Twenty-some Values I Want to Live By In My Twenties
I just turned 20 this week. This year has been quite a phenomenal year for me. In addition to starting to write for Forbes and encouraging other students to pursue entrepreneurship during school through speaking, I’ve had the opportunity to work and grow my company, a product that empowers the blind by recognizing what they are looking at. Moreover, I’ve been able to work with my friend to build up a company that is commercializing a product that turns any normal watch into a “smart” one, work on multiple different weekend and short term technology and venture-capital projects with good friends, meet and learn from hundreds of the craziest entrepreneurs and game-changers in dozens of different conferences and events, learn tremendous amounts of practical business skills at Wharton during my second year, and submatriculate into a Robotics Engineering and AI Masters Degree program at Penn.
But more so than “doing,” this year has been a year of finding myself and personal development. I had the opportunity to travel to over 30 cities in 8countries and learn from dozens of different cultures, read 30+ books, handwrite over 500 pages in my personal notebook, meet at least two new people everyday and have a 1hr+ vulnerable conversation with them, wake up at 6:30 AM most days to exercise (lost 40+ lbs and gained 20lbs muscle in the process), and have dozens of late night conversations with friends asking the big questions in life. This post is the culmination of all that thinking as well as the personal values I’ve established over the last 20 years.
It’s worth noting that these are my values and the values I want to focus on improving in myself for the next decade or so; I’m not trying to impose that these are the “right way” of living your life; you have every right to decide that for yourself. You’ll note that I wrote this in the second person. I wrote this to myself (to that little voice in my head?) on my birthday, never intending to publish this publicly; it was only a personal statement of things I want to improve in myself so my apologies in advance if you think some of these items are trite or cliche (still I would recommend that you read the entire passage rather than just the catchy bolded headline for each value).
It’s also worth noting that there have been many books and probably dozens of articles about each of these points. It seems like very little modern human thought is original— rather it’s an aggregation of all the experiences one’s had in life; similarly these values are a juxtaposition of ideas that made sense in my head over the last 20 years. I personally subscribe heavily to Picasso’s belief that “good artists copy…great artists steal.” My apologies if I paraphrased your analogy without crediting you; it’s not because I’m trying to take credit but rather because I could not decipher which source I had borrowed the analogy from.
So here we go. Here are twenty-some values I want to live by in my twenties — and for the rest of my life — in no particular order:
- Remember that the future will be beautiful and that it will be better than you can ever imagine; don’t worry too much. While having goals motivates you, thinking too much about what you need to do to be where you want to be is kind of hopeless and leads to unnecessary stress. The fact of the matter is you really don’t know exactly where you want to be (i.e., sure you want to be an entrepreneur…but maybe you would be a better investor than an operator). Remember that you can’t connect the dots going forward. Only looking back can you think, “woah I’m so glad I went to that event because I met the person who changed my life” or “it’s insane that a little project that we built over a weekend ended up defining my life for the next two years” (credit Steve Jobs). Rather, just do what feels right in that moment and know that eventually you’ll end up in the right place. Even if you told yourself you’d never work for anyone other than yourself, if this new company feels like it’s a rocket ship, don’t ask which seat, just get on board (credit to Eric Schmidt and Sheryl Sandberg for that one). Trust your gut even if it seems to be off path from the path you thought you wanted to take.
- Embrace your emotions. Let the sadness, anger, angst, envy, fears, and pain permeate your body. Observe your emotions and feel them rather than running away from them. You can’t run forever; someday or another you have to confront yourself. Doing that is the only way to master yourself. As Mitch Albom says, “If you hold back on the emotions — if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them — you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails. But by throwing yourself into these emotions, by allowing yourself to dive in, all the way, over your heard even, you experience them fully and completely.”
