First Years

// Update — July 21, 2015

A lot can change in a year. I would redact some of this if I had the time, but general guiding principles I still find true. I have since dropped out since writing this.

A year ago I sat in this very chair, restless after being rejected from my top colleges. I wanted to make my college experience unforgettable, and going to a top-tier school was naturally the first step — right?

Looking back, I couldn’t have been more wrong: this year has been nothing short of amazing. I’ve traveled (too) many times for free, started and worked on several ventures, spoke with my heroes, and have friends all over the world. Here are a few things on how you can do the same.

Stop talking, start doing

This is the most important thing I can tell you. No matter how much time you spend in front of that textbook, no matter how passionately you might discuss or speak on a topic— nothing matters until you take action.

CGIU and a free trip to Phoenix, AZ is just one application away.

Stop talking about what the definition of a leader is. Instead, go and find out yourself. Make mistakes in the real world, and learn from them. Want to help spur entrepreneurship in rural Uganda? Do like my friend Brian (@thebhickey) and start building accelerators in Africa. Passionate about public policy and gender equality in Southeast Asia? Don’t let your interest stop in the classroom, go out and start a foundation to empower women in sustainable businesses like Yangmali (@YangRai21) did with his Yang-Ward Foundation. There are incredible students doing incredible things — be one of them. Just take a look at the 2014 Thiel Fellows for inspiration.

People, especially students, derive feelings of self-validation and satisfaction from simply talking or listening (I’m looking at you, startup hipsters/conference whores). Don’t fall into that group. Talk big, dream bigger, but action trumps all. There has never been a better time in history, no culture more accepting of risk and failure, no cheaper or easier means of trying anything than today.

Go out and at least try it: the only thing stopping you is yourself.

Test the waters

You will probably pay a lot of money to go to college. What are you getting for your money? Yes, you’re getting a fantastic theoretical framework of academia and plenty of resources to work with. Yes, you’ll eventually receive that piece of paper that you can proudly show your family or recruiter. But the most valuable asset you’re paying for isn’t actually the classes (so stop calculating the cost of each class) or the eased entrance into the job-seeking world, but rather the status of being a student.

I’m not talking about reaping those student-only discounts or an excuse to go out on weeknights. By being a student, you have the reputation for not knowing what you’re doing. No matter how much you’re set on being a banker or engineer, you do not know what you are going to do after graduation. There’s a reason why the majority of college students switch majors at least once in the United States. This is one of the most envied statuses in the world. Take it from me, who just a year ago would have been dead-set on telling you his ten year plan to foray into finance and hedging. Today, I would tell you anything but that.

We organized a 30+ company trip in the Bay Area— it completely changed my views on available paths post-graduation.

Instead, take advantage of your reputation for unknowingness to test the waters. After going to HackMIT, YHack, Cyberposium, and Startup Bootcamp (all of which I highly recommend), a few friends and I decided to plan a trip to the Bay Area to check out the tech scene. Within two weeks, we managed to secure 30+ visits at some of the world’s most sought-after companies like Palantir, Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, amazing up-and-coming startups like Shyp and Watchsend (go check them out), and a few VC’s here and there like Lightspeed Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures. We even managed to meet a CEO or two (Alex Karp, thanks for the tips on “avoiding hard drugs”). After that trip, I knew I was dead set on tech.

How were we able to do this? You’ll soon find that having access to the phrase “I’m Jeremy, a student from X” is invaluable. People all over are inclined to help you because they were once in your shoes—confused, nervous, but unabashedly ambitious.

Reach out to everyone, and I mean everyone (pro tip: start using Signals, Rapportive, and get on Twitter ASAP). People are surprisingly accessible, and a founder’s email is generally, or some combination of it. Hell, my first week I called every single alum at Google, organized unexpected partnerships for my venture, and got free passes to quite a number of events.

If you play your student card right, you’ll be surprised at the resources you’ll gain access to.

Take time to meet (the right) people

I can confidently say that I’ll have a place to stay and people to see in every college I’d ever want to visit, every continent I plan on traveling to, and any company I’d conceivably work at. How? Yes, that dreaded word: networking.

