My Advice for My Younger Self

…or for other people sufficiently like me and in a life phase before mine such that it might be applicable.

I want to start off by saying that I myself am still, by many peoples’ definitions, a young person. I don’t think this should inhibit my ability to give advice, either to my hypothetical younger self or to others. Chronological age is a mediocre indicator of life phase, anyway.

My current life phase is that of someone who has completed a college degree, taken an internship that became a well-paid (above the median income of adults in America, where I live) full-time job, and subsequently decided to move back to my hometown in order to complete additional schooling and certifications. My goal in life is to cure mortality; as an intermediary step I intend to become extremely wealthy, and for that I have a plan to make a six-figure salary within the next five years.

A younger me, or a young person similar to me, has ambitions to fix at least one of the world’s problems, but perhaps doesn’t know of the best way to go about doing so. That’s the type of person that I’d like to provide advice to, because that’s the type of advice I wish I could have gotten from someone just a little further along the path than I was, back then.

Advice #1: Find your purpose. Right now.

By really no virtue of my own, I found my purpose very early on. (I didn’t know how to achieve it, but that’s a different post.) If you don’t know what yours is yet, I recommend finding it as soon as possible.

Not having an end-goal makes it extremely difficult to make decisions – especially the big ones, but since those propagate downward, the small ones too. It doesn’t matter if your end-goal changes over time, just make sure that you have something you’re moving towards.

Think about it as a physical destination. You pick a place to go, and based on that you choose a route, and based on that you choose how to prepare for your trip. If your destination changes partway through your journey, you probably figured out a better place you’d prefer to be than where you were initially headed. That might come with a little bit of regret (at having not chosen the better path first), but it doesn’t feel hopeless or aimless. By contrast, just walking out your front door with no preparation and no plan is liable to end you up stranded fifty miles from your house with no idea where you are or how to get somewhere better.

When choosing a goal, make sure it is specific, but it doesn’t have to be easy, simple, or even possible. That being said, choose something that would genuinely make you very, very happy to actually achieve. The harder the goal, the more critical it is that it would actually make you happy. You, not your parents or your friends or society. If you don’t know what would make you happy, consider what state of the world would make you content with your life and then think about the first, clearest, or most time-sensitive step that you could take in the direction of creating that ideal world. Further, if the goal might be impossible, make sure that an approximation of it, or significant movement in the correct direction, or a discovery of why it’s impossible, would also make you happy.

Advice #2: Use your advantages.

All other things being equal, the younger you are, the easier it is to change direction, and the more time you’ll have to pursue that new direction once you choose it. Both of these things are the reasons I was urgent with my first piece of advice; your life goal determines your path, which determines how you use what advantages you have.

You have several specific advantages by virtue of being younger. Besides the obvious, here are a few advantages you have as a young person trying to make a change to the world.

If you’ve not yet graduated from high school, you have:

  • AP tests. If your path requires a college degree (ie, involves becoming a doctor, lawyer, financier, accountant, technology consultant, or something else where not having a degree would severely hinder you), AP tests are an extremely cheap way to get college credits. They cost $25, compared with CLEP tests that cost $85 and college courses that cost thousands.
  • Free education. This is, admittedly, a bit of a double-edged sword, because it’s also mandatory and frequently pointless, but the fact remains that you don’t have to pay for your education now. If you spend some time poking around, you’ll likely find that the school system is remarkably malleable if you know how to mold it. So, if you do your research and know your life goal you can make the most of this, the last time in your life when your only job is learning. Having a trustworthy non-minor can help you out here, so it’s worth trying to persuade your parents or school advisors to help, but they aren’t necessary. As a starting point, I recommend looking into some combination of dual enrollment (if your path involves college) and internships (regardless).

And if you’re currently in college, you have:

  • The ability to choose your major. If you’ve decided a college degree is indeed critical, what you major in has a significant impact on your career going forward. It determines what projects and certifications you get while in school as well as employers’ impressions of you immediately after you graduate. Because the decision of a major is so critical to your path, however, make sure not to listen to people who tell you to major in whatever you like. Your major should be determined exclusively by your choice of future career.
  • Projects and internships. You will need to actively pursue these – they won’t likely be thrown into your lap – but most colleges have some way to support students working on personal projects or looking for internships. Plus, if you have a full-ride scholarship, you don’t need to worry about whether the internships are paid, only that they give you relevant experience in the field you’d like to begin your career in.