- Live every moment. Be mindful and always try to tame the voice in your head — it can be a real asshole (thanks Dan Harris). Focus on this moment rather than thinking about how the next moment — once you do something or accomplish something — will be better. Focus on this bite of food rather than thinking about the next bite — this plate at the buffet before thinking about the next plate. Remember that there’s no objective to life. Sure you can try to always work on interesting and impactful projects and companies, but how do you know when you’ve “changed the world?” Stop telling yourself that you’ll be happy when you do this, when you achieve that, when you find the perfect partner, when you get that promotion, when you buy a nicer car or a more expensive apartment, when you move to that better city, or when you finish school. The fact is that when you do in fact achieve whatever you told yourself would make you happy, you’ll just set higher standards and then keep wanting more (e.g., you’re buoyant that you got into Penn but when you step foot on campus, you realize you’re in a whole new ball game, forget how happy you were when you got in, and only focus on trying to be the top at Penn). The human brain is a hyperactive monkey brain at its core, always wanting more, never being fulfilled with what it has. Instead of being its slave, be in control of your brain by taming that voice and always living in this moment. Focus on your breathing always (credit Eckhart Tolle).
- Be soft on yourself. There’s no doubt that having BHAGs — big hairy audacious goals as Jim Collins calls them — can lead to tremendous amounts of personal stress. Goals are important; daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, 10-year, 20-year, and life goals bring you out of your comfort zone and are what help you grow (credit to Marissa Mayer). But realize that you sometimes won’t meet your own goals; in these cases, self-deprecating serves no value. If you don’t meet your mental mark, don’t berate yourself. Realize that you’re now in a new moment and have a chance to try it all over again, this time even larger than the first time. If you don’t love yourself, nobody else will.
- Remember that status can’t get you anywhere. Even if you “make it,” everyone “above” you will still disregard you and everyone “below” you will envy you (even if they were once your friends). Status without substance leads to massive un-fulfillment — not to mention existential crises. Work on actually making an impact rather than making it seem like you’re making an impact.
- Remember that while it’s inordinately important to work on yourself — through meditating, exercising, reading, writing, traveling — don’t put yourself above your organization. It’s not worth it to be the richest man in the graveyard. As Sam Altman says, people rarely remember particular individuals hundreds of year after the fact. How many Etruscans or Ancient Syrians or 14th century Moorish people do you remember? While organizations don’t last forever, they usually last longer than individuals; focus on building a beautiful organization bigger than yourself because that organization can lead to real change (and gives you meaning as well).
- Take life lightly and take time to appreciate the mind-boggling paradigm of your existence (i.e., don’t take life too seriously). You only get one run at this so do what you want to do. No more practice runs. So be serendipitous: go travel internationally with no planning, watch a movie with a friend at 3 AM, go out to dinner in the city instead of eating in, and just do what feels right in the moment. Always remind yourself at how small you really are (traveling and seeing people who you didn’t even know existed and just observing how different their way of life is does a phenomenal job at this). Carl Sagan does a better job at expressing this than I ever could: “Look again at that dot. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Just think: we live on a pale blue dot suspended in nothingness in a vast expanding cosmos that our minds cannot even fathom. We’re not even specks of dust. Our problems — or what we think are problems — really are meaningless, and thus not worth stressing after. Realizing how small we are helps us appreciate how much we have to be thankful for for even existing. As iconic American novelist Jack Kerouac says, “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
- Remember that relationships are more important than anything else. It’s simply not worth it to always work to get to someplace that doesn’t exist and then not have anyone to share your successes with. The people you work with and the people you’re around are more important than anything else. No doubt that relationships will cause searing pain and anger. Feel that pain. Experience it. After all, our relationships are what make us human. You’re not busy enough to not have time for one friend a day. When the going gets tough, you want to be able to call or visit a friend at 4 AM and have him or her help. Support networks are important. Forgive people and move on. Say you’re sorry; mean it.
- You can’t do it alone. You have absolutely absurd goals and there’s no way you can accomplish them alone. You need to find people to help you. As it’s commonly said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” You need to build a network of the smartest people you know so that collectively the group can accomplish something great. When you do, only hire people that you would be willing to spend significant time with (would you be willing to spend six hours stuck in an airport with this person?); doing this will allow you to build an organization where you can have serious and friendly conversations about work and life 24/7. Then, continually praise your employees. Never criticize. Reread How To Win Friends And Influence People yearly.
- Produce something daily. Write an essay. A poem. Write some code. Make something with legos. Cook a meal. Paint a picture. A sketch on the subway way to work. Eventually just do what you do in your free time.
