone is worth spending basically the whole conversation on. But this idea of a leader believing in somebody, I think is a portable lesson that could show up anywhere. And so maybe if you want to share a specific story, or more than one, about leaders or a leader believing in you and how impactful that was on you, especially in your formative years.


This is, I think, a misconception a lot of people have about social mobility or how to get more kids from deprived backgrounds into college. It's just we need to improve the school system. We need better teachers. We need this, that, and the other for the education system. But I'm not denying those things. I'm sure the education system could use some improvements, but by and large, even in the. I went to public schools, some of the schools were run down. And I know the teachers, it was like overflowing classrooms and everything. But teachers are still like the people who become educators are usually pretty good at spotting curious kids who maybe have some latent academic inclinations but are just having some difficulties in their home lives. Teachers are usually pretty good at spotting things like that. And so repeatedly, basically, almost all of my teachers saw this within me, even the ones who were concerned with my attention. They could tell that maybe I was a curious or smart kid, but I was just having difficulty with attention. And this was in the don't know if the whole ADHD thing had really taken off the way it is now, but they thought something was going on.


They couldn't really tell, but they were like, you have some potential, Robert. What's going on with you? Or they'd call my foster family, my foster parents, and ask, is everything okay? That kind of thing. But later, by the time I was in high school, it became even more apparent. Like, by that point, I'd had some more solid periods in my childhood, and I knew how to do things. I would practice the math exercises in my textbook, or I would read books on my own. And so teachers would notice things like this, even if I wasn't doing my homework, even if I was just barely passing my classes. They would say, you have potential. You're just a very kind of angry teenage kid. And I could tell you have some issues at home, something's going on with you. But they would repeatedly tell me this, and that would help, actually, it gave me a bit of reassurance to hear this, even if I was snarky or sarcastic back to them when they would say things like this. It did plant the idea in my mind that maybe I could go to college later or would have some kind of hopeful future.


I enrolled in a boxing class when I was a kid. The coach taught boxing in Moitai. So I'd go to this gym, and one of the other students in the class was this high school guidance counselor. And he and I became friends, or at least like we were friendly with one another in the class. And he was an older guy, and he would tell me about his experiences in the army, or he'd tell me about some documentary he watched about Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson or something. We just talk about this stuff. And then one day he just told me, like, I can tell you have a lot of potential. You're going to be okay no matter where you end. Basically, all the material is there for you. You just need to be put probably in a better environment. And so then later, I talked to one of my high school history teachers who had been an air force veteran. He recommended that I join the air force and one of my friends'fathers who I lived with my senior year of high school, he could also detect some potential in being. He had also been in the military, so he also softly suggested this.


He gently said, this might be a good path for you. And I was 17 when I graduated high school. I really had no plans for my future. I knew the path I was on wasn't a particularly promising one, and so I took their advice seriously. I didn't really know what to expect in the military. I picked my job on a whim. It was half impulsive, and, yeah, I just left right out of high school and shipped out for basic training at age 17.


I read that one of your favorite parts of training was the camaraderie. You said, I especially enjoyed drill and marching. The synchronized movement with others, moving as a single element instilled a feeling of belonging. The military provided a structured environment for you as someone who didn't necessarily have that. It feels like the military provided that to you and that's why you excelled.


Yeah, I mean, that synchronized movement, that was a big one of just, like, moving together as a unit. We're all in this together, all of the teamwork, all of the trust that we had on one another. I remember even I had friends in high school, and we were just goofballs. I don't know if we really trusted each other in the way that you would trust someone in that sort of military context. And so I had friends there that I developed that trust with. Mentorship, the discipline, that was one of the things that I learned that I write about in the book was this distinction between motivation versus self discipline, which is a lot of people, when they want to accomplish a goal or a task, they think they have to feel motivated. Or they say, oh, I don't feel motivated to do that, or I lack the motivation, or, how do you motivate people to do something? But really, motivation is just a feeling. It's just something internal. Whereas self discipline is, I'm going to do this task or complete this goal, regardless of how I feel. It doesn't matter what's going on inside. What matters is the actions that you take.


Even if you don't want to do this thing, the fact that you're doing it will incrementally get you to what you need to do towards your goal. And that was something that I learned in the military, too, was just like, we don't care how you feel. Are you getting the job done? Are you completing the mission? That was important for me to learn, especially as an unfocused teenager was just, you have to do Xyz regardless. And once you implement that into your itinerary, into your routine, good things start to happen.


