What Advice Do You Have for Students?

A writer friend was recently invited to speak in front of a group of students. He was asked to share his opinions on how to think about life, and career, in general. I had so many questions for him.

Like: what sorts of questions did they ask? How did you feel about giving life advice to young people, and so on?

A few weeks later, I was reading a thoughtful article that a former colleague wrote in a similar vein.

The whole thing got my imagination running. What if, by some terrible lapse in judgment, I was invited back to my high school? What if they gave me a security pass, put me in front of a classroom and asked me to share my thoughts.

For reasons that are about to become abundantly clear, it’s highly unlikely that I will ever be invited to give such a speech. So let this article stand in place of that improbable spectacle.

What would I want to say?

Specifically: what would I have wanted to hear?

Are there things that you wish people would have told you when you were in High School?

As this is a blog, not a speech, naturally we’ll be be making a list. Starting and “1” and ending when …. I’m out of ideas.


Here we go…

Nobody knows the future, especially now.

Don’t listen to them when they make predictions. What I do right now didn’t even exist when I was in high school. The world has always changed fast, but now it’s changing even faster. But you know that. This means that making predictions isn’t nearly as important as understanding how to react to, and understand, change. A guide for this is the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb.

As a general rule, Taleb points out, the longer something has existed, the more likely it is that it’ll exist in the future. This means you’ll likely read books in the future but probably not Facebook.

Here’s another hint at the future: most in my parents’ generation didn’t go to college. How many more generations do you think it’ll last? I’ve hired well-over 50 people in my life, and I’ve never cared where – or whether – they went to school. Maybe I’m not the majority of employers, but at least ask yourself who you want to work for and who you want to impress with what.

Don’t take loans and don’t use credit cards.

There isn’t much in life worth going into debt for, including a home, car, education. If somebody is willing to offer you a loan for it, it’s probably a bad deal for you.

Work for small enterprises.

You’ll learn relevant information faster. When I worked corporate, I spent a year learning the ins and outs of our particular sales management system. Much of my time was spent (unsuccessfully) navigating our internal corporate politics.

When I switched to a small company, I learned how to improve our products and worked with our customers. Jobs are better for learning than earning. So, if you have to, take a pay cut to be involved directly with those who demand or benefit from your work.

Here’s some simple career advice: 1) work hard, 2) work smart, 3) don’t spend your money.

That’s a borrowed line from a smart business mentor of mine.

Luck plays a role too. So if you are lucky enough to have the above equation work out for you, don’t take all the credit.

The best way to be a rebel is not to behave like one.

If you see a system of control all around you could decide to turn into a crazy rebel– wearing odd clothing and saying profane words to your well-meaning but poorly-judged controllers. Being a rebel in this sense doesn’t free you from the control (actually probably the opposite) it simply means that you are ‘acting out’.

Speaking of rebels, I was an annoying super liberal (I thought) in high school. I had an opinion about everything (Tibet! Meat eaters! Prisons! You name it!).

These days I try (mostly) to keep those to myself.

Real rebels go to work for what they believe in.

Convincing your friends, or people on the internet, that you’re right about something doesn’t count as “going to work”.

Your guidance counselor can be trusted to give you a perspective on how to become a guidance counselor. 

Trust them on this but little else. Follow the implication of this principle and apply it across your life.

Old books are (often) good books.

If people are still reading a book after hundreds – or even thousands – of years, it could very well be worth your time. Conversely, advice spewed out by bloggers like me is (probably) not worth your precious time.

When I was younger I thought reading books, and arguing about the concepts they contained, was pretty much the best thing to do. As I got older, I realized that books could inform the way I shaped my actions and life.

I managed a company (I didn’t own it) when I was 26. I had very limited business knowledge. How did I do it? I drew on the experiences of other entrepreneurs, mainly through their books.

How did I do?

Sometimes I did great. Sometimes I failed. The point is I was there, managing a company. A few years later, I owned one of my own. I credit books and real life experience. I certainly didn’t learn how to run a company in college!