- Always find the balance between internal self-confidence and fulfilling other’s goals. It’s important to always try to focus on the person across the table, fulfill his goals, let her talk, listen more and talk less. In other words, don’t burn bridges by always trying to get the best for yourself, because oftentimes the relationship is not worth the benefit of the one time transaction. This doesn’t mean however, that you start doubting yourself; always be confident with who you are; if you start brushing aside your achievements like they’re nothing because you want to focus on the other person then your own esteem will suffer.
- Give freely to people and don’t take too much. Don’t be so stingy with time or money when it comes to relationships! Relationships are much more valuable than either of those things. Give your time, write about your negative and positive experiences publicly, buy people food and drinks, give them rides, invite them over for dinner, wish them happy birthday, congratulate friends you haven’t seen for a decade, gift books, connect them to each other (credit to Keith Ferrazzi for much of that). Don’t ask for Uber and subway token reimbursements. Try to give a compliment to a friend and a stranger a day. If you think of relationships like an emotional bank account, the net between the amount you deposit and the amount you withdraw is the value of that relationship. Simply giving a small thing to someone will put him in debt forever and help forge a mutually beneficial relationship that lasts a lifetime (credit to Tony Robbins for the bank analogy). Adam Grant says that if you can do someone a favor in five minutes, you should go ahead and do it. People have an invisible sign on them that says “make me feel special”; it’s your job to see that sign and follow it.
- Focus on your own values rather than on what others tell you about yourself (i.e., don’t compare yourself to others). As Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.” People really do judge others who work hard. People will envy and talk about your work as insignificant if you’re more “successful” than them. People will ignore you; friends will ignore you if you keep on doing things that they didn’t think were possible. Don’t pay attention to these naysayers and pass over anything they say like oil on water; if you pay too much attention, be ready for a dose of imposter syndrome. Most times, people probably aren’t thinking about you; but because of the spotlight syndrome, the little voice in your head has convinced yourself that they are. As Alex Hayne says, “Metiocrity hates excellence. The raw truth is that the average person will HATE YOU for being special. For being amazing. For not watching TV and using your time wisely. For taking your limited time and investing it into a project that adds something amazing to the world.” Constantly remind yourself of your all the amazing work you’ve done and if there are anchors in your life, cut them out fast. Write down three things you’re grateful of everyday. Meditate.
- Keep asking yourself questions until you figure yourself out: what you want, who you are, and most importantly why you want what you want. Asking the right questions — and being around smart people who do the same — separates those who are happy and successful at what they do from those who are not. So ask yourself often “is this really what I want to do? Am I fulfilled with how I’m spending my days? Is this how I would spend my day if it were my last day on earth?” If the answer is no over and over, it’s time to change something (credit to Steve Jobs). In another analogy, consider life as a tree; you have a trunk, branches, leaves, and most importantly roots; maybe your list of values is your trunk, the branches are the different chapters of your life, and the leaves are particular experiences, ideas, and convictions. Perhaps the most important part of the tree is the part you don’t see: the roots. If you build a really tall and massive tree (i.e., have values that resonate with you and crazy experiences that you’re proud of) that doesn’t have strong roots, one day the tree will fall and you will ask yourself what went wrong. In order to keep the tree strong, have deep roots and always know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Once you have figured out your roots, “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” as Paulo Coehlo says; if you know your why, you’ll do everything it takes to grow out of your roots and build a strong tree (i.e., accomplish those goals). Read voraciously, write daily, hang out with extremely smart and experienced people, and travel unconditionally to figure out the right questions to ask. (Credits to Scott Breece for the tree analogy.)
- In a different application of the tree, focus on the roots before the trunk, the trunk before the branches, and the branches before the leaves. As Elon Musk says, “it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” So whenever you’re trying to learn something new, focus on learning the fundamentals and tying things back to the very basics of physics and the human condition to make sense of them. Go down to the first principles and then build back up.