I don't want to fast forward too much, but for some reason, the phrase that you talk about a lot, luxury beliefs, popped into my head when you talked about the difference between motivation and self discipline. Meaning, like, because I remember this. I learned this from football coaches. I played it in high school and college and after college for a little bit, which then created the work ethic for my entire life. And it was a lot of the discipline because I almost never felt like doing any of that stuff, but we had to do it, and I feel like my coaches were military of guys, and it's almost like this luxury belief of, like, no, we got to be motivated first. It's like, that's not how it works, man. So curious if you could relate that at all and you could expand more on luxury beliefs, even though we're jumping ahead of how that relates to this. Motivation versus discipline.


Yeah. So luxury beliefs, that's an idea I coined later when I was doing my PhD. Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while inflicting costs on the lower classes. And a key component of a luxury belief is that the believer is sheltered from the consequences of his or her belief when it's implemented in a culture into policy once it is promoted in some way. And, yeah, connecting that with the motivation versus self discipline. One thing that I noticed a lot among people who went to, especially people who went to these highfalutin, expensive colleges, was they would make excuses for people, especially people who they'd never met or had any kind of contact with, working class or poor people who were living on the margins of society and trying to get by. I'll give you an example. So, a friend of mine in high school, he could have been recruited on a football scholarship to play for, I want to say it was sac State, Sacramento. He wasn't a great student. He was a decent student, but he was a good football player. And his coach told him he could have been recruited, but he was failing a class.


All he had to do was go to this two week makeup course, essentially get a b in that, lift his GPA to the right level, and he had a chance to get a football scholarship, and he just didn't go. I think he went for two or three days, and then he decided to just come hang out with me and my friends and screw around and completely neglect that makeup class. I told this story to someone who I was in my PhD program with, and she basically said, if that's who he was and that's what he wanted to do, maybe that was okay. If he wasn't the kind of person who wanted to go to class, maybe it's not right to force him to do that, right? Because he didn't feel motivated. So it's okay to just let him do whatever he wants. And so I asked her, what would you do if that was your son? You have some wayward teenage son who all he has to do is go to class for two weeks, get a decent grade, and he could go on to play football for college versus being a sort of a high school grad working minimum wage, which is where my friend ended up.


And she thought about it for a second, and she was like, if that was my son, I would force him to go to class every day and threaten to kill him if he didn't. And I was like, that's the right answer. But not just for yourself. That's the right answer for everyone. But in her mind, it's okay if my friend and me and guys that I grew up with, it's okay for us to squander our futures because we didn't feel motivated to do something, but it's definitely not okay for people that she cares about or for her children. It's this sort of double standard that they accept excuses and create excuses for other people that they would never accept for themselves or for their loved ones.


Why do you think that is?


I want to say I think it's just maybe a misplaced sense of compassion or wanting to feel tolerant or I think they feel maybe uncomfortable with the idea of promoting certain values that reliably lead to success because it's unpleasant in the moment, right? Like, short term, it's painful, it's unpleasant. It makes you feel maybe a little bit like a jerk to say, like, actually, if you want to be successful, you have to go to class and work and study hard and not screw around. To take that football coach or that military instructor attitude. You feel a little bit like a jerk for saying, like, you can't just screw around. You have to get things done versus, like, oh, being like the parent of a little baby. Like, oh, it's okay. That's what you want, it's fine. And it's one of those feels really nice in the short term, but can be catastrophic in the long term, whereas taking that sort of football coach mentality is the opposite, where in the short term, it's painful and unpleasant, but long term it's actually the right call for future success.


But think about the people in your life that you I'll play it for me and then I'll ask you. But the ones I love and respect and admire the most from throughout my life that some of them I actually hated them in the moment. This can be actually be apparent at times. Definitely football coaches where I hated them in certain moments and now I literally love them with all my being. And because they saw something more and were willing to do the uncomfortable thing which was make me mad at them by pushing because they said, you've got more, you've got more. And I'm going to get every ounce out of it because you alone are not going to do it without this push. And now I don't get a college scholarship without those guys. No chance, no way. But because of them, I play to a level that then attracts those college coaches. And here we go. We're not paying for college. We're going to play football. And that's 100% because of those guys and my teammates. But we have a chance now you rob me, we have a chance. Leaders listening to be that for other people.


But it's not comfortable all the time. In fact, a lot of times it's not comfortable to be the people that are willing to help people do more or push for more than they think they're capable of. And I'm curious what you think of that.


Yeah, I think that's right. That you have to accept that sort of cost in the short term if you're put in a position of influence or responsibility for other people, especially junior people or people who aren't as fortunate as you or don't have wield the same power or influence as you, that you have to take responsibility. And part of that entails being the bad guy, quote, bad guy for a little while. Be willing to accept that people are going to hate you in the moment, even if in the longer term they will thank you or be grateful for you for doing that. And I think fewer and fewer people seem to be willing to accept that cost like that. People would just rather be liked all the time rather than respected in the longer term is just no one wants to be in that position anymore. And I think it's hard to do that. But yeah, one of the points that I try to make in the book and through conversations like this is that, yes, you have to do those things. I find it myself, honestly, when I talk to younger guys or younger people or people who ask me for advice or people who ask me what to do.


