I have a keen interest in what young people in this country are up to – mainly because you are a window into the future – and right now, as I peer through that window, I can’t help but be alarmed. It goes without saying that most teens and young adults are not interested in heavy topics like politics and philosophy. That doesn’t concern me since it has pretty much always been so, at least in prosperous western countries. What does concern me is the generally unrealistic worldview that held by so many American youth – the idea that good things just happen and that when they don’t, it’s someone else’s fault.
It is an endless source of humor for my friends that I watch more MTV than anyone I know over 30. Lately, I’ve been watching, “The Hills” and some of those “Super Sweet 16” shows. I’m blown away at the fantasy world that these people live in. Yes, I know that MTV doesn’t offer a very diverse study of how young people think, but I also know that TV is a prime shaper of attitudes about life and how to live it. From those shows and my own occasional interactions with young people, I think have a pretty good idea of where many (if not most) of you are coming from. That said, I’d like to offer a few pieces of advice to counter what goes for cool these days.
1. The amount of happiness you experience in life is inversely proportional to how much frustration you experience, and frustration is all about unmet expectations. In other words, if you expect things to turn out a certain way and they don’t, you’ll end up frustrated. And if this happens enough, you’ll end up unhappy. Therefore, it is essential that you learn to set your expectations about life realistically. Whenever you find yourself dissatisfied with a particular circumstance, ask yourself what you expected. Then ask yourself why you expected what you did. You’ll usually find that were not aware of the following reality of our world.
2. The good things in life take work – that goes for everything from careers to relationships. Though you will always see examples of people who have it all and did seemingly nothing to get it, be mindful that these are the exceptions not the rule. So, adhering to point number one, be careful not to expect that getting to the good life will be easy.
3. Rethink what you really want. Most young people want to be rich. That’s fine. I do, too. But the real question is why. Do you want to be rich because it impresses people? If so, getting rich will never make you happy – there will always be someone else to impress. Do you want to be rich so you won’t have to work? Again, this is a bad idea. Work, in itself, is a glorious thing…provided you’re working on things that you’re passionate about. To wish for a life without work is to wish for boredom, which is the root of many ills in life. The best reason to want to be rich is to obtain what I call the option – the have a life consumed with “want-to-dos” versus “have-to-dos.” Like I said, this doesn’t mean you won’t work. It just means you’ll decide what you work on, as well as when and how you’ll do it. But beyond riches, the ultimate goal in this life is meaningful relationships. As Bertrand Russell, the early 20th century British philosopher put it – the good life is a life inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Corny as it may sound, pursue love doggedly in this life, and if you do it right (more on that in a moment), yours will be a happy life.
4. When it comes to careers, be aware that the world today is vastly different than it was when your parents started working. Gone are the days of working for the same company for your entire career. As the current bestseller tells us, the world is indeed flat. That means you have limitless opportunities to get to the option. However, coming out of school, it is highly unlikely that you have the skills to make it happen right away. So you need a game plan.
The first thing to realize is that the 9-5 grind and the option are almost totally incompatible. What I mean is that you may have to work the grind for a while as you’re getting yourself set up, but the goal should always be to abandon the grind as soon as you can get what you need financially without it. Don’t fall into the trap of taking the first corporate job that falls out of the sky simply because you’ll be making real money for the first time. Many a listless and unsatisfied middle-ager was created by starting in corporate America with grand dreams only to be trapped by financial responsibilities that precluded the ability to take a risk when the time was right. It’s so easy to get sucked in, start spending more than you make, and then be shackled to the corporate ladder forever more. Be responsible with your money right now (more on that later).
Am I saying that you shouldn’t take a job in corporate America? Not at all. I’m saying that you should be wise about it. For one thing, never work for a company unless you understand very clearly how the company makes money, and make sure the company makes money (as in, makes a profit). This may seem strange to say, but there are so many companies out there that are built around the idea that, with the right amount of investment, one day they’ll turn a corner and start making boatloads of cash. Some do, but most don’t. Wait until later in your career to spend time in organizations that are not yet profitable. You first need to learn how profitable businesses operate. Then, your skills are not based on a dream, but are based upon a reality. Very important.
You then need to be mindful of the opportunities for advancement in your chosen company. If they can’t tell you where you can go if you kick ass, walk away. And when there is opportunity for advancement, do your homework on whether or not you’d benefit from advancing. The way to tell if a prospective job is worth doing is to do Monster.com (and other career site) searches on your boss’ job title. Are there lots of those jobs available? If so, do they pay well? If not, why not? It may be a good thing. It may be that you could learn a job that is in high demand. If so, that’s great – dig in. Also look at the skills required to do the jobs that are listed. Will you be learning those skills in your new job? If not, think twice.
The bottom line is that your objective in taking a job out of college is to prepare yourself to get a better one as soon as you can – either within the same company or elsewhere. If you’re not constantly thinking about this, then you’ll find yourself working in the same place years from now, with little to show for it. Of course, I know that the perfect job isn’t just out there waiting for you to choose it. You may have to suck up a shitty job until you can find what you want. The stark and unpleasant reality of being young and inexperienced is that work, for you, is likely to be less than pleasant. The good news is that most of your contemporaries will bitch and moan about it, rather than planning their next move. This gives the forward thinker the leg up. Be willing to pay your dues, but only in pursuit of your dreams and not the dreams of your boss or some faceless corporation.