- Make sure you climb up the right ladder. As Stephen Covey says, there’s a difference between effectiveness and efficiency. Don’t just try to be efficient by always working and doing things (climbing up the ladder as fast as you can). Always take the time to take a step back, look at all the different ladders, and then climb up the right on. As they commonly say, you can do anything but not everything. Don’t try to throw shit at the fan and see what sticks by starting 10 different businesses. Rather find your roots (discussed earlier), find the right ladder to climb, and then climb until you literally cannot climb anymore (as in Elon Musk 2008 burnout level). Only then will you find success and fulfillment.
- Value time more than money. Treat your time like it’s worth $1000/hour. Remember that time has a very inelastic cost function near death: on your deathbed, you would be willing to give any monetary amount for even a few more hours with your family and friends. Time is a scarce resource; understand that even though it may not seem like it, one day you will not be around anymore. Your youth will never come back but you can always make more money. Don’t go to that event just because it has free food. Don’t live miles away from work so that you don’t have to pay as much rent; the 2 hours you spent commuting is a lot more valuable than $500 every month. Deeply internalizing this really helps you prioritize what’s important in life; suddenly Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter don’t seem to matter anymore. At the same time, don’t let this high valuation of time spare you from being serendipitous and not taking life too seriously.
- Master money or it will master you. There’s no doubt that money can lead to a huge amount of freedom, open doors, and prevent a lot of stress. Spend as much time as you possibly can learning about personal finance, finance in general, accounting, and how money works as soon as possible. Invest at least 40% of all yearly earnings into index funds. Become financially free ASAP (ideally before 22). Still, don’t worry too much about money. As Andy Dunn says, his trip to Uganda showed him how little it took these pepole to be happy; he had plenty at in US and was going to Stanford and was still hesitant at starting his business. Money will work out. Don’t work for money until you literally don’t have money to pay rent; in the mean time, just live life and do what you love to do.
- Be concrete. Give a ton of details when you’re talking to people, when you’re working with people people, and when you’re writing. Go back to the writing of Malcolm Gladwell and see how particularly he describes people and events so that you have a visceral picture painted in your head. As Prof. Drew Carton says, don’t fall into the illusion of transparency; be very particular and give all the detail you can because people will respond better when they know exactly why they should listen and what they’re getting into.
- Mentors are important. Find the people in society you respect. They don’t have to be in the same field as you; most “successful” entrepreneurs have a similar outlook on life and their work as “successful” fishermen, cooks, and tennis players; find out why you respect them and then shower them with as many questions as you can (remember how to reach out to them). It’s important to surround yourself with the brightest and smartest people in the world so you can learn from them. At the same time, while mentors are important, it’s important to not just work to be exactly like them; you’re a completely different person than the people you admire and the way you live your life and run your company should not be the same either. As Peter Thiel says, the next Mark Zuckerberg is not going to build a social network; the next Larry Page is not going to build a search engine; the next Bill Gates isn’t going to build an operating system. There’s only one of you and you’re better at being you than anyone in the world; play to your strengths and weaknesses and live your life rather than the life you should be living — to be, say, the stereotypical entrepreneur. Figure out your “secret” (the fundamental truth that you know is true but almost everyone else disagrees with) about how the world works and build a business around that.
- Be aware of yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, and your values. There’s a reason we’re called Homo sapiens sapiens: we can think and we know we can think. This metaphysical reality is what separates us from every other species and even our own direct ancestors, Homo sapiens (credits to Dan Harris for this). Once you know what you’re not good at, you can hire people to make up for all your weaknesses (and then learn from them). On a day to day basis, focus on your strengths and work them to your advantage; be aware of your weaknesses but don’t think too much about them because you’re at risk of comparing yourself to those who are experts at your weaknesses; for example, since you’re more of a product person and designer and passionately dislike coding, don’t focus too much time and energy on coding because you’ll inevitably compare yourself to the best software developers. Consistently look back at your list of values.
- There’s always a choice. As Harvey Specter from Suits says, when someone points a gun at your face, “you take the gun, or you pull out a bigger one. Or, you call their bluff. Or, you do any one of a hundred and forty six other things.” Even when it feels like there are no options, remind yourself that there are; your job is just to hustle hard enough to find them. Don’t do something unethical because you have no choice — you most definitely do. Always remind yourself of the repercussions of a decision before you make it; maybe that seemingly worse option where you lose tremendous amounts of money or public opinion is better than losing your best friend or spending the next year in jail (thanks to Rob Lloyd for making this clear).