I find it difficult to do those things, to basically be very blunt or be very truthful or tell them what they need to do or tell them where they're blundering. But I understand. Just remind myself in the long term, this is going to be helpful, even if in the moment they're like, screw you. Like, how dare you criticize my actions or whatever. It's just, you got to do it.


I read page 256. You wrote that whenever you feel or have felt like an outsider, you sought refuge in helping others. And because of this, you volunteered at New Haven reads when you were at Yale. And while there, I believe you met a kid named Guillermo. I may pronounce Guillermo, and I'm curious what you learned from your time helping Guillermo learn to read.


So, yeah, it was him. There were a few other kids. I tell that story just as a way to illustrate what the experience was like there of tutoring these kids from low income families in New Haven, which is. So Yale is housed within New Haven. It's located there. It's a weird situation because you have this very rich university, but then it's located within, like, a very sort of blue collar, rundown area in New Haven itself. And, yeah, I volunteered at New Haven Reeds tutoring these kids. And one thing that stood out to me right away was that most of these kids had very similar backgrounds to what I had. I could have easily been, like, one of the kids there seeking assistance or seeking tutoring.


He opened up to you more and was more into it once you shared a little bit of your story. And to me, from a leadership perspective, because that's always, like, my slant, I think, rob, it illustrates the importance of a person who's trying to help somebody or lead somebody else, which you were doing. You're trying to help them. You're leading. Right, of taking the time to connect with him, taking the time to relate to him, taking the time to be vulnerable with him, which you were, you shared. And then all of a sudden, he's like, oh, he saw him. At least how I read it. He saw himself in you. And all of a sudden, this kid who doesn't want to read is meeting with a guy from Yale, who. You may make assumptions. All these Yale guys, these rich guys or whatever, which he may. I don't know, and says, like, wait, this guy's like me? It's like when Steph Curry made it, like, these shorter guys think I could make it in the NBA or something. The little guys, skinny and that, to me, is super powerful from a leadership perspective, to show how important it is to work hard to connect to our people, that we're going to lead, to be vulnerable, to be willing to share.


And then almost the immediate flip of a switch of how he got into reading much more than he was prior, when you guys were just like, all right, we're going to read this book.


Yeah, I remember that second or third session when I didn't just start describing my life to these kids, but if they told me something about their life and I felt that it was relevant or the timing was right, I would bring up something like that, too. And so he would tell me that he never met his dad or how his mom was always busy, those kinds of things. And so I would tell him a little bit about my life, too, that I never knew my dad. And I also had difficulty with reading and that you shouldn't be embarrassed by it. It's fine. It's nothing to worry about, because you're here now and you're trying to learn to read, and that's what's important, not the fact that you're having difficulty with. It's like having setbacks is perfectly fine, but are you trying to overcome them? And so I would try to explain this to them, and once they learned a little bit about me or the way that I explain things, a lot of them would connect with me. And it was always gratifying to connect with kids in that way, because a lot of these kids did have especially difficult home lives.


Some of these kids, man, they just didn't want to read, or their parents put them there, but they had no interest in doing it. And so I would just sit with them and speak with them and not even talk about reading or anything, just talk to them on a personal level. When I did see the kids go from that point to the point of, okay, let's learn how to read, let's work on our spelling. And was always. It took me out of the chaos or the lunacy of campus identity politics and what I was seeing at Yale. And to just spend time with those kids and realize what's going on at these colleges is that's not the real world. This is the real world. Here is what these kids are going through.


What was the fit like for you at Yale?


I didn't really fit for a lot of reasons. Right. What was just like my whatever. Socioeconomically, there are more students. So in Ivy League schools, there are more students from the top 1% of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60%. And I didn't really know, like, I had some inkling of this. These are famous places. I know that ordinarily they're quite expensive. I had the GI bill after the air force, which covered the tuition, but I just didn't realize quite the extent, the sort of the gap in terms of, like, there aren't even that many middle class people at these places.


Why do you want to go there?