I met Andrew (@andrewaaron) and Shyp (@shyp) just by reaching out. Now they’re killing it in SF/startup scene.

Don’t ever write someone or something off. One of my best friends, Josuel (@josuelplasencia), took the initiative to organize a group for hosting an event on international development. Not necessarily my field of interest, but one thing led to another in which we were able to get a trip to attend the World Conference on Youth in Sri Lanka covered within a span of two weeks. Long story short, we skipped our finals and helped draft a UN-approved declaration (oh, and had a grand ol’ time). Had I said no to helping out, I would have been stuck in Wellesley grinding away on finals. Leave no room for regret.

I’ve spoken to the likes of Evan Spiegel (@evanspiegel) from Snapchat, Rich Miner (@RichMiner) of Android, Travis Kalanick (@travisk)from Uber, Alexis Ohanian (@alexisohanian) from Reddit, and even ran into Ben Silbermann (@8en) of Pinterest on the streets of SF. I’ve met some incredible students from my networks like the Thiel Foundation Summit, Y Combinator Startup School, Google BOLD Discovery, and the Clinton Global Initiative University (psst: apply to all of those). How can you gain access to these incredible individuals?

Most people are nice and approachable, if you let them be. I was the least technical and probably the youngest guy at F8, but still had a blast

Well, there’s no simple answer: rather, most people are genuinely nice. I met tons of people at Facebook F8, even though I was probably the youngest and least technical guy there. I got great design feedback from Todd Hamilton (@ToddHam), and met Sarah Kettles (@sarahkettles) — both of them were incredibly nice and very helpful, and all I had to do was say “hi.”

Nobody inherently enjoys networking events, but the best networkers are the ones who realize that they might as well make use of their time. Take a look at Matt Monahan’s (@gomattymo) awesome post on the value of social capital for a very impressive case of networking.

Working smart > working hard

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing that can compare to a caffeine-filled night of data-crunching to meet a deadline (and trust me, I’ve had those nights). But if there’s a way automate that process (which there was), by all means take the time to learn it so next time you’ll be done in ten minutes instead of pulling another late night.

Good work lets you take time off and focus on high-level things. Don’t get caught up in the details

The best students think like entrepreneurs: they are unbelievably efficient at what they put their mind to, and don’t think about tasks as an individual chore, but rather a project that can be broken into automated parts.

The key is to focus on one task at a time. Get on a habit of using IFTTT, start using Evernote, load up your Google Drive/Dropbox, and stack up your Google Calendar if you haven’t already. If you’re out at a conference, make the most of it and meet as many people as you can. Partying? Enjoy yourself—if you’re doing college right, you’ll know that you deserve it (oh, and use Uber or Lyft if you’re out late and FlightCar if you’re traveling). More services you might like: Pushbullet to share links between devices, Venmo to send and split payments for free, Instacart to have your groceries picked up and delivered same-day, Shyp to have your orders delivered (SF only for now), and MightyText for Android, Spreed to quickly read articles on Chrome, and browse Ryan Hoover’s (@ryanhoover) Product Hunt for daily cool finds.

Don’t ever get too caught up in the details, or you’ll lose sight of the important things.

Save some time to read

You think you know everything until you start reading (I personally think American exceptionalism is still alive and strong and contributes to this). But I don’t simply mean books—there are some amazing curated collections that are extremely useful to personal and professional development on the web. Try and mix some general, feel-good platitudes (Good Advice) in with your more technical readings (On the topic of ideas).

Try to take some time each day to read some great things. Fiction or nonfiction, whatever you like

Quora is godsend for people who are innately curious about anything and everything, and the quality of answers and answerers is absolutely incredible for something so widely-accessible and free.

Thought leaders like Paul Graham and startups like Shyp also regularly update blogs, and document progress on their investments or startups. You can also find some great posts by well-established individuals here on Medium’s new Matter collection and on Svbtle.

