A few weeks ago, a family friend whose son is starting college in the fall visited my parents’ house. My career and life are the opposite of Indian cultural expectations. I didn’t become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. I became a writer and podcast host and made up a job out of nothing. As I like to joke, God made a sorting error when he gave me to an Indian family.
After talking to this soon-to-be college freshman, I was a bit taken aback when his parents said to my dad, “I think your son has some really good advice.” So I decided to write an article and tell you what I wish I’d known when I started college.
Part 1: Things to Contemplate When You Start
The Smarter You Think You Are, the Dumber You Probably Are
If you’re one of those people who got straight A’s in school, you’re good at following instructions, doing what the teacher says, etc. But in life, you’ll have to learn to answer questions that have no right or wrong answers.
For the first time in your life, you’ll be terrible at something or fail, even though you thought you could do it. If you think you’re stupid because you didn’t get good grades, you’ll be glad to hear that life gives you tests first and lessons second. And even people who got straight A’s in school can’t study for those tests.
There Are No Right Answers to Life’s Big Questions
Unlike the exam questions in school, there are no real answers to the big questions of life: What’s important? What does it mean to be happy? How much is enough? There are only answers that are right for you.
I’m sorry to tell you now that you’re too young, stupid, naive, and full of shit to really understand. But don’t worry about it. So is every other 18 year old who I probably pissed off by writing this.
The World Doesn’t Owe You a Damn Thing
As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there and for what being there can do for them — William Deresiewicz, The End of Solitude
If you are at an elite university, your risk of entitlement is higher than average.
The name on your degree opens the door to opportunities denied to others. But what matters is what you do after you walk through the door.
Being willing to confront your own insignificance is an antidote to not becoming an asshole. Oliver Burkeman calls this cosmic insignificance therapy.
Just because you went to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or any other elite school of your choice, the world doesn’t owe you anything, no matter what the principal or dean tells you at the orientation ceremony. You’re not special, you’re privileged.
And if I haven’t bruised your 18-year-old ego, read on. The rest of my advice won’t upset you as much.
Part 2: Advice for Navigating Life in College
Be Like Van Wilder to Build an Amazing Social Life
There’s no time in your life when it’s easier to meet new people. If you haven’t seen the movie Van Wilder, you should watch it before you start your studies. Van has an exceptional social life because he doesn’t discriminate against anyone and tries to make friends with everyone. Everyone has a story worth telling, and it’s worth getting to know him if you ask the right questions.
Join a student group that’s of a different ethnicity than you. As a bonus, you’ll meet the most attractive women and men in that group. One of my non-Indian classmates was a member of the Indian student group at Berkeley and met his wife that way.
Choose an activity that puts you in contact with a variety of people on a weekly basis. Write for a newspaper, a college magazine, an audition for a play, etc. Because you spend so much time with these people, some of them become friends for life.
Build a social life where you get to know different people, perspectives, and ideas. You’ll leave college with more empathy and confidence and be less naive about how the world really is.
Learn to Exploit Loopholes and See Reality as Malleable
There are all kinds of bullshit and bureaucracy in universities that prevent you from opening the doors you want to open. The beauty of this bureaucracy is that it’s full of loopholes that you can exploit to your advantage if you learn to see reality as malleable.
When one of my friends wasn’t accepted to business school at Berkeley, he didn’t appeal. Instead, he took all the classes to graduate. Two weeks before graduation, he came to the dean’s office and said, “My parents are coming to graduation on Sunday. Will you let me walk or not?
You can get away with almost anything if you do it with a bit of swagger and a smile on your face. There’s always a crowd at the front door. It’s easier to get in somewhere if you knock on the door that doesn’t have a crowd in front of it.
If you’re studying at a public university, print this lesson out and keep it with you, because you’ll have a lot more bureaucratic bullshit to deal with than freshmen at private universities.
Disclaimer: Rick Senger isn’t a role model for following the above advice.
Read These Books to Study Less and Get Better Grades
When you’re in high school, there’s a structure imposed on you. You’re basically stuck in the same place for 8 hours a day.
- Getting straight A’s in high school isn’t a sign of intelligence, it’s a sign of discipline. Any idiot can get straight A’s in high school with a little effort.
- In college, you might’ve two classes a day. But your life will be filled with parties, friends, the opportunity to have sex, adjusting to freedom you’ve never experienced, and other daily distractions.
Getting up for a class at 8 a.m. will be harder than you think. What worked in high school won’t work in college.
The following books will help you study less and get better grades.
- How to be a Straight A Student in College by Cal Newport
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
- How to Take Smart Notes by Sonkhe Ahrens
- Building a Second Brain by Tiago Forte
- Mastery by Robert Greene
If you read the above books, you will learn how to study less and get better grades.
Always Carry a Notebook
Keep this notebook separate from those you use to take notes in class. This is a notebook that you’ll use to build your self-knowledge and self-awareness. Since there’s no instruction manual for life, you must write it yourself.
Notebooks are fertile soil for life lessons that you can’t and won’t get from reading books or attending lectures.
- Write about moments that make you laugh, experiences that make you cry, and people that touch your heart.