I thought that they were, like, the best place to go. I was like, so there were a couple of reasons. I didn't know that much about it, but I felt like if I was going to college, I wanted to go to the best one possible. So that was number one. And then the second thing was that I didn't want to feel like I was starting from square one. So by the time I was thinking about college, I was, I think, 24. And I remember I had this conversation with a coworker of mine. This was when I was, like, a brand new recruit asking him about the future and college and what he wanted to do later. And he was like, I'm not going to go to college, man, you're going to be so far ahead of your peers, it's not really worth it. Do you really want to be like the old man on campus? I was like, oh, yeah, I guess not. So then later I thought, if I'm going to go to college, at least I wouldn't feel like I was completely starting from square one if I'm at a really good school.


A lot of resource sources, at least that was my impression of these places, that they were really rigorous education. And so then, yeah, socioeconomically, there was that gap. But then also in terms of our outlook on life, in terms of what predicts success, in terms of family background, I remember one class that I was in, the professor administered this anonymous poll to. There were about 20 students in this seminar, and the question she asked us was, were you raised by both of your birth parents? And she anonymized the results and put them up on this PowerPoint slide. And I remember seeing the number of yeses versus no's. It was like one huge bar and then one tiny bar, and it was like 18 out of the 20 students were raised by both of their birth parents. And so I didn't know who the other person was, but it was me and one other person who answered no to that question. And I was just floored by this. I'm like, 90%, basically the vast majority. And then once I started talking to students and realizing, oh, that's the norm here, is like, two parent family parents who put an emphasis on education and ensuring that their kids were basically focused and on a good academic track versus where I grew up, which was me.


I had five close friends growing up. None of us were raised by both of our birth parents. There was me raised in foster homes. I had friends raised by single moms, one raised by a single dad, friends raised by a grandmother or an aunt because their parents were either in prison or addicted to drugs, that was the norm where I grew up. And so realizing not only was there this economic difference, this financial difference, but also the social difference, that sort of family difference between me and these other kids, too, that was actually more surprising, because I expected a lot of these. Oh, they came from rich families, fine, but the fact that they also came from a completely different kind of social world in terms of them and everyone they ever knew, they were raised by basically, like, a mother and a father. Divorce was extremely rare. Single parenthood was practically. There were, in my cohort, there were seven other enlisted military vets with me that entered Yale around the same year. And even when I spoke with them, all of them were raised by both of their birth parents, which even that was a little surprising, because you would think, oh, the military kind of recruits from maybe lower middle class, more blue collar backgrounds, or maybe the family situation is a little different than the typical Yale student.


But even basically, this planted the idea in my mind that probably, if you want to get into a school like this, it's no coincidence that they came from families that were intact, that would basically prioritize their kids'futures in a very different, just a very different environment than the one that I came from.


What are the best and worst things about these Ivy leagues? Harvard's in the news. Penn's in the news. They're in the news. Right. Is a. I like my show to be evergreen, but this is happening as we speak. So what would you say are the best things about them and the worst things about them?


I've never been asked that, but let's say, okay, I focus a lot on the bad stuff, but, okay, good. Okay. So, one thing that I write about in the book, that I did have a lot of respect for the student's work ethic. It very much is like, you do have to meet minimal thresholds for test scores and grades and so on. And it is true, too, that if your family is rich enough and they donate a building or something, that often, you can just get in that way. But by and large, I would say most of the students were also very hardworking. They were academically focused. The courses at least, like the courses that weren't infected with identity politics, just the sort of standard science courses or courses where the professors just didn't have any interest in the day to day political nonsense. Those courses were actually usually very difficult. And so the students were good at being focused, of good study habits, all of those things. And I picked up a lot of good skill sets and academic habits from them because I lacked them. I was a bad student in high school. I had been in the air force for eight years.


I just was completely rusty in terms of my skill set there. And so I learned a lot from these students. It is a place where you can carve out, like, if you're a curious person, you have weird niche academic interests. You can pursue them. You can find professors, usually they're pretty responsive, those kinds of things. So there's a lot of good to be said about these places, even despite the headline news and stuff. But you have to seek it out. Now, I think it used to be the norm that, yes, you could study things without it being tainted by any kind of bias, and people would indulge, you could indulge your curiosities without having to walk on eggshells to not offend people or worry about the taboos of the day. I think as recently as maybe 15 years ago, that was true. You can still find it, but now you have to make an effort to do that, to find the right social circles to do that, and the right professors. The worst things, I think a lot of people would be familiar with the worst things, which is like self censorship is at an all time high.