For more traditional literature, some holy grails of startup literature include: Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek, and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People are highly acclaimed books in the startup space.

Some great things to follow: First Round Review, Fast Company, IDEO Design Thinking and most company’s research pages (Facebook, Airbnb) are also great starts.

You’ll soon find that reading books and blogs will be a part of your daily routine that you look forward to — it’s comforting, highly rewarding, and converts to happiness in reality. Just don’t forget to go out and apply everything you learn.

Travel as often as you can

Over the past year, I’ve flown to San Francisco twice, Sri Lanka, Indiana, Arizona, NYC thrice (but you should take the train), Chicago, and Boston all for free. How can you do the same?

I’ve probably spent upwards of 100 hours this year on a plane… But I don’t regret a second of it

Well, there’s really no simple answer to this but to be on the look out for opportunities to explore. I found that most of my opportunities arose as a cumulation of the above tips.

Traveling to Indiana was a result of a friend inviting me to apply for Indian University’s Annual Diversity Case Competition, Sri Lanka was largely thanks to our friend Chris Dekki’s (@cdekki) generous invitation to travel to Colombo, and San Francisco was the result of meeting Henry Liu (@JCMH11) at MIT’s Startup Bootcamp afterparty. As for Arizona, Chicago, and Boston, they were largely due to my founding of Sprout Products which obviously necessitated travel but I was able to find opportunities to fly and stay for free—the ability to leave home is always out there, it’s just a matter of chancing upon it (I’ll explain later).

There is nothing as rewarding, as refreshing, and—quite frankly—as inspiring as venturing into an unknown culture and making friends.

Fall in love

There is nothing like working on achieving something you are genuinely, unendingly passionate for. Being in love with someone or something is infectious: you’ll soon find that you won’t be the only one that’s excited.

“You’re having fun and you love the pursuit, but you just don’t know whether you’ll ever get Julie Dream.” — Sander Daniels

Sander Daniels (@SanderDaniels) puts it best in his absolutely phenomenal answer on Quora to “What is it like to work at a startup that’s on fire?” If there’s anything you read on Quora, let it be that answer—it’s a story to live by.

I promised to buy my mom a sports car more than 10 years ago. Today, it’s one more thing that keeps me going.

From experience and talking with people, I’ve found that nobody is actually self-motivated, but rather most ambitious people work for an inherent goal. For me, I promised to buy my mom a sports car almost a decade ago, and it’s something that constantly gnaws at the back of my mind when I get lazy (but maybe it’s more than that—who knows?). For others, it might be that drive to be financially independent or that insatiable lust to achieve recognition from that special someone. Whatever it is, let it keep itching, and continue chipping away at reaching what really, really motivates you.

As contrived as it may sound, find the inner Gatsby in you, and never let it die. Work so hard on achieving that thing that you love, the thing that is absolutely impossible to reach now, and you might just get lucky.

Develop your reputation

I realized something very important early on this year. There is absolutely nothing that is more valuable, contributive, and correlative to future success than one’s reputation. So yes, you guessed it—college is finally the time to lay the bricks to create a solid foundation of your own branding.

Here’s a shocker: it’s okay to untag yourself from all the pictures of your wild parties of yesteryore. In fact, help out your first impression with everyone you meet in the future and do just that: you’ll (hopefully) come into college with a clean canvas, and make sure that you’re sketching the start of the next Mona Lisa. Also, here’s a note: forget privacy—it’s dead, and you need to embrace the future—I’ll leave it at that.

From David Lee (@davidlee), who said this at Y Combinator’s Startup School (@startupschool)

You can get started by creating the generic Linkedin, Quora, and Reddit accounts. Now clean up your Twitter and Facebook—you’re an adult now, so you better start publicly looking like one.

Now here’s where the fun stuff starts: get an AngelList, and make sure everything’s up to date. It’s a fantastic tool to start getting into the world of startups and learning who’s who and what’s what in the industry. Explore and create content on Behance and Dribbble, where you might find that you really do enjoy photography or design, after all. Or maybe writing is your thing, and you’ll start contributing articles to Medium, or you’ll find that coding is a passion of yours, in which case you’d join Stack Overflow. Within each of these, there are huge and extremely helpful communities that are willing to help, given that you will eventually add value to the community at large.

