This article is part of our Transformations series, a series of in-depth articles detailing the stories behind high achieving young authors & entrepreneurs.
Attending: Pretend to Thrive; while just hoping to Survive
How Adrian Abrams’ tale of triumph over homelessness and tragedy was almost never told.
The best storytellers tell the story they want to tell — never letting us catch our breath long enough to interrupt. Adrian Abrams is a great storyteller and yet we almost missed the heart of his own story: the story of the survivor.
In his book A.T.T.E.N.D., Abrams shares his story as a seventeen-year old forced to face his family’s homelessness, the story he almost never revealed.
“Wait,” I interrupted. “Go back and say that part again.”
Adrian Abrams talked fast, smiled broadly and always made you feel like the conversation was headed somewhere you’d enjoy when you arrived at the conclusion. That was his charm, and why I always enjoyed our chats. But the truth was I didn’t really know Adrian. He rattled off stories about his internship at Google, shared how he’d taken a crash course in design thinking out at Stanford or Berkeley, and joked about watching an entire season of Malcom in the Middle during last semester’s finals study period. He was funny and told stories with the pacing and intonations that reminded me of a preacher.
Of all the students in the class, Adrian was perfectly fine. He was nice, charming and writing a book on a topic that was not bad but didn’t feel particularly earth shattering. And as much as I tried, I really didn’t have much I could contribute to make his topic better. He was set on it, his writing was solid and he was keeping up. That was about all I could ask for.
But when he’d originally pitched the idea for his book, it actually had made me a touch uncomfortable: “How To Make The Dean’s List Without Sacrificing Sleep.” As I read it and skimmed his description I thought to myself ‘Oh, great… smart kid brags about how he can ‘do it all.’ That’ll really negate the entitled Georgetown kid reputation y’all got.’
What a condescending prick, I muttered to no one in particular. How in the world do you make this guy sympathetic?
I had bigger fish to fry — at least his writing was strong, he got that stories were the way to make this not read like a term paper and maybe there was a hook somewhere in here… maybe his stories and strong writing would make it a worthwhile read. His coach Shane suggested he “share taboo things no one talks about.”
But by this point in the semester we were at week 11 — a few short weeks from turning in their final manuscripts and Adrian’s work, while well-written and with his trademark flair for the story, didn’t give me much hope he’d turn the corner and publish much more than a braggadocious story of an entitled Georgetown kid.
We’d sat down for one of our one-on-ones to chat about his introduction. I’d read his draft and after my initial feedback that he needed to work to make himself a more “sympathetic figure instead of someone bragging about how great their life was.” He’d taken this feedback and made one major change:
He shared how disappointed he was to *not* get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, referred to as “The Holy Grail.”
I’d rolled my eyes as I read it. Not quite what I had in mind.
His chapter made reference to his spot on the varsity football team, his leadership positions, etc. I was going to give it one last try to see if I could find a shred of humanity that made him a sympathetic figure.
“Adrian, I mean I get that you’re killing it and your book is all about sharing how you’ve made the dean’s list and get a full night’s sleep,” I offered. “But stop with the stories and be real. Tell me about when you struggled. Anything your senior year? Anything that shows you don’t have it all figured out?”
He paused. Smiled and again started up with his storytelling. I was prepared to just leave it but then I heard it.
“Wait,” I interrupted. “Go back and say that part again.”
He paused, thought about what had caught my attention and said it again. “So yeah, I actually had to do my applications in Georgia.”
“I don’t get it. You said you went to school in Chicago. Why Georgia?”
“Well, I mean my mom, she couldn’t pay the rent so we asked a bunch of relatives and finally one of them in Georgia let us stay with them while we figured it out.”
And that’s the moment I knew there actually was much more to the story.
“College wasn’t really a luxury for me rather it was a necessity in order to get my family out of the cycle of generational poverty. Not only did I have to worry about getting into college, then I have to worry about doing well and academically succeeding in college given the odds of where I’m from and the sort of situation as first generation and low income student, I wasn’t supposed to do well but I really had no other choice. I didn’t have the safety net.”
