I may not be old and wise enough to be giving advice to other people. So I probably shouldn’t try. I haven’t achieved anything of real meaning yet during my life. So I may not truly know anything. I haven’t figured it out.
So then, here’s my advice about nearly everything!
I can still relate to the existential crisis of high school graduation and starting university. Yearning to belong to the world of serious adults. To find some kind of purpose and meaning in all this random madness. The spectrum of possible outcomes too wide to even grasp, leading to a certain melancholy for the doors that will soon close forever. All the paths not taken.
We all see flashes of this dwindling tree of our potential life paths unfold at critical junctures of our life. Graduating from high school. Graduating from college. Moving to a new city or country. Getting married. Having kids. Retirement. More and more branches die out along the way, and the remaining paths seem a little clearer as you age.
In one of those moments of introspection in my life, as a recent high school graduate at the turn of the millennium, I found some advice that momentarily relieved that particular anguish of the soul. Browsing through a selection of illegally downloaded MP3’s, as you did, I chanced upon an obscure graduation speech from 1997 by an American journalist, narrated into a form of musical performance by Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann for MTV. Yes, that MTV, kids of the '90s. It sounds super random, and it is. But it punched me right in the feels. So this is me, trying to pass on the torch in 2019. Because I can.
This sentimental mood was triggered by Violy, one of the first hires at Bambu. Employee number 3. She was here when we weren’t cool. She was here for the great enthusiasms. The great struggles that we survived to laugh about. She was part of the fabric this company was built on. Defining the vibe and culture that has now taken a life of its own. Violy is leaving. Sadface.
Violy is leaving for the right reasons. She’s leaving because she wants to do more than we can offer. Not more salary, or better perks. It’s not because we don’t have foosball or free kombucha. Not even the vesting schedule. It’s not because she wants a fancier title to flex on her friends. She wants to make a difference, but her purpose is different from ours. My dream isn’t her dream. To avoid giving up on chasing her own dream, she must step out of a good thing, a really good thing, and step into the unknown. I respect her more for leaving than staying.
So when I dispense this highly unqualified advice, I’m thinking of all the Violy’s out there, including the younger version of me that wanted to do more and struggled to find meaning in this life. The Violy in all of us, that won’t settle. That won’t let go of their dreams. Here’s to you!
NOTE: I acknowledge I’m saying all this from the vantage point of tremendous privilege. If these opportunities aren’t available to you, I’m sorry. That is a tragedy. I’m conscious of the fact that I’m on the good side of a statistical distribution that covers real poverty, hunger, and misery all over the globe. What is also sad, is that people who have access to endless opportunity never take it, and turn their heads on the silver platter before them. I can’t solve poverty, but maybe I can push someone with opportunity to do something meaningful with their life.
If the opening message of Mary Schmich was to wear sunscreen, then mine is to exercise. The overwhelming body of scientific evidence on the wide-ranging benefits of exercise has been building for decades and continues to grow as we uncover the mysteries of the body and brain. Exercise for longevity. Exercise for health. Posture. Killer abs. Summer booty. Energy. Performance. Exercise for happiness. Whatever reason works for you, but you get all the other benefits for free. Build a habit of daily exercise into your life when you’re in your 20’s, and keep it to the day that your body stops, to the grave if you’re lucky. The best way to get into the habit is to find a form of exercise that you enjoy. Don’t slug it out on the treadmill. Dance. Climb. Play. Anything goes. More the better. If you don’t do it for yourself, then do it for your grandchildren, who will inherit your genes and your gene expression at the time of conception. What’s a great way to improve your gene expression? Yeah, exercise.
Seek meaning and purpose. This is the curse of the human experience. We seek and yet rarely find. The world expects nothing from you except death. You are more than welcomed to waste away in obscurity and disease, like millions before you. If you want to make a dent in the universe, then make that the central theme of your internal movie. It won’t just happen for you. You must make it happen. Seek meaning and purpose, whatever that means for you. I can’t answer the big questions for you, but I can encourage you to keep asking until the day you die.
Don’t expect you deserve anything from the universe. There is another person on the other side of every lucky break and misfortune you will face. The universe is a harsh mistress, and all forms of fulfilling ecstasy and unimaginable tragedy are part of the human experience. Everything happens to someone. You aren’t above anything, and neither is anyone else. Steve Jobs put a dent in the universe and then died of cancer. The best you can do is to not be surprised at any success or failure. Learn to accept the ups and downs, ride the wave, and embrace the human experience as it happens to play out for you. It’s the only one you’ll ever have. If you need help, seek the Stoics.
Nothing truly great happens by chance. Greatness requires purpose and persistence. You must know what you want to achieve, and you must pursue it relentlessly. Some know what they want. Some are persistent. Almost no-one has both. Those who do are famous. Broken dreams and aimless dreamers make for great entertainment for those who don’t dare. Breakthroughs are large variances from the mean. Doing something different is never popular, and the doubters sitting on the mean expect you to return to the mean with your head down. Fuck the mean. If you are one of the few that know their calling, you owe it to the rest of us dreamers to see it through or die trying. You won’t hear us cheer you on, but we’re out there, our voices drowned out by the roaring disapproval of the masses. Do you, cause no one else ever will.
