7 things my 25-year old self needs to hear
Our thirties are probably Nature’s way of reminding us of our mortality. It is probably the first time in life when you realize that the hourglass sand is slowly trickling away. It is a strange phase, full of contradictions. On one hand, there is the onset of regret as we rue missed opportunities and wasted years. On the other, there is the promise of the future and a conviction built on the fact that you are at the peak of your powers.
When you’re in your thirties, it’s easy to beat yourself up about what you should have done a decade ago. But that attitude is based on a shaky foundation: hindsight. You’re hard on yourself because you assume you made mistakes against your better judgment. In reality, however, you simply had no way of knowing what you know now. Once you have the benefit of experience, it is near impossible to remember what it feels like to be a novice. So common is this phenomenon that there is even a proper term for it.
The bottom line is that painting the past in terms of regret is a counterproductive activity, in general. What you need instead, is a way to reframe it in terms of what you have learnt. Growing up is not just about aging; it’s actually about realizing the values that matter to us most. The feelings that the past dredges up are not meant to pull us down, but point us in the direction of what we must become.
But how do you clarify what you have learned all these years? Or even if you’ve learned anything at all? Simple. Just ask what you would tell the ‘you’ of ten years ago if you could go back in time. Imagine that you can tell only seven things to that person. What would those things be? What are the lessons that would not only help that 20-something but also you, in the present, to live your life better?
In my case, here are the seven lessons that I believe both my 25-year old self and I need to hear.
1. Get really good at something
For most people school is nothing more than a credential collecting agency where we earn badge upon badge, hoping to be eventually noticed by employers. The result of this narrow focus is that test-taking ability is all you develop, at the expense of learning any real skills. Any success you eventually get is more a result of you jumping through the right hoops rather than on the basis of your mastery in a subject.
But why does mastery matter? There are three reasons. One, the real world rewards exceptional performance, which in turn comes from skill. You can make a great living not being great at any single thing but if you intend to leave an impact, you must be exceptional at something.
Secondly, mastery is its own reward. Money and fame are good only upto a point. As Derek Sivers said in a podcast:
Work is more fun than fun.
Nothing can surpass the deep joy that comes when you exercise your talents to their highest level. The feeling of being one with your work, and entering into states of flow is the most intensely pleasurable feeling known to humans.
Finally, the future is becoming less predictable by the day. You can’t say with complete confidence whether a Harvard MBA will have the same value 15 years from now. As the economy gets increasingly unbundled, it is only your individual contributions that might end up mattering. And for that, you need to be so good at something that people will be willing to pay you for it.
2. Pick the right pond
Success follows a power law. That is, the number one performer in any field is far more successful than the number two. The difference is not so much in terms of skill, but in how success really works. Having the skills is only step one; more important is to pick the right area. So pick something where you can be top dog. It doesn’t have to a big and sexy field. Find something where you have such an unfair advantage that competition is virtually non-existent.
As Peter Thiel says:
Competition is for losers.
Society, by design, directs the majority towards the middle of the curve, which is the land of average. These are the faceless masses who stay on the sidelines and applaud the winners. While great in number, those in the middle are often the worst hit in times of crisis. The ones at the bottom have anyway little to lose, while those at the top have built enough of a buffer (money, goodwill, reputation) to safely ride through any storm. The average ones are however susceptible to the slightest trembling in the status quo. If you are in the Middle, any comfort you have is illusory.
The only way to be impervious to circumstances is to be in the top 1% of your field. All your skills and talent are meaningless if you are swimming with the Great Whites of your field. So pick your pond carefully and look to dominate it.
3. Read the big, important books
I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
— Mark Twain
Formal education systems are designed to make you employable, not educate you. Which is why you might realize after college that you haven’t really learnt much. Even if you emerge with a high level of skill, more often than not your proficiency will be limited to a narrow field. While specialization has its merits (see point 1), it shouldn’t be pursued at the cost of a more holistic understanding of the world.
The best approach is to develop a T-shaped strategy towards life: get really good at one thing but also cultivate wide ranging interests. Good ideas and lucky breakthroughs are always found at the edge of disciplines. Give yourself permission to go beyond the boundaries of your own field and experience the surprises that lie in store.
The most effective way to do this is to read widely (no, watching TED talks isn’t the same thing). Specifically, pick up the books that have survived across decades and centuries because they contain the most timeless truths. The idea of doing this is not to know more facts, but to understand the structures that make the world tick and the motivations that govern human behaviour. Vast storehouses of such wisdom, accumulated over millennia, is what lies buried in books. So if you’re looking for a life ‘hack’, start with the the classics section of the bookstore.