Professors are being fired left and right for expressing the wrong view. Or if not fired, they're just being strongly pressured to resign, or the environment is so uncomfortable for them that they just leave. Because why would you want to work somewhere where everywhere you go people are calling you this, that, and the other because of something you wrote or something you said. The students are also very. They're organized, a lot of them. There are activists on campus that are waiting to take other students out or to destroy their reputations for political reasons, too. And then we saw this with the Harvard, Penn, and MIT testimonial, where the professors of these universities were more or less condoning anti Semitism because of that sort of oppressor, oppressed sort of duality that pervades these universities of, okay, if you're a member of this privileged category, then we can say whatever we want about you even up to and including anti semitic remarks, whereas if you're a member of this category, so there's this double standard of what you're allowed to say based on your sociological identity category. So there are a lot of issues in higher ed, and that's one of the reasons why I decided not to pursue a traditional academic career.


How did that happen? And why is that going on?


How did it happen? How did it happen? I think a lot of it is due to cowardice. A lot of the professors and a lot of this. Yeah, I think some of it is due to cowardice. The professors don't want to push back. A lot of them are just. They tend to be nerds who just want to keep their head down, do their research, do their work, write their papers, and they don't want to have pieces of their time taken because they said the wrong thing or someone accused them of something. And now they have to redirect their attention to do conflict management, reputation management. And so they just withdraw into themselves, withdrawn to their lab or their research center, and they don't say anything in public. They see one of their colleagues being attacked, and the right thing to do would be to say, hey, I support academic freedom. That person should not be fired or should not be vilified for what they said. But then they know that if they say that, then the attention will turn on them. And so they just stay silent. And so you scale that up, and eventually everyone is just very quiet, very careful.


Another phenomena, another piece of this is that, and this is a bit more controversial, but there's really good work from Corey Clark, who's a psychologist at Penn, and what she has found. She and some of her colleagues, basically, they find that if you compare the personalities and preferences of male versus female academics, on average, not always, but on average, female academics are much more preoccupied with and concerned with social justice, of emotional safety, of ensuring that students don't feel unsafe or harmed in any way. Subjectively, if they tell you they feel harmed, then therefore they are harmed. And so we have to prevent that. Whereas male academics tend to be, if you give them a forced choice, what's more important, emotional safety or academic rigor? On average, male academics tend to favor rigor, whereas female academics tend to favor emotional safety. And so over the last 30 or 40 years, women have overtaken men in academia. So there are more women on campus, there are more female students, there are now more female professors, senior professors. It's still majority male, but that's going to change in the next ten or 15 years as the men age out.


And now there are more and more women phds there, more women phds than male phds now. And so they're going to take those professors positions. And so I think this kind of, some people have used this term. The feminization of academia is also playing a role here, where women, on average, tend to have different priorities than men. And this is also giving away to this feelings based social justice, identity politics movement that we're seeing on campus. And so I think both of those two things play some role.


As you were about to graduate Yale, cool story. You write about you're going out to dinner with your mom and your sister, and I believe it was the New York Times. They called you, you had written a piece, and he said, this will make for a cool story. Can you talk to me more about that whole idea of writing? I'm going to dig deeper on writing here in a second, but writing that piece and that phone call and the night, take us inside that.


Yeah. I had attended this writing seminar at Columbia while I was in college. It was a one week riding seminar.


Was that the war horse riding seminar? Is that what it's called?


Yeah, it's called the war horse. I don't know if it still exists, but this was 2017 that I attended really useful program where essentially they invited veterans who were either students or recent graduates onto the Columbia campus. And they had writing instructors and guest speakers and so on, basically inviting them to learn how to structure their experiences in a written format, essays and sort of personal reflections and basically publishing their skills to communicate their experiences. And so while I was there, I worked on some essays and improved my writing skills. And one of the guest speakers was this guy, Jim Dow, who was then the op editor at the New York Times. He and I spoke for a while. He gave me his email. I sent him an essay, and then they took it. And then they just, like, they ghosted me. They were like, oh, yeah, we like this essay. And then I didn't hear back from them, literally, for, I want to say for over a year, it was radio silence. I would follow up every so often because they said yes. And then they never said no after. So I'm like, until they say no, I'm going to keep following up on this.


And so then a little over a year later, the day I graduated from Yale, I got this phone call. Yeah, I'm with my family. I'm in this restaurant. It was our graduation celebration dinner, and I noticed a bunch of missed calls on my phone. I finally pick up and, yeah, one of the editors at the New York Times was like, hey, so we ran the online version today. The print version is going out tomorrow. They asked me a couple of clarifying questions, and then, yeah, they congratulated me. And, yeah, it was just a really surreal kind of capstone to that day of, like, wow, I first in my family to graduate from college, and on the same day, they ran this op ed, and the edit ended up receiving a lot of attention and indirectly led to me writing this book. But while I was speaking to Aaron, the editor, and was right outside the restaurant, looking at the campus, looking behind me, at my family through the window pane, and at first, I was happy, but then it turned into this ambivalence of, like, the only reason why this essay was noteworthy enough to get this editor's attention was because I didn't have that many family dinners like this growing up, because of how much I lacked that when I was a kid and how just disorderly my upbringing was and how I tried to communicate the experiences I had in that op ed and why they found it meaningful.


