What to learn in college….

Sending some of you off to college has made me think about what I wish I knew when I went to school. So I scratched out a few thoughts. As always with these sorts of notes, my caveat is that I’m not sure that my 18-year-old self would’ve taken this advice from a middle-aged guy. But on the off-chance that you will, here’s a few pieces of advice I wish someone had offered me.

What’s ahead of you is (likely) four years in which the price of your time and the cost of making mistakes is practically zero. There might be other phases of life like this, but there won’t be many.  From here on out, the cost of your time and the cost of your mistakes only increases. So this is a glorious opportunity to learn and figure out the world. I’m not talking about classes and majors. Though classes and structures like them do, in some cases, make the learning easier, the real learning in college happens because you’re surrounded by resources and people and you have the time to engage them. What are you going to do with them?  

Here’s a few things I wish I had learned more clearly in college – two processes and three things about yourself.

How to learn. The world is speeding up. The increasing pace of change that is driven by technological forces, climate change and global interconnectivity all mean that your careers are not going to be marked by a period of preparation and then a long period of working, but rather by shorter cycles of learning, working, learning, working – forever.  So develop a process of learning that works for you. I have watched all of you this summer as you figure out the machines, build skateboards and work with kids. You’re already well-equipped in this area – the advice is to get even better. Be conscious about the process. Practice it and improve it. Figure out what you need in order to learn and make the time and space for it.   Again, this might have something to do with your classes and major and it might not. Find ways to take curiosity and turn it into projects so that you can learn. I’ve seen you do this with Thor’s battle axe, the robotic hand, pen making and other examples. Just realize the process of what you’re doing so you can formalize it and repeat it.

I did not figure this out until my airplane project at age 32.  That’s when I realized that, in order to learn, I need a practical application for what I’m doing, someone who can answer “why?” questions perpetually and place to practice.  When I do have those things, I can do things like build an airplane and fly it around the country. What do you need?  

Become a keen observer of the world and observe every chance you get.  Always, always, ask “why?”. Treat every interaction with a new idea or person as an opportunity to learn and ask that question. If there’s a behavior that you don’t understand, try to figure out why-sometimes even ask them.  Being an observer changes your viewpoint on the world. Everything that’s not nature in the world is a system or design that was created by humans. Why was it designed the way it was? What motivated them? What were the design constraints? What were the unintended consequences?  Waiting tables (which you should do) becomes a chance to figure out the systems that make a restaurant function, the marketing that pulls people in and why you might not want to be a waiter for the rest of your life. Pictures in a newspaper are a chance to figure out what the photographer is trying to communicate, his or her biases and why you have empathy for the people depicted. Articles are a chance to appreciate the art of constructing an argument, explore a different point of view and compose a counterpoint in your head.   The fact that we elected an orange-faced lunatic for president becomes an opportunity to think about the larger forces that led us here. What happens to a country with a shrinking middle class and extreme wealth inequality and what are those voters trying to say? Once you figure it out, figure out the implications and how you can get ahead of them. That’s where the opportunities lie.

In addition to those skills, there are three specific things I hope you figure out in college: 

The first is what ignites you. Only you. Again , I’m not talking about a major, or a career – many of the careers that you’re going to have don’t even exist yet. Figure out what turns you on and what you want to work on. Figuring this out requires a different approach than simply taking classes in your major (which won’t matter at all in 20 years anyway).  I recommend taking classes from the very best teachers you can find – whatever they teach. If you have an internship opportunity, go find the very best entrepreneur that you can and go work there – even if it’s for free. I once got a job because I went there every day for three weeks to pester the foreman (though it’s unclear I got the job because I communicated determination or if he just wanted me to stop).  Instead of focusing on your major or a career choice, figure out the challenge that you want to work on. Is it education, climate change, finance, technology, bringing Internet to the masses? Whatever it is, once you identify it, you can find a way to work on it. What’s the challenge that lights you up? Remember that you’re likely to move jobs every 3 to 5 years for your entire career-just get started so you can learn.

