A Year’s Worth of Reflections on Life and Work

I got to spend this past weekend at the Georgetown Class of 2017’s Commencement so that I could see a number of my good friends graduate. While there, I felt an echo of the same emotional whirlwind that gripped me during my own graduation one year ago. Leaving school is a confusing time. The path forward becomes unstructured and unclear, the burden of personal responsibility settles on your shoulders, and worldly worries make themselves deeply felt.

To help others combat the maelstrom of emotion, I’ve included here 12 pieces of advice gained in my 12 months out of school. These insights were gathered from personal experience, reading, and observing others live their lives. Before you begin, note that this is just what I think to be true right now; my opinions will likely change as I age, but this is what I would’ve wanted to know when I left college. Here are my reflections:

01) Total work is the enemy. As Dr. Andrew Taggart describes it, “total work” refers to the way our lives revolve around work, working, and work-thoughts and work-feelings. Total work tends to be the default state for many white collar workers, especially bankers and consultants. However, total work can lead to burnout and negativity. Thus, one should optimize for amount of work completed, not hours worked. Being efficient creates win-wins for everyone: your bosses get your work product faster and you get time back for yourself. Try to find an environment where people realize that total work actually makes employees less effective.

02) You don’t get rich working for someone else. If you want to be fantastically wealthy, it won’t happen while you work for someone else. Sure, in finance, you can make buckets of money, but it’s rare to make it to the 0.1% if that’s what you’re after. Instead, you need to start your own company, whether you’re creating software, selling via e-commerce, or launching your own private equity firm. You can become ludicrously wealthy through two routes: passive income and equity. Passive income refers to things like rent or book sales, where you don’t need to actively work to see returns. Equity refers to ownership in companies and the dividends that come with that ownership; if you can buy / get equity cheap and sell large blocks of it at high prices, you’ll become wealthy.

03) Focus on substance, not flash. In the social media era, we tend to spend a lot of time on social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. Not only does this waste time, but it can cause anxiety and depression. The “fear of missing out” only exists because these platforms make everything hyper-visible. Instead of worrying about the artificial, inflated lives depicted on social media, just remember to do things that help you take care of yourself. Happiness is like an airplane oxygen mask: you have to help yourself before you can help someone else.

04) People react to emotions, not logic. One thing I’ve learned as a consultant is that it’s important to get people to agree with you early on; you want to see people nodding along. The best way to do that is to appeal to their emotions and take them on a journey of baby steps. When people need to think hard or make logical jumps, there’s a big chance that they’ll land somewhere other than where you want them to. You need to guide people on a journey and you’ll do that best through effective storytelling, not spreadsheets (says a guy who loves spreadsheets).

05) Read constantly. The executives at Berkshire Hathaway and other top companies report that they spend huge amounts of their time reading. This is because having an information advantage makes you powerful; if you know more than everyone around you, you can make better decisions. So get a Feedly account and aggregate all of the non-stupid, non-obvious writing you can find, whether poetry, comics, nonfiction, or something else.

06) Communicate honestly. Unless you’re comfortable being honest with your friends, family, and significant other, you’ll run into problems down the road. You shouldn’t need to hide yourself or lie in order to maintain a relationship; if that’s the case, the relationship probably isn’t worth maintaining. When you can be authentic, you’ll find that you connect better with those who matter to you.

07) Learn / create decision-making frameworks. A framework is simply a generalized list of linked items that support a given approach to reaching a specific objective. As long as you can parse problems into their individual bits, frameworks make it a lot easier to come up with solutions to those problems. By applying structure to your thinking, you can narrow your search for worthwhile answers. Frameworks save cognitive energy, which is limited on a day-to-day basis.

08) Open a stock trading account ASAP. I personally have an account with Robinhood, which doesn’t charge any fees. The best way to learn something is to do it, so the best way to learn about the market, which honestly impacts everyone (even self-proclaimed socialists), is to participate in it.

09) Keep learning & develop competitive advantage. As Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, notes “you are selling your brainpower, your skills, your energy [to your clients or employers]. And you are doing so in the face of massive competition. Possible employers, partners, investors, and other people with power choose between you and someone who looks like you… How are you first, only, faster, better, or cheaper than other people who want to do what you’re doing in the world? What are you offering that’s both rare and valuable?” In order to have a good answer to that question, you need to keep developing and sharpening your skills, especially in areas that are unrelated to each other.

10) Future-proof yourself. The world is changing faster than it ever has, due to the accelerating rate at which our species is developing new ideas and technology. We’re fighting climate change through compelling alternative energy solutions, developing intelligent machines, and making biological modification a real option. In an era of constant change and automation, you need to focus on making yourself irreplaceable over a decades-long timespan. The best way to do that is to get involved in the work of the future today, whether that’s artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, alternative energy, space travel, genetic engineering, neural interfaces or something else that I’m not even thinking of.

11) Write often. It’s important to write. Writing helps us define our opinions on important issues, store our memories and ideas for future consultation, and communicate effectively with others. If you want to become a “thought leader” (I hate this term, but c’est la vie), you’ll have to write, and being able to do so compellingly is a skill in itself.

12) No one has a clue. Per the old adage, rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. I don’t have anywhere near enough perspective to provide bulletproof advice. I’ll probably look back on this one day and reminisce about how big of a moron I was. But the nice thing is that no one really knows what they’re doing; I’ve come to realize that almost no one actually “feels like an adult.” We’re vaguely sentient creatures stumbling through life like any other animals; we just like to overcomplicate things for ourselves.

In any case, I hope these reflections prove helpful to someone. Again, congratulations on your success, Class of 2017. I truly wish you the best that this world has to offer.


Also published on Medium.

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