4. Do not look for comfort yet
You will have time enough to put down your roots, but don’t do that just yet. It is a sick, perverted culture that expects us to settle down at a time when we should be swinging for the fences. We owe it not just to ourselves, but to the world to push ourselves to the boundaries of what is possible. So don’t yet develop a taste for a monthly salary and don’t act on the weekend as if you’ve cured cancer over the week.
For starters, think about what you want not what others expect of you. What would you do if money or others’ expectations were of no concern? It is a human tendency to let our identities be shaped by whatever thing we’re pursuing at that time. Rare is the person who defines the values that are important to her and then bases her actions on that. The rest of us, meanwhile, just try to make peace with whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. You must recognize this automatic pattern and fight against it if you want to live on your own terms.
Sure, it’s possible to do the hard and ‘risky’ things when you’re older but it takes a much bigger toll. And not just on you. But when you don’t have any responsibilities, the cost of mistakes is lower and the upside is potentially unlimited. So try out stuff with abandon and without any expectations. Play with the world and fall flat on your face. It is only when you make repeated contact with the cold, hard earth that you will find your way.
5. Create more than you consume
Consuming and creating both cause changes in us, which are profoundly different in their impact. Consuming is about a series of pleasurable moments followed by emptiness and craving for more. Creating, however, is a means to touch the deepest part of yourself and feel as if you’ve been made whole. When you express yourself through something you’ve made, you not only relate to the whole world in a new way but also find out who you really are.
Sadly, it is far more convenient to consume than create, which is why we let ourselves be drowned by things others have made. Recognize that every time you consume something, someone else not only gets the satisfaction of putting their work out in the world, but they also get paid. Do not remain a mere vehicle for others’ exercise of creativity. Become a creator yourself and take charge of your story.
So whether its writing, making videos, coding, painting, cooking, or starting businesses, get into the creator mindset. It is only when you get into the habit of creating that you open yourself up for serendipity and outsized successes. Keep at it long enough and you will find new opportunities and connections as if from nowhere. Even from a purely rational perspective, creating is the smartest thing you can do: the choicest rewards are given not to the customer, the moviegoer or the diner, but to the entrepreneur, the filmmaker and the chef.
6. Know the difference between your goal and the means
Decades of conditioning makes us all want the same things and chase after the same prizes. Furthermore, there is a pervasive myth that you must put off your dreams till you pay your dues in the real world. In this version, work is an obligation, or a sentence to be completed before you get to the real life you always wanted. Silicon Valley veteran Randy Komisar calls this approach the Deferred Life Plan.
Well, let me break it to you: it’s a lie. Life can be fairly simple if we just admit to ourselves what we truly want. There is usually a straighter path to what we desire, but we are intent on taking roundabout routes to that place. This is in part because society is great at teaching us how to achieve something, but not what to aim for. As Robert Fritz said in his pathbreaking book The Path of Least Resistance, schools reward aptitude — that is, a knowledge of processes — rather than imagination. As a result, we have generations of kids mortgaging years of their lives trying to aim indirectly at the life they desire.
The only way out of this pattern is to be brutally honest with yourself and ask what is it that you want most. If your answer is money, again ask yourself why. If money is a means to get something else, then why not go after that ‘something’ directly? Chances are, you will make more money doing what you love, rather than forcing yourself to do something you hate. Even if you can’t afford to pursue your calling at the time, never lose sight of it; a detour is fine as long as you know you are taking one.
7. Treat yourself with kindness
You’ll make a lot of mistakes in life, some of them just plain stupid. Sometimes, these mistakes will feel like the end of the world, and the guilt will be overwhelming. But whatever you do, never descend into self-loathing. We must of course face the consequences of our mistakes, but too often we decide that bashing ourselves up is the only way to atonement.
This tendency is heightened by the prevailing ethos of our time: that whatever happens to us is our own responsibility. While taking charge of our destiny is the mark of maturity, we often forget that the responsibility for our emotional well-being also lies with us. Some amount of self-criticism is healthy because it keeps you grounded, but thinking that you deserve it is to completely give up on yourself. It is a cliche, but the world will treat you only as you treat yourself.
Remind yourself that ultimately we’re all clueless in a world full of uncertainties. Your life is simply a collection of probabilities, which means you can confidently bet on things going wrong at some point. All you can do is to respond to these events with courage and be willing to learn from your missteps. That’s it. Everything else is just needless drama.