People don’t become famous or successful because they sit idly and look pretty (although it does happen, I’ll admit). It’s because they actively contribute and produce increasingly-amazing content that gets delivered to the right people.

Serendipity is not accidental

You are the only one who can give yourself excuses. Need to work out? Do it. Haven’t started homework and it’s late? Better finish it. It isn’t by accident that the most successful students, athletes, engineers, and businesspeople are where they are today—they have taken matters into their own hands, and the world acknowledges this: that is what we attribute as “luck.”

You’re dealt a hand, and you need to play it—and win by any means necessary.

I will say, though, that some people really are lucky. They may be born into wealth, they may have hit the jackpot, got that billionaire to write a recommendation letter, or avoided being caught cheating all the way into college—but that’s life: it’s simply “not fair.”

But you know what? Only those who are complacent will accept their positions. Instead it’s up to you to rise above mediocrity. You’ll soon realize that college in the States is the ultimate equalizer: people don’t care where you came from or who your dad or mom is, people care about what you’ve done and who you might become.

It might have been by accident that I was able to go to events like Y Combinator’s Startup School and Google’s inaugural BOLD Discovery program, let alone meet my crowdfunding goal by only $4. It may have been a mistake that let me run into certain people who granted access to opportunities, and it may have been by fate that I was offered certain privileges. But let’s get one thing straight: all of my “lucky” events are very direct results of a function of me intentionally being somewhere, some place due to my understanding that this just might be that time that I meet a new friend, co-founder, or who knows, an employer.

You are the master of your own future. It’s as simple as that. You need to persist, suffer, and tolerate failure until you make it, and it’s often at the lowest points at which you finally reach that breakthrough.

“All successful startups are lucky, but they’re never just lucky. If they were, we could save ourselves a lot of work reading applications and doing interviews. We could just pick randomly instead. If we did that for one batch, you’d really be able to tell the difference, believe me.” — Paul Graham

Hear me out on this: you must be willing to spend and potentially waste a Saturday here and miss a party there to achieve the goals you want to meet. Statistically, it will happen—you just have to keep at it till it does.

Be you

Now, through all of this you must be thinking to yourself, “Wow, this kid must have absolutely no social life” and I’d be inclined to say, “Yes, yes you’re very right.”

But I don’t think so. You see, I’ve gained more out of college than I ever thought possible, be it social understanding or an ability to live alone. I no longer need to go to all the parties to self-validate my social belonging like I used to feel compelled to, I no longer need to drink to feel “in,” I don’t want people to Like or Favorite my photos just to feel socially accepted—no, college is a time for you to experiment, explore, and realize what you genuinely enjoy doing. Go ahead, go out if you haven’t before. Go and party, go and talk to your new friends, go make memories (that you can hopefully remember the next morning). Maybe you really enjoy it, maybe you don’t—just keep true to who you are and don’t change just to conform to expectations.

Do the things you never could, chase the loves you never would — just remember to be you through it all

And now, I’m taking a break. I’m taking a semester off (I’m lucky to be coming into college with an abnormally large number of credits) to explore life after college and to move to SF, where I’ll spend my time working on the things I love at Shyp and my own projects, Tacklebox and Sprout Products. Making mistakes. Learning from them. Growing, and repeating it all over again. That’s life, after all, and that’s why we’re in college: to learn.

That’s my freshman story. Now go make your own.

A Few Recommendations:

Most importantly: you will fail. Many, many, many times over. But keep at it, and I promise this: you will succeed extraordinarily, inconceivably more than you failed.

Still unsure if college is right for you? You can always try out Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens’ (@DaleJStephens) UnCollege Gap Year.

(PS — Work out and stay healthy. College is notoriously harmful on your sleep and diet, but a bit of exercise and a side of vegetables go a long way)