And if you’re a recent graduate, or otherwise early in your career:

  • Employers will expect you not to know what you want to do yet. If you take a job in sales, and then one in marketing, and then look for one in accounting, that won’t seem strange to employers. By contrast, it can be more difficult to change careers if you’ve been doing something for a while: if you’re a senior marketing manager, employers will wonder why you waited so long to make the switch over to accounting. Further, you may have a tough time taking the inevitable pay cut to move to a more junior role. Therefore, doing some experimentation to figure out what you want to build your career in early on is not only easier, but expected.

All of that being said, if you feel like you’ve messed something up, it’s not the end of the world. If you didn’t take any APs in high school, or you have debt from an unnecessary (or unnecessarily expensive) college degree, that doesn’t prevent you from being able to achieve your goals. Fix these problems however you can (drop out of college immediately if you decide you don’t need a degree, get out of debt as quickly as you can, etc), but don’t get upset with yourself for making mistakes or doing things that were suboptimal. Apply whatever lessons you can to your actions going forward, then stop thinking about it.

Advice #3: Soft skills matter. Build them on purpose.

When considering your career path, it can be easy to focus disproportionately on the hard skills. “I need to learn financial accounting, business law, and economics,” you might think, if you want to become an accountant. And that might be true. But you also need a strong work ethic, good social skills, and self-management. The latter three are equally, if not more, important than the former.

Building soft skills is a three-step process:

  1. Figure out what skill you need. Don’t just give a name to the skill, but define specifically what being good at that skill looks like, and decide how good you need to be at it.
  2. Figure out what you need to do to get better at the skill, and start doing that. For most soft skills, it’s a mindset shift combined with an action shift.
  3. Continue doing what you decided to do in step 2 for at least 30 days or until it becomes a habit. Iterate until you’ve fulfilled the requirements from step 1.

As you meet new people and move further down your career path, you’ll find out that you need soft skills you didn’t previously know about. Continuously moving through the above process for every new skill you decide you need is going to be a major part of your early career, and likely also your entire life.

In order to help you find soft skills you might need, make a regular habit of looking at advice given by people further along your chosen path than you are. They don’t need to be on precisely the same path: for example, if your goal is to start a successful technology startup, look at advice given by senior developers, project managers, CEOs, CTOs, CIOs, and COOs, as well as startup founders. There’s a lot of soft skill overlap between these, and erring on the side of gaining too many skills is always better than not having enough.

Advice #4: Fail faster.

There’s a software testing process called “shift-right testing”. The mentality is that, since it’s impossible to have zero bugs, your software should fail as fast as possible, with as little user impact as possible. This will make it possible to find and fix errors quickly.

If you tend to be a stubborn person (as I am), applying this mentality to your life will prevent you from beating your head against too many walls. Essentially, if a step on your path is very difficult, check if it’s a difficulty that you should try to overcome or a difficulty indicative of a flaw in your plan. If it’s a flaw in the plan, fail fast, and stop working on the thing.

It may enrage you to hear me say, essentially, “give up.” But giving up because you decided it’s a suboptimal path is not the same thing as giving up because you can’t handle the work required for the optimal path.

Here’s an example. Prior to my current role, I worked a sales job for around a year. I took that job in the first place to improve my social skills, which is an area I’m naturally poor at. After a year there, I had learned a lot, but I felt I could still learn more. Unfortunately, the person who had mentored me for that time quit, and no one else was as good. Further, because I had at that point been commuting to a job over an hour’s drive away, working 10-12 hour days, and being in college full-time, on top of being naturally poor at the central skillset required for the job, I was feeling very burnt-out.

Even despite this, I didn’t want to quit. I wasn’t nearly as good at sales as I wanted to be yet. I still got nervous doing cold calls. I still had a hard time matching the energy levels of my prospects. But after a long and tear-filled conversation with my mom, I realized it was silly to keep beating my head against this: I’d learned plenty already, if I needed to know more I’d have plenty of opportunities to learn, and I was at the end of my mental rope. It made more sense to take some time away from working to finish my degree, then look for a better job. So I resigned.

If you can remember to fail fast, it will also help you to avoid sunk-cost fallacy. Deciding you have to continue doing something, purely because you’ve already spent a lot of time or energy on it, just means you’ll waste even more of your time. But if you can fail fast, and let it go, you’ll be able to spend your future doing something more effective than what consumed your past.