Stay poor as long as you can. Financial freedom is when you don’t need more money to sustain your lifestyle. So don’t inflate your lifestyle and ruin your financial freedom. You’ll never get out of that rat race. There is no shame in poverty, and it’s likely you’ll look back later and discover you were happiest at the very bottom of your wealth. Poverty keeps you agile and keeps your options open. You don’t have to do anything if you can live off a few dollars a day. You can do what you want. Start a company. Take time off. Whatever, truly. Later in life, you would pay millions just to have more time. Tim Ferriss even practices this every year, by spending a week in poverty, wearing the same clothes and eating macaroni and beans. To remind himself that lack of money isn’t lack of life. If you’re not afraid of taking financial risks, the rest of my advice will be easier to implement. Lack of life is lack of courage to live it.
Never chase the paper, despite what Fiddy says. If you’re smart and healthy, money is inevitable. Opportunities will come, big and small. Mostly small. You can get jobs. Money will make you comfortable. Money will make you reluctant to do hard things because money creates standards. Money buys things, that require more money to maintain them. Lifestyle has an inertia all of its own. Once you get comfortable, you limit your possibilities. Poor, hungry, and desperate is an enviable asset for those bound by the golden handcuffs of wealth.
Never let anyone dictate your path. I certainly won’t. Your parents, your boss, or your friends shouldn’t get to either. Nobody else shares your inner experience and your core motivations. You may die young. You may live forever. We’ll find out eventually. You have to chase your own path even at the cost it may bring to your loved ones. In the end, it’s you who pays the ultimate price. This is what the deathbed regrets of the rich and famous are made of. I wish I joined that band. I wish I painted more. Live to avoid regret.
Embrace the grind. In almost everything you want to do, the process is worth more than the result. When people say “enjoy the journey”, or “embrace the grind”, they really mean that you need to do things that are enjoyable in the process. Not that you should enjoy doing menial work for someone else’s dream. If you hate your job but are doing it for some fictitious career goal set by society, you have to leave right now. Good things usually come to those who enjoy the process, not to those who want the result. When people say “do what you love”, they don’t mean Netflix and chill. They mean that out there is something worth doing. Something worthwhile that you will enjoy day-in and day-out, even when it’s hard. Because it’s worth your while.
Be afraid of comfort. If you’re not learning, you’re decaying. Your sword is dulling. Your spark is fading. If you feel you’re leveling off, leave now. Walk out the door, don’t even wave goodbye. You should be terrified of accepting average. Never settle. Once you let the candle fade out, you will be in the dark forever. You will regret that to the day you die once it strikes you later in life. Don’t settle!
Do not live to other people’s standards. You don’t need a new phone. You most certainly don’t need a new car. You don’t need to be anything to anyone. Don’t be a consumer. Don’t be a victim. Don’t become a statistical pattern corresponding to a popular urban demographic. Be a segment of one. Be you.
You have time. Do not feel like you’re left behind, even if your friends have it all figured out. No one has anything figured out. Your parents most certainly don’t, and neither does your boss. They will divorce. They will have a mid-life crisis. They will die with regrets. That’s the great comedy of civilization. We all pretend like we know what we’re doing. The race is long, and ultimately it’s against yourself.
Be creative, or at least disciplined. The world rewards discipline and creativity. You have to have at least one if you want to create value. If you have no natural creative instinct, then don’t even try it. You can teach discipline, and the spectrum is wide. Discipline is a muscle that you can train over time by starting from the small stuff. Introduce disciplined habits slowly and one at a time, until it becomes second nature. You can then apply discipline to any task, and it will serve you tremendously. You can become an unstoppable tidal wave of force. Flex on them.
If you are drawn to creativity, stoke the flame at every opportunity. Read the classics. Go to the theatre. Try writing poetry. Build Lego. Listen to classical music. Dance alone. Sketch on your iPad. Build a pillow fort. Learn to cook curry. Paint furniture. Fold origami. Whatever form that is available to you that you enjoy. Creativity carries compound interest. Creative pursuits synthesize in the creative mind. Originality will always carry a premium. An unfiltered creative mind is worth a million dollars in any pursuit.
Read the classics. They’re mostly beyond license and can be found for free online. Thousands of masterpieces from centuries and millennia past. Each old book you open is an opportunity to interview a great mind, no more and no less human than you, but with something to say that has survived beyond their deaths. Don’t waste your time on bestsellers and business books. They will steer you back towards the mean. You can’t stand out by following trends. Find inspiration outside the mean by looking back in history.
Always play the long game. The race is long, and humility wins among us humans. Always take the high road. Karma is real, and it takes the form of political capital. If you’re humble, what actually happens is you build up political capital in the people you deal with. They remember. Consciously and subconsciously. If you ever need to call a favor, your Rolodex will be deep. If you use people, if you bully people, if you choose me first, those same people will be the first to pick up a stone when you’re down. So be humble.
Do not mistake humility for modesty. The world demands and rewards confidence. I pray your parents gave you the one gift that was truly in their power and built your confidence when you were young. If you missed out, this is a tough one. If you’ve gotten knocked down, this is first priority. It’s your job to fix it. Whatever the problem is, the world is going to walk by until you get it together. Because when real opportunity knocks, and it doesn’t happen too many times for every life, you have to be emotionally available to take that leap, and get on the rocket ship.
Meditate. Your journey through the big choices and struggles ahead is going to be filled with restlessness and anxiety interjected with moments of pure boundless happiness. Those moments of happiness also make the drudgery of daily routine seem void of meaning. Stress is when you let restlessness build into anxiety and depression. Meditate. It is the only drug you’ll ever need.
But trust me on the exercise.