The storyteller shares the stories of design thinking workshops at Google in Palo Alto. But the truth is he spent much of that summer working as a Fry Cook at Dairy Queen. The storyteller boasts about the Dean’s List. But the truth is he applied to over a hundred internships and was only hired by the Office of Residential life for 20 hours of work a week plus room and board the prior summer.
“I only grew up with my mother. I knew who my dad was but he lived in another state and we rarely ever had face to face contact. I only saw him like 5 times up until college. I recognized she had a lot on her plate and I didn’t want to burden her. Some of these included navigating being a smart black kid in predominantly white spaces, girl troubles, and a host of other things. However, our relationship was/is rooted in loyalty for each other. I think this was created because my mother never had anyone in our family be loyal to her so, naturally, that became something very important to her. Being her child, I think that understanding was passed down to me.”
Abrams’ stories of achievement often mask the struggles to get there. Twice homeless growing up — living out of a car, forced to graduate early and finish his applications alone in the projects in Georgia. Reliant on a full-ride to actually go to school, and determined not to let his mom down. A mom who’d told him from an early age she knew he’d make it.
“It was at that time that I had to apply to a lot of different colleges by myself. I was just working in order to provide for my mother and I at home during my senior year at high school, at the age of 17, making sure that I was a valuable contributing member to the monetary finances at home. It’s still a really tough time for me to talk about. I still sometimes even tear up when talking about it just because of the different things that happen, how different family members turn their backs on us and so on and so forth.”
The story about his disappointment for not getting into the “Holy Grail”? That’s the story about not wanting to disappoint the woman who worked multiple jobs, always believed in her son and tried her hand at her own entrepreneurial ventures that didn’t succeed (in some ways forcing the two of them into homelessness). “My mother told me from a very early age that I was destined to attend either Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, referred to as “The Holy Grail” in some circles. Because I was told this as a child, I ensured my actions were purposeful so that my destiny would be fulfilled.”
So yes Adrian had put up a wall. Part of that was to avoid having to ‘get into it’ but part of it stems from self preservation. “I was always a smart kid. And I knew I was going to college. However, in middle school, there were instances where I was engaging in behavior that I look back on like “what the hell was I thinking?” However, I won’t get into them because, from what I’ve seen, transcribing instances of being off track can come back to haunt me in juxtaposition with my peers. Therefore, the most I can say is I made dumb decisions.”
When there isn’t an alternative to succeeding, you’re careful with every step you make and every story you tell.
“Why does anyone want to read about that stuff?” he asked. “I don’t really want someone I’m interviewing with to read that. I just don’t see how it’s actually relevant.”
I’d clearly hit on something that Adrian, while not shying away from it in our discussion, rarely let back into his public, polished narrative. He’d achieved his goals. He’d gotten a full ride to Georgetown. He’d made the dean’s list. Why are we going back to drudge up this stuff that he’d already overcome?
“Because it makes you human. It makes me want to root for you, hell, I feel like I finally got to know you and it took three months. This is why people read your book — because they are you and they have the same struggles you do. And they can read your story, learn your approach and also reach their goals. That’s why you write this book.”
Our time was up and while I knew I’d at least planted a seed, I wasn’t sure he was willing to go there. Maybe, maybe not, I thought to myself.
Then a few hours later, a note popped up on my screen. “Here’s how I’m going to tell the story. I’ll give your idea a try.”
As soon as his wall came down — his humanity revealed and his struggles detailed — the entire book went from story after story of Adrian’s triumphs to an honest, reflective, informative book aimed at sharing what he’d learned about how to best compete with his better-prepared peers with other first-generation, low-income students. Yes, he’d made it by being smarter, by being savvy and by playing the game well. But mostly he’d gotten there because he didn’t have a choice, and rather than despairing those circumstances motivated him.
“I think that me exposing so much of my own personal story can be just that more relatable and to show the audience how vulnerable I’m willing to be with you. Because of this specific trying situation for me, I had to do a lot of research. I had to talk to a lot of different people. I had to really see how I’m going to do well in college because I had no other option.”
As we dug into his methods he’d come up with by force of will — because he had no other option — we were amazed to find research studies that backed up each step of his A.T.T.E.N.D. methodology. For a hustler who was just trying to ‘hack’ college he’d stumbled onto something powerful insights and was able to communicate them in a way that had helped not only him but his peers succeed.