And then I'm looking back at Yale and thinking, why am I doing all this? Why did I write this op ed? Why am I going to college? Why am I leaving the country again? Why am I going back across overseas to continue to get a phd? And I basically came to this conclusion that I spent so much of my early life, and especially my teenagers and early 20s, trying to become, like, 100% self sufficient. I didn't want to have to rely on anyone. I didn't want to have to ask anyone for anything. That anything that I did, it was on my own. And it was this coping response to way that I grew up, that anytime I did trust someone or anytime I did rely on someone, inevitably there was some kind of disappointment that would follow. And so I decided the only person I can rely on is myself. And I realized then that maybe it was useful during that period, that mindset. But then what I really should be doing now at that point, when I'd had that realization, I was 28 years old, that I should be trying to shape myself into someone who could be relied upon to be the kind of person that I lacked when I was a kid, someone who other people could go to and know that I wouldn't disappoint them, know that they could count on me, and essentially, to be able to take care of the family that couldn't take care of me, to be a better father than my fathers were to me.


And that was what the success was for. That's what I'm trying to accomplish. And all of that sort of came together in that one moment, in that call, because I realized that I would have traded everything. I would have traded Yale and Cambridge and writing New York Times and this book. I would trade all of it. Like all of the experiences that I've had as an adult, to basically have never been in foster homes, to have never had that kind of life in the first place, to have. If I had, like, an ordinary childhood, what a conventional family, not so much sort of chaos and disrepair and uncertainty, and then just gone on to have a normal life after that, I would prefer that I'm trying to create meaning from those experiences through what I'm doing now. But ultimately, the trade off isn't worth it. I think most foster kids, even if you told them, hey, someday you're going to go to a fancy college and have a career, and all this, that and the other. I think a lot of them would actually just rather have a. They'd rather have two parents, they'd rather have a family.


They'd rather have some emotional safety and those kinds of things.


The perspective man. From reading this part about external achievement, you wrote, upon obtaining a few totems of achievement, I came to realize that they are flawed measures of success. External accomplishments are trivial compared with a warm and loving family. Going to school is far less important than having a parent who cares enough to make sure you get to class every day. Like, dude, it's just perspective shift for somebody who takes this stuff for granted, which is me. And to say, man, that's why this book is so powerful, man, because you just hit people right between the eyes, the entire book. And then to be able to weave in and put yourself. You wrote it from the perspective of being at the age of each point. I don't know how you did that. You took me to the time when you're a little kid, and then you're in high school, and then you're in the military, and then you go to these fancy colleges. I'm just blown away by the imagery and how vivid you were able to go back in time and then share in such a compelling way. It's extremely well done.


Thank you. I remember right after I signed the book deal and agreed to do this project, I had no idea how difficult it was going to be. If I had known how hard it would be to do this, to write this book, I don't know that I would have done it.




Yeah. In a way, I'm almost glad I didn't know.


What do you mean hard by, like, writing a book is hard in itself, but you mean conjuring up the memories.


The structure, each chapter. I wanted it to be relatively self contained, but also be part of an overarching story, to conjuring up all the memories, making sure they were accurate to the best of my ability. Talking to my friends and my sister and my family and saying, do you remember this? Or what do you remember from that time? And it was just like a lot of research and thinking and reflecting and trying to put it all together. But then also the emotional energy was unexpected, right? So I wrote this book at the same time I was writing my PhD thesis, which is also essentially, it's like it's a book, but it's academic writing, which comes much easier to me. It's very intellectual, it's very cognitive. It's a different part of the brain that you're using when you're communicating information and academic research and writing and that kind of thing. I wasn't anticipating, because I'd written personal stuff before I wrote that op ed. I've written sort of short articles and essays about my life, but these are very short pieces, right? Versus 80,000 words. Trying to cover it all. I didn't anticipate how exhausting it would be.


I was taking naps in the middle of the day. I never take naps. I'm not a nap guy. But when I was writing, especially the first half of the book, those early memories of really trying to dig deep and try to recall the experiences, but then all my emotional reactions to them and reliving it was just like, exhaust. I'd write for 2 hours, and then suddenly I'd just pass out at my desk for a little while and come back. And so that part of it was just completely unexpected. But then that was what I wanted to do, was to recapture those memories. In that moment, I talked to an author. I was trying to find a way to approach this book in the right way, to communicate those experiences. But initially, it just wasn't happening for me. Something wasn't clicking. And then one author told me, the question with memoir isn't who am I? But who am I in this story? And for whatever reason, that unlocked something in me. And I realized, like, oh, who am I in this story? Who am I in this chapter? Oh, I'm seven years old in a foster home, and that's the story I need to tell.