- Be a heat-seeking missile. As Josh Kopelman says about Mark Zuckerberg, paraphrased, “the reason he was able to build Facebook into the empire it is today is because he’s a heat-seeking missile. Always looking for bigger opportunities. Even if he’s invested millions of dollars into one project, he’ll completely drop it if a billion dollar opportunity comes.” Don’t be afraid to let go of previous projects or opportunities if even bigger ones come up. The older ones are sunk costs and prevent you from being as big as you can.
- Life is ultimately a battle with yourself: master your mind and body or else it will master you. You can’t fulfill that desire you have — that hole inside of you — by consistently trying to escape from reality through short term pleasures like alcohol, drugs, smoking, sex, eating, or shopping. These all feel great in the moment but the aftermath leaves you in a crash much greater than ever before. Ultimately, only you can fill that hole by figuring out what gives you long term neurological pleasure, what gives you neurological pain, and then doing more of what gives you pleasure and less of what gives you pain. Remember that the girl (or the guy) can’t help you fill that hole either: only you can by loving yourself and doing what makes you happy.
- Consistently give yourself positive reinforcement. As Napoleon Hill says, think….and you can become rich (great). Imagine what you want life to look like ten years, twenty years, forty years, and eighty years later. Viscerally feel the emotions, the riches, the greatness, and everything else you wanted come true. Then work backwards and do the things that are going to take you there. Consistently tell yourself that you are enough, that you deserve to be loved, and that you are happy with yourself. Be around people who make you better and who bring you higher. However, be aware of this turning into arrogance.
- There’s more to life than work. There’s health. There’s relationships and friendship. There’s food and drink. There’s a sweet but seemingly eclectic culture halfway around the world. There’s charming and reflective Impressionistic art. There’s flurry and extravagant Rococo music. Appreciate the small things that bring you happiness: appreciate the cappuccino for itself, not just as a sweet drink whose caffeine you use to work more; appreciate the luscious plants outside as beautiful life not just ornaments for your office; and appreciate your body and your strength as more than just something that allows you to accomplish your goals. Work is just a simple part of your life; it gives you a meaning and purpose in life but it doesn’t give you everything. Take the time everyday to appreciate the arts that make humans…human. An auxiliary to this would be to say even if you have sky-high goals, don’t be afraid to just slow down. Slow down how fast you think, how fast you talk, how fast you walk, how fast you eat, how fast you drink, and how fast you move through your day; in fact, being slow will help you go faster. It’s important to just take the time to appreciate the clouds sometimes. Sometimes it’s okay not to “accomplish” anything at all for days or even weeks on end. It’s never worth it to give up personal happiness and fulfillment to achieve “success,” whatever that elusive thing means.
- Do things for the sake of doing them. Remember what Prof. Brian Berkey said: “I didn’t do my PhD in philosophy to get somewhere else. I wrote my dissertation and did all the research I had to because it was valuable in itself.” Treat school and learning as useful in itself rather than a means to get somewhere else. Treat the book you’re reading as enjoyable and useful for something more than a means to build a successful business. Treat exercise as more than just a means to make yourself fit to be able to work more; love it in itself. Love everything you do for itself; otherwise, once you accomplish what you were going for or change your mind, many of your actions may seem like they were in vain.
- Always remember that you can make a difference and change the world. A lot of your friends who were previously radical change-makers will finally give in, become “realistic,” and just take seemingly prestigious jobs at Google, McKinsey, or Goldman Sachs. Don’t give in. If anyone tries to instill “practicality” into your life, cut him or her out instantly. Realism is the easiest and most common path to mediocrity. You can and will leave a dent in the universe. No matter how much other people tell you it’s impossible and cheesy to keep saying that, keep strong; as Steve Jobs says, only the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world — and avoid all of society’s contagious poison and naysayers — are the ones who do.
Live on. Don’t just survive. Thrive. One. Moment. At. A. Time….
I’m writing this post because I felt like my experiences running a company during school could be helpful to some of my peers. I’d love if you could give it a like :)