5. Time is to be spent and invested wisely. This is the most precious of resources, and the good news is that you get lots of it for nothing when you start out. A standard problem with young people is the desire to live in the moment. This is nothing new. However, the key to getting to the good life is balancing how much time you spend on the moment and how much time you spend on the future, and it is truly a balance. He who spends all his time thinking about today is doomed when tomorrow comes around. Conversely, he who spends all his time worrying about tomorrow misses life entirely. Here’s a good rule of thumb. Assuming you sleep 8 hours a night, you have 16 hours left. Spend 12 on the future and 4 on today – roughly a 3 to 1 ratio. Presumably, your job counts as time spent on the future (at least it should). If you work 8-10 hours a day, you still need to spend a few hours on the future. That leaves a solid chunk of time to just play, and you need that.
Time invested in the future could be anything from working out (your health is your future), reading (gaining knowledge for the future), engaging in artistic endeavors (your emotional outlets are tied to your mental health and sometimes to your financial future), and working on projects of all types. Your “in the moment” time is your release. Party. Have fun. Socialize. It’s okay to spend time doing things that seemingly have no long-term value, for many of them often end up having long-term value after all. For example, I have always been a social kind of person. I like to go out get my swerve on as much as anyone, and through that I’ve met all of the people with whom I have close relationships today (family excluded, of course). Furthermore, I’ve learned a lot about my fellow man by interacting on a regular basis, which leads me to the next point.
6. Focus on your people skills. I once held a job as a consultant in a company that only hired Ivy Leaguers. I was the exception, mainly because I talked my way into the job. Anyhow, while my colleagues were all very intelligent and very committed to their work, most of them were socially inept. They had spent so much time nose down in the school books that they hadn’t developed their social skills. What became obvious in very short order was that I was far and away better at my job than they were – not because I knew more (I didn’t) or was smarter (I wasn’t), but because business is conducted between human beings, and I am better at dealing with humans than eggheads from Harvard. The point is that social education is every bit as important as scholarly education. Try to understand what motivates people and why. That means ask questions and learn to listen. Be interested in people because you can learn something from anyone, and I mean anyone. Be mindful of how people perceive you – you’ll often learn that your impression of yourself is distinctly different from how others see you. This doesn’t mean you become a jellyfish conformist. It just means that you become aware of what’s going on in the minds of other people. This skill, above all others, I would say has led to whatever success I have achieved in life. And, get this, it’s the most fun one to develop. Also – a little axiom to carry around with you is this – expect more from yourself and less from other people. Trust me on that.
7. As for money, the most important thing I can tell you is to learn to say no to your desires. Avoid debt at all costs, and if you’re like most young people and you already have some, set a course to get rid of it as fast as possible. The good life is simply impossible when you’re carrying financial debt. Of course, there are things like mortgages that most everyone carries. However, if your philosophy is to avoid debt as much as possible, you’ll go far. For example, it is common to get a new job and immediately run out and buy a nice new car. Resist that. Buy a car that is a few years old and doesn’t cost a fortune. Your instincts toward impressing your contemporaries coupled with the lures of easy credit will tempt you in the other direction. Always remember that nothing is more impressive than being able to do what you want, when you want, for as long as you want. You’re not there yet, and buying an expensive car is a good way to ensure that you’ll never get there. Why? Because it’s all about money out versus money in.
You want to maximize your income and minimize your expenses. This is the part about saying no to yourself. Your expenses will go up and up if you can’t say no to that new outfit or that cool vacation. The idea is that you are a little company unto yourself. You want to make a profit right away, and then you want to increase your profits until such time that your profits allow you to eliminate your job all together. For more on this, I highly recommend reading, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. It’s a virtual road map to financial independence.
The bottom line with money is that your lifestyle as a young person should not reflect how much money you make now. It should reflect your desire to have vast riches later. You can take comfort in knowing that your buddies driving BMWs with $500/month lease notes will be green with envy in a few years when you can buy a car and pay cash for it. Living poor now to get rich before you’re forty is the new cool. Trust me on that.
8. Lastly, let’s talk about love. As they say, here be dragons. Love is wonderful – nothing feels better – but it is also extremely dangerous. Your ancient animal mind is very tuned to love, and will urge you to pursue it all costs. Fortunately, however, you have a rational mind that is capable of reigning in your animal mind. Use it. Think about what you want out of love – you want it to last, and you want it to make you better, not worse. That means you are discerning about who you fall in love with. They say that you don’t get to pick who you fall in love with. I think that’s BS. While it may be true that the feeling of love is largely outside of our control, it is also true that we are in control of whether we are in situations where love may emerge.
Think about it like this. Every person you encounter could be a potential love relationship – some more likely than others. When the possibility is more likely (as in, you meet someone around your age to whom you’re romantically attracted), your first order of business is determine if this is the kind of person to be in love with. You’re putting people through a selection process. Those who indicate that they may not be long-termers (as in, he or she has a history of cheating on boyfriends/girlfriends), then your best bet is to limit time spent with that person. Similarly, if the person engages in dangerous, criminal, or unhealthy behaviors, best keep your distance. The key is that you get to know people from a distance before you get intimate with them. I know this is not en vogue these days, but trust me, it’s some of the best advice you’ll ever get. And girls, that means you withhold sex (of any kind) until you have some feel for who you’re dealing with. The good partners will stick around; the bad ones won’t. This is old school stuff, but it’s the difference between getting into positive love relationships and negative love relationships that bring you down emotionally and hinder your quest for the good life.
(Just to preempt my critics – I say this to girls and not boys because girls, more often than not, have a tendency to equate sex with love, whereas boys generally have no problem detaching the two. Like it or not, this is the reality of our species.)
So there you have it. A short course on how to get what you want out of life. The best thing is that you live in a country where anything is possible. You just have to be smart enough to filter out the crap that is handed to you on MTV and then disciplined enough to work hard and say no to yourself when prudence requires it.