Many of those in the world’s most well-paid jobs feel fundamentally out of control of their own lives.

Most high-paying careers expect almost total engagement– every week, every year, even decades– and, in return, they’ll pay you enough for a nice lifestyle and a retirement account.

That’s fine. And, if you love your work, that might even be great.

But don’t confuse a career with purpose or personal freedom.

I’ve met a number of those in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s– from professors to airline pilots, to lawyers, to those at high levels in diplomacy– all essentially asking the same questions you may be contemplating now:

What should I do with my life? How could I make this work without having to do what my boss says every day? What do I really love to do? Is there any way I can take control of my life for the next 20 years?

What lies between where you are now and where you want to be is often nothing more than a difficult conversation.

Tim Ferriss once said that he felt success was correlated to the amount of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have.

The good news for those who don’t like awkward conversations is that I actually think it’s more highly correlated with an ability to work very hard. And to spot bullshit. Read The Gervais Principle but substitute the office for your school’s administration.

That said, I do think Tim Ferris is on to something. Most of us are probably wired to maintain harmony and balance in our families and at work.

You don’t need – or possibly want – to do it often, but understanding how to positively disrupt these networks is when real progress can be made.

You can’t buy great relationships, this applies to college alumni groups, networking, etc.

But you do have to invest in them. That might mean some money from time to time but, more often, it means going out of your way in a genuine effort to help others. It amazes me, now that I am squarely middle aged, how few people do this. Most people are just so damn needy. They can’t do anything without sticking their hand out immediately after. Hey, you owe me!

Give without the expectation of a return – you might be surprised how often it comes anyway.

So choose those you connect with wisely, and don’t be disappointed if you spent thousands trying to solve the ‘respect from, and access to, great minds’ problem (college, networking, etc) and end up empty handed.

When in doubt, choose work or study that is an end in, and of, itself.

It’s highly strategic to love what you’re doing. So study music over engineering, if you love it.

Many professionals are unhappy because they took up their career as a means– to a high salary, to a supposedly impressive job, to respect– but ended-up being disappointed when they realized that their day-to-day work is much different than they’d imagined.

Try defining what success means to you.

The most successful people that I’ve met are the ones who’ve made clear choices– and sacrifices– to fully own their time. To walk through the day, to stride through an office, to write the words, to pedal the bike of one’s choosing.

If you haven’t left your home country for someplace radically different, go do that for at least a month, ideally more.

Make it a top priority.

Don’t do it with your best friend from high school or college. Don’t go with an agenda to ‘help’ the people you’re going to meet. Just go and see what’s out there.

You won’t regret it. Almost everyone treasures it.

For those older readers, it applies equally to you. I’ve been lucky enough to be the host for many older couples/families on their first extended adventure and it’s so much freakin’ fun – for me and for them.

Relationships are work. Having one means being open to work not magic.

That’s it.

It’s critical that you fire your parents (only you can do this).

They probably know this too, even if they don’t admit to it.

It’s your parents’ job to raise you. To keep you safe. To guide and control you. But becoming an adult is up to you. There ought to come a moment (and perhaps it’s already come) where you tell your parents, in a loving way, to “fuck off.”

Because you’re a grown-up, and grown-ups don’t have parents meddling in their affairs.

I shared this theory with my mom and she laughed. “Moms will keep being moms as long as you let them,” she said.

Because you won’t take loans that you have to pay off, make sure that you use your extra money to take care of your parents. You owe them.

And most importantly: as you get older, don’t forget how much fun it was to ride your bike* when you were a kid.

You can still do that at 35. And, if you play your cards right, at 85 too.

That’s it, my fingers are tired. If something popped into your head that you would have wanted to hear when you were 18, I’d love to hear it…



*insert anything you loved as a kid, many of us lose sight of those things to do ‘what were supposed to do.’

Here’s further TMBA reading on the topic:

If you didn’t click out to Alasdair’s advice for students, I think it’s worth considering.