A.T.T.E.N.D. was the first book released in the group that hit #1 in it’s category on Amazon during the pre-sale stage, and it stayed at #1 through the launch. It’s been amazing to hear my former students reach out to me offering unsolicited praise for both the candor and the practicalities of the book. As for Adrian, he hopes the book and the methodologies can be much more.
“It’s been a tremendous way of giving back to so many communities that have given so much to me and being able to help out the next generation of first generation and low income students.”
Abrams’ journey didn’t end with his manuscript being selected for publication. He had to figure out how to publish it from Ghana. And in some ways that makes his story as an author all the more powerful.
“It was really tough doing this in Ghana. To put it in perspective, this was my first time outside of the country. Instead of going to a European country, I chose a country in West Africa to indulge in the culture and challenge myself. On one hand, I wanted to completely engage in this experience without worrying what was going on back at home — this book became a reoccurring reminder of my life that wasn’t really on pause back at home.
“In a way, this experience mirrored a lot of my childhood where I had to figure things out on my own and hope for the best. I didn’t exactly have a normal study abroad experience, in comparison to my peers, because it was largely characterized with scrambling and spending money on Wifi in order to meet several deadlines.”
But he did. Were there moments when I thought he couldn’t do both? Absolutely. “It’s been so tough but at the same time anything worth having in this life is worth fighting for,” he said. “We’re almost there. I didn’t know how I was going to get here but we’re almost there.”
Adrian knew he had a story to tell — and that’s why he was drawn to this topic. My job was simply to trust that if he opened himself up, more people would hear it.
“It’s really been like that across the board whether I’m talking to low income first generation college students or if they come from pretty privileged backgrounds that went to pretty good high school or the best high school. They are still surprised that some of the different methodologies that I’m introducing because not every student is doing it. If every student was using my methodology, they’d all be straight A students.
“It’s been a tremendous way of giving back to so many communities that have given so much to me and being able to help out the next generation of first generation and low income students. At the same time, it’s even bigger than that. It even goes as far as any student that wants to take pretty much their academic success to the next level and really wants easily digestible way in which they can do so.”
That’s perhaps the greatest lesson from Adrian’s story. Once he opened up, started sharing his story he saw himself differently. He spoke to Juniors and Seniors in high school at Roosevelt High in D.C. and was asked for his autograph (even before his manuscript was done). Now he’s on pace to speak to dozens of schools this fall. Sometimes I pushed him hard… maybe too hard given he was in another country with spotty wifi and trying to experience life abroad. But then again, I didn’t want to miss out on once again the magic that lies in Adrian’s fingertips.
“The book tour is entitled “From Homeless to Dean’s List”. It’s really exactly — it perfectly describes my situation from 2013 onto the time of me going into Georgetown and the first time I got my first report card in Georgetown.
“The overall goal of the speaking tour, like I said before, really increase the impact that my lessons can have in making sure that I’m reaching as many communities as possible because I recognize to myself that having a college degree from a good university was going to be the method to get my family out of the cycle generation of poverty. It was probably the most feasible and most pragmatic of all the ways I could have gone. I could have dropped out of high school, I could have tried to be a football player, I could try to be a media entertainer. I could have done a lot of these different things that just didn’t have the chance of working like that.”
And he continues to use his platform to inspire, teach and support others. Maybe he always knew he had a story to tell. But he certainly always had a give-first attitude born from his ultimate desire to improve otherswhere he shared his knoweldge and experience with the aim of helping first and foremost. His book simply gives him a bigger platform to share that message from.
“My mother has had her own trials at entrepreneurship and that failed. That actually led one of us to the reason of us getting homeless and whatnot. Really when I pass her the book, it’s really like a passing of the torch essentially. It’s like entrepreneurship is in my blood.”
Adrian’s approach has created a platform for his own entrepreneurial journey. His book started a new approach through its goal of helping millions of others with similar stories to his. All of this as a result of a book and a complete story we almost didn’t get to hear.
And here’s to the people who A.T.T.E.N.D. like Adrian.