Social media is mostly garbage. My own feed is crammed with doomsday predictions and ads for scammy diets. But every once in a while, between the hashtags and the hysteria, a jewel presents itself.
Like Cole Summers.
I never met Cole Summers in real life. But I was completely floored by what I learned about him—and from him—online.
At first, to be honest, I worried this kid was just too good to be true.
Here’s what I mean: When he was six, Cole—whose family owns a farm in Beryl, Utah—started taking on the repair and maintenance for his family’s vehicles. Both of his parents are disabled: his father is a wheelchair-bound veteran; his mother is partially blind.
He started his first business, breeding and selling rabbits, at age seven. At nine, he started paying his own taxes. By ten, he had bought and was running a 350-acre farmstead where he raised goats and turkeys. For his eleventh birthday he bought himself a tractor.
Also: he transplanted trees; he wrote a feature-length film; he bought a run down house and renovated it himself. Oh, and he was a Bitcoin enthusiast, but also found a lot to admire in Warren Buffett. During his free time, he watched YouTube videos of Buffett and other business people talking about their achievements. He had never been to a movie theater.
I wasn’t the only one who thought it was unbelievable.
Cole posted a video two months ago on Twitter. The blonde boy stood in front of his own property addressing the camera. “Not everybody thinks I am me, so here I am! I really am a 14 year-old homeschooler,” he said. “I really do spend all my time trying to work toward changing the business model of desert farming to quickly stop aquifer depletion while keeping thousands of acres from being turned into dust bowl farmlands.” Here’s how the video ended: “I am who I say I am.”
I reached out to Cole to see if he wanted to write a piece for Common Sense. He delivered a few weeks ago; it was sitting in my inbox waiting to be edited.
I could never have imagined that the next time I would hear from Cole, it would be his dad DMing me on Twitter telling me that his son had died. The 14 year-old—whose real name was Kevin Cooper; he wrote under a pseudonym—drowned last Saturday in the Newcastle Reservoir in Utah while kayaking with his older brother.
Cole had plans. He was excited to get his driver’s license. He had his eye set on six properties made up of almost 7,000 acres in the Great Basin where he lived. He was passionate about the environment, water conservation, and reducing gas emissions. He wanted to buy thousands of acres of farmland to help avoid an environmental supply chain disaster.
He knew he would take care of his autistic brother who is three years older than him. He wrote in his book: “I want to raise my own kids here one day. I want my kids to enjoy watching the wild rabbits, deer, and pronghorn that live here. I want them to look forward to seeing bald eagles migrate in and live here every winter, just like I do.”
In his short life, Cole managed to cultivate two qualities that are rare even among most adults. He was at home in the real, physical world and he took great pleasure in it. And: he was completely unafraid to try.
You can buy Cole’s autobiography, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t: An Ambitious Homeschooler’s Journey,” here. And you can help his family get through this unimaginable tragedy by donating to them here.
I’m really proud to publish this piece about his philosophy on unschooling and entrepreneurship below.
Share this one with your children. And if you appreciate pieces like this please become a subscriber today. — BW
Whenever I tell someone that I’m homeschooled, I can tell they’re imagining me sitting by myself, with a pile of books, studying the same stuff as public school kids do. Sometimes they assume that my parents homeschool me so that I could study religion all day and nothing else. And everyone assumes that I have no social life.
None of these things are true.
I’m part of a side movement within the homeschool movement called unschooling. I have been since I was six. Unschooling is simple: the kid chooses what to learn, when to learn it, and at what pace. For some kids like me, it provides a level of freedom that many adults don’t even enjoy. When I took control of my education, my parents only had one rule. I had to do at least some of my learning by reading. Everything else was up to me.
Unschooling is different for every kid because every kid is different. Embracing that difference is what unschooling is all about. Sometimes I get asked what my typical days look like, but I don't have those. Besides the morning stuff—like brushing my teeth and exercising—every day is different. Some days I’m working on a big project. Some days I’m studying something that interests me. Some days I’m running errands. You don’t have a “normal day” when you run a farm.
I started homeschooling because my parents are both disabled, and them being homebound enabled us to try it. I started unschooling specifically because I started watching videos of Warren Buffett on YouTube at my father’s suggestion after I asked him, “Daddy, how do people get rich?” I was fascinated by Mr. Buffet’s teachings about how he uses the process of elimination in his decision-making. I guess I was an odd six-year-old. At that time, my parents were trying to copy public school curricula. I asked if I could make studying people like Buffett my school instead, and they said yes.
That’s how I spent my first grade year. I learned about business, but I focused on decision-making processes. The “how to think” that everyone talks about. My parents weren't and aren’t my homeschool teachers. I learned about having a “circle of competence” from Buffett, first principles from Elon Musk, opportunity cost from Mark Cuban, and the practice of trying to prove myself wrong from Ray Dalio. My parents mainly help me find the best people to study from. They learn alongside me because they weren’t taught these things in school or from their own parents.
Studying business leaders made me want to start my own business, and a farm seemed obvious given where I live. Even though the farm was small, my dad had the idea to treat it like I was doing a tech startup. This wasn’t about ambition. Treating my tiny farm like a startup allowed me to learn about business and what it takes to run a real company. Running the farm as a corporation motivated me, and led to me buying and flipping a house when I was ten and, eventually, expanding my farm to a 350-acre ranch.
I wasn’t able to do everything I’ve done just because I’m homeschooled, but because my parents let me try. Unless there is a legal limit barring me from what I want to do, I’m always allowed to try. And I’ve learned that there are a lot of so-called legal limits that aren’t true. People have told me kids can’t own property, but I bought a house and a ranch. People have told me kids can’t own vehicles, but I earned a classic pickup on a trade when I was eight, and had zero problem getting the title in my name.
Throughout my middle school years, which started at the same time as the pandemic, I studied environmental science in my area. I learned about the geologic and geographic features of where I live, and how the oceans and mountains impact our rainfall, and about the future environmental plans the local government had made to deal with aquifer depletion. My lesson about aquifer depletion started the hard way. My family’s water well went dry, forcing us to haul water from a neighbor’s house for nine months while we struggled to afford a new well.
This experience set my mind on combating aquifer depletion—basically, water scarcity—which is what I’m spending my high school years doing. I read the official plan to deal with aquifer depletion in my area, and it makes it worse. By the time I’m old enough to raise my own kids here, average families may not be able to afford access to water. But when I read the plan, I noticed it left a legal opening for a more creative and less destructive option. And that’s my plan now, to make a less destructive option become a reality. If I wanted to go to public school, I could, but I have to do this on the schedule of the official plan, so there’s no time for that.
When I read articles about other teens struggling with anxiety because of all the stresses they believe only politicians can solve, like climate change, it makes me sad for them. I have friends in public school and every one of them is more capable than I am at something. I’ve heard adults tell them that they can’t do something because they’re “just a kid.” I’ve watched them want to try something and be told no “because I said so.” And there’s always the “kids these days” insult.
It isn’t that my generation isn’t capable. We just need the freedom, encouragement, and empowerment to show what we can do.