Not 30 year old rob retrospectively looking back, and oh, when I was seven, XYZ happened. No, it needs to be immersive. It needs to be. What do you remember from that time and what was like a day in the life in a foster home, really, like for a kid in that environment. And fortunately, my memory of that period is actually pretty good and pretty vivid, and I only told the most vivid memories anyway. Yeah, I'm glad it ended up hanging together.


Not only have you written that, but you're a substac writer. You write on Twitter x all a lot of stuff. You write other articles. I have full page of notes just on one of your essays that maybe we'll have a round too. That lessons I learned the hard way. We're not going to get to any of them today, but we've touched on some of them. But that alone is worth the podcast. The lessons I learned the hard way essay that you wrote I share this to say, I think leaders need to be writers. I think all leaders. If you want to lead, you have to be a very clear thinker. If you want to be a good leader, at least. And I think one of the greatest ways to clarify your thinking is to get the words out of your head onto the page regularly, and even better if you can publish them. How has writing helped you clarify your thoughts?


It helps a lot. It's one thing to have an idea in your mind, just somehow when we have thoughts, they all make sense. When it's just like living up here, of course, that opinion or that view or that sort of chain of logic, oh, it makes perfect sense. And then you try to get it down and suddenly you're like, wait a minute, I made a leap there, or why do I think there? So where did that come from? And so forcing yourself to write it down, so that's like a second point in trying to truly understand what you really think, or try to inch closer toward the truth, is getting it down on paper. And then the third step, I think, which is really helpful, is to, like you said, to publish it, put it out there, get feedback from the world. What do other people think? People you respect, other smart people, let them have a look at it and see where they agree or disagree. Because this is classic psychological research. We're all very sort of egocentric. We all think we're right about everything, and it takes other people to see our blind spots and maybe where we went wrong.


And that's an ideal world. That's how academic publishing works, is you have peer review, you have people who are in the same line of research as you, who read your paper, too. And so before it gets published in an academic journal, you have other people give you feedback on it. And that's been helpful for me, too, is to, when I write on substac or I write articles, I read the comments, I'll read the feedback, or I'll send it to my friends or other people, and before I even publish it, I'll say, does this look right to you? Or what am I missing here? Or I'd be curious. Just give me your thoughts. Give me your gut reaction to what you get from this. So, writing has been really helpful, and it's something, when I was younger, I would engage in it on and off. I would journal especially like my early days in the military, 17, 1819 years old. I would just jot some notes down, or it was very haphazard and erratic, where just one day I would just start writing and then months would go by, and then I'd write something else, or I'd go for a stint of two or three weeks where I'd write every day.


So it's something I've always practiced. But wasn't until college and grad school that it became more organized.


So I'm going to ask you a question. I know you don't like to give unsolicited advice, so maybe you take a lesson or two, but let's say you're meeting with somebody who is right around the time of college graduation, and they want to do good in the world, but they don't know what they want to do. Outside of that, what are some general pieces of life, career advice or a life lesson you would share with them?


Oh, man. We're thinking of like, a conventional college grad, age 22. A typical path? Yeah, I think I would recommend maybe not going straight to work. I know people say travel, but when a lot of students or recent graduates travel, they, like, take that cookie cutter path of like, I'm going to go stay in an expensive Airbnb. Oh, I'm going to Thailand. But you're not really going to Thailand. You're going to go hang out with other Americans or other westerners and not really. So I guess one option would be truly be that sort of fish out of water, go somewhere where you're going to have to learn a little bit of the language. You're actually going to have to learn how to survive on your own for a little bit and not whatever. Rely on your smartphone for navigation and have your little group of friends with you who I think just finding ways to make yourself a little uncomfortable. So some 22 year old, some recent grad asked me, should I thinking about going to ocs. I'm thinking about going to the military, ROTC, something along those lines. And usually I say yes. I tell them, like, what are your goals?


There are things you need to think about, but just in terms of personal development, just doing something that you don't really want to do, but it's going to be hard and you're going to be glad you did it later. That would be something I would recommend. Doesn't have to be the military. It doesn't have to be travel. Could be some MMA. It could be brazilian jiu jitsu. It could be being a volunteer firefighter. There are a million things you could do, but just something hard, something that will stretch you beyond what you think you're capable of and not go straight into some kind of corporate office environment. Do something else first.