As an aside, pay attention to climate change.   This is the defining issue of the 21st century.   We have created conditions on this planet that have not existed for 800,000 years when the seas were 80 feet higher.  The planet is now trying to equalize.  As a civilization, we are just starting to realize the implications of the experiment we are conducting.  The consequences are going to occur in your lifetimes. There is no escaping it and it will affect every aspect of our society. There are few bright spots in climate change, but one of them is that it’s going to force extraordinary innovations.  We need to innovate in technology, energy, our entire food system and how we govern ourselves – just to name a few. That translates into extraordinary opportunity because great fortunes are built during times of transition. This period of technological, economic and social transformation is different from all the others in one crucial way: this time we know where we have to go.  We have to create a zero carbon economy. With every other time of change-whether it’s the industrial revolutions, mobile phones, TV – we were just muddling along trying to find our way, not clear on the implications of the technologies we were creating. This time we have a clear destination. We just have to find the way. That creates enormous opportunity.  

The second thing to figure out is money.  A broad understanding of economics really helps in observing the world, but the bare minimum to get by in life is understanding personal finance. Understand the math behind credit cards, interest and loans.   Understand leverage and how you can use it to your advantage. But figure it out NOW so you don’t get yourself in trouble. Go read everything that Mr. Money Mustache has written. Pay special attention to the idea that if you save 80% of your income for the first 10 years of your working life, you can retire (which only means you no longer have to work for money) and work on the challenge you want.   It’s something I sure wish that I realized 30 years ago. When you leave school, exit with a point of view about money. Decide what’s important to you and how you’re going to spend your money. Having money in the bank means that not only can you work on the challenges that you want to, but you can quit jobs, quit people and quit places you no longer want in your life. That took me a long time to realize.

Learn how to communicate. Especially writing and speaking.  Much of success in life can be attributed to how well you can persuade others to your point of view. Writing in particular is incredibly hard but nothing else is quite as effective at forcing clarity of thought.  Go read everything that Seth Godin has written and internalize it. Yes, write all the papers you have to, but write articles as well. Figure out what you think, why you think it and put it in writing. Get feedback and do it again. Over and over.  The world desperately needs clarity of thought and people who can understand and explain the nuances of issues. There are zero real issues that can be reduced to a tweet and anybody who thinks so communicates more about the limitations of their thinking than the issue (see orange-faced lunatic reference above).  Learn to communicate. Like everything else worthwhile in life, it takes practice.

Finally, be thoughtful about your reputation. As we move more and more away from traditional jobs and towards short-term gigs and teams that form on the fly, your reputation will determine the opportunities you have.  The people you are going to meet in the next 4 years are the beginning of your professional network – and they are watching. I still remember the guy in college who was always barfing in the corner at parties or the one who shoplifted everything he could find.  They might have amounted to something, but I would never take the reputational risk of helping them. At the same time, the friends I made in college are friends for life. Like in the rest of your life, find the ones that you want to keep and then figure out how.

The doors that open to you because of your reputation will be obvious. But you will never know about the doors that close because of your reputation. You’ll never know about the recommendation that wasn’t made, or the introduction that didn’t happen because you didn’t contribute on a project or you were disrespectful or just a dick.  Nobody wants those people on a team — and these are the people who will be picking teams. Be thoughtful about your reputation. You have one. What it is and how you manage it is entirely up to you. Never forget that people are watching. The price of your mistakes over the next 4 years is low, but not zero.  

 My last point is best illustrated with a quote from Teddy Roosevelt.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

You’ll have many opportunities over the next few years to choose who you want to be.  Choose carefully and thoughtfully. My advice: be the man in the arena. If you aren’t failing frequently, then you aren’t daring greatly.  

If you ever need help figuring out how to be that man, just call. 




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