There's a great part of your book. I'd like to close with it and maybe get your thoughts as well. A couple of your mom's friends came to you for advice, and they were talking about their six year old son, and they were concerned with how smart he was. And they asked you, saying all these things, and they eventually said, should we be reading to him more? And you responded, yeah, but not because it will expand his vocabulary. Read to him because it will remind him that you love him. And I thought, God, this guy's so good. What a thoughtful way to do it. Like, as a dad myself, I was just like, man, this is good. And maybe you take me back to that time and just expand on what you think about that.


Yeah, I think a lot of. I ended with that story because I wanted to just reiterate that so many parents, I think they take this kind of instrumental approach to child rearing of like, oh, the ultimate goal is to get this kid into a good college or to be materially successful, professionally successful. But that's not what the kid is worried about. The kid isn't thinking about what college am I going to go to? Maybe later as a teenager, but a little kid, right? I'm talking, like, before puberty, especially just a small kid. What are they thinking about? They just want to be close with their parents. They just want to feel loved. They want to feel nurtured. They want to feel safe and take the kids perspective. Why are you reading to them? It's to be close to them. It's to make them feel attached and bonded and all of those things. Because when they asked me that question, should we be reading to our kid more? The first thing that came to mind was when I was learning to read in the foster homes. I just felt lonely, I felt, like, sad, I felt isolated.


And I would sometimes want someone to read to me, but it wasn't because of some far flung future ideal of getting into college or something. It was just because I wanted to feel secure or attached to someone, feel like someone cared about me, which really didn't have that when I was in a foster home. So I think that's something that more parents should realize. It's not just a foster care thing. I had a conversation with a friend recently. He did go to college. He's a successful person today. But one thing he got when he read my book was that he was like, my parents were just very hard on me and my brother. They wanted us to go to college. Basically every decision they ever made around us, and they would just speak openly about it. That's not going to get you into college, so you're not doing that. Or you need to do this because it's going to look good on your transcript, your record or whatever. And they felt this from their parents, that they weren't kids to their parents. They were just like these little units of future success or something. And to this day, he still feels like he's happy with his parents in the one sense, because they did make good decisions to get them into the positions they're in today.


But they also feel this kind of irritation and this lingering sense of resentment of like, I just wanted a mom and a dad. I didn't want these two people who were just trying to coach my way through. And I think parents sort of mistake what their ultimate goal should be is not just getting them into the best college or whatever that they can, but also to in the moment, make the kid feel like they're part of the family and that they're loved so good.


The book is called troubled a memoir of family foster care and social class. I could not recommend it enough. It will knock you on your back. It's emotional, you'll probably cry. But there you also be inspired. And you're right in the middle of living this story. It's like you wrote this when you got old, you wrote this when you were young. I think it'll be a movie. I love it, man. And I'm very appreciative of you for writing it and for being here today. And I would love to continue our dialog as we both progress, man.


Yeah, I would love that. Thank you, Ryan.


Thanks, man. It is the end of the podcast club. Thank you for being a member of the end of the podcast club. If you are, send me a note. let me know what you learned from this incredible conversation with Rob Henderson. What a story. I absolutely believe that his book will be optioned and one day turned into a movie. It's incredible. A few takeaways from my notes. Self discipline beats motivation. Often people say they need to feel motivated to perform a task. Motivation, though, is just a feeling. Self discipline is, hey, I'm going to do this regardless of how I feel. And I think this is a skill. Yes, a skill that we learn through doing hard things. And for me, it was helpful to have coaches instill this in me. And Rob learned this early in life as well as when he was in the air force and then his life career advice? Be a fish out of water. Do something hard, be uncomfortable. He gave that advice for a 22 year old recent graduate, but I think we all would agree that that is useful advice for all of us. Be a fish out of water, do something hard, be uncomfortable.


And then 35% of people in America graduate with a bachelor's degree. 11% of people from poor families graduate from college, and just 3% of foster kids graduate from college. When you think about Rob's story, it's hard not to be inspired. He's beaten almost impossible odds to not only graduate from college, but he served our country, then went to Yale, graduated and got his phd from Cambridge. It's just awesome to see what he's done. And he's still so young and at the beginning of his career. I love it when good things happen to good people. Once again, I would say thank you so much for continuing to spread the message and telling a friend or two, hey, you should listen to this episode of the Learning Leader show with Rob Henderson. I think he'll help you gain perspective and become a more effective leader. And because you continue to do that, and you continue to go to Spotify or Apple Podcasts and subscribe and rate the show five stars and write a thoughtful review, doing that spreads the message and also telling friends spreads the message. And that's how this show has grown over the past nine years and will continue to grow.


And by doing that, I'm so, so grateful and will forever be grateful. Thank you so, so much. Talk to you soon. Can't wait. Bye.