- Every experience and every person teaches us a lesson, and if you record each one, you can create an instruction manual with your own personal philosophies of life.
- Turn off your damn phone and take some time each day to observe, reflect and write.
Your notebook will become a tool for building self-knowledge that will serve you for the rest of your life. Always carry a notebook.
You Have All the Time in the World and None at All
College distorts time in ways you’ve never experienced before. In high school, 8 hours pass at a snail’s pace. But when you live in a dorm, 8-hour conversations with friends pass like the blink of an eye. As you get older, each year will feel faster.
All of this is to say that time isn’t money: it’s much more valuable than that because it’s your only non-renewable resource. Spend it wisely with people you care about and on things you care about.
Go to Therapy
If your university offers free therapy, you should take advantage of it, because seeing a therapist will cost a lot more in the real world. Waiting until shit hits the fan before going to therapy is like waiting until your car breaks down on the side of the road before taking it in for repairs. Therapy will not make you immune to bad things. But it will enable you to handle them better when they happen.
Learn to Regulate Your Emotions
Anyone who tells you that you should go through life as a Zen Buddhist on ecstasy with a shit-eating grin is either full of shit or on drugs. Uncontrolled emotions destroy dreams and your life. If you don’t learn to regulate your emotions, breakups break you, crises become catastrophes, and what’s bad will get worse.
Everything You Want Requires Risk
You must accept the risk of heartbreak to experience love, the risk of failure to experience success, and the risk of disappointment and sorrow to experience joy. Anything that gives meaning to your life carries the risk that it won’t turn out the way you imagined, or that you’ll not receive it at all.
Part 3: Advice to Help You Design Your Future
Follow Your Curiosity Instead of Your Passion
Right now, you have the gift of time and the freedom to follow your curiosity wherever it takes you. This will make your parents uncomfortable in the short term because they may think you are directionless and you think you know what to do with your life. They are wrong, and so are you, because at 18 you barely know yourself.
The advice to follow your passion is a meaningless platitude that sounds good in self-help books, TED talks, and graduation speeches. But for many people, it’s a road to nowhere, or worse, poverty.
If you think I’m raining on your passion parade keep reading (it’s not as bad as you think)
When successful people say, “Follow your passion,” they often give this advice after the fact. And because of survivorship bias, we think it’s good advice, but it’s usually not. It’s hard for anyone to know how they want to spend the rest of their life when they’ve only lived a fraction of it.
Passion isn’t something you follow. It’s something you discover by following your curiosity and paying attention to what you find interesting. If you follow your curiosity and not your passion, you’re much more likely to discover something you love.
Collect Lots of Dots
In his famous graduation speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs said you can only connect the dots by looking back. But the part he left out was that you collect them looking forward.
Use this time to accumulate lots of dots. The more dots you collect, the more you have to connect when you look back.
Knowing What You Want to Do With Your Life Is Overrated
The more certain you are about what you want to do with your future, the less likely you are to be among the top performers in your field. The path of outliers and top performers in their fields is almost never linear.
Robert Greene was 37 years old and had countless jobs before he became a best-selling author. The career path of almost all successful entrepreneurs, artists, and cultural icons is full of dead ends and detours that have led them to where they are today.
- People who know what they want to do are more successful in the short run. Top performers have longer sampling Periods. But in the long run, they leave their competitors in the dust.
- Longer sample periods give you the opportunity to experiment and focus on things that play to your natural strengths.
Everything you learn and do leads to transferable skills that you can use in future endeavors. But you will not be able to see how now.
In the short term, you may seem disoriented to your parents, peers, and others in your life. But it is better to be a late bloomer than not to bloom at all.
Write Your Life Plan in Pencil So You Can Erase and Revise
Many people create life plans as if they were entering a destination into Google Maps. But unlike a navigation system that gives you precise directions and tells you how long it will take to get there, life is uncertain.
- Life plans do not take into account dead ends, detours, and low points.
- Getting lost is part of a journey worth taking. If you get from A to Z without seeing anything else along the way, you miss the serendipity that might lead to a better destination.
- What you believe, who you are, and what you want will change A LOT in the next 10 years.
So choose a direction instead of a destination. Your life will be a hell of a lot more interesting.
Start Building a Career Portfolio
This whole linear sense of study work, retire, study hard, get good grades, go to university, climb a ladder, and retire is not the reality of today. That is a narrative that is not working for many people. That’s not where fulfillment and meaning are. What are you going to do with your one precious life? — April Rinne, Unmistakable Creative
When you have the freedom and time to do something creative without worrying about how to pay the bills, you have a precious gift. It does not matter if you fail, succeed, or reach an audience of one or an audience of millions.
- You are also fortunate to be studying at a time when it is easier than ever to start and build something. You have access to almost free or low-cost tools, resources, and distribution channels that some of the greatest minds of our time did not have.
- A resume is a useless commodity. There is so much more to you than can be expressed through a series of bullet points on a piece of paper. With a career portfolio, you have tangible proof of your abilities.
I have a bachelor’s degree in economics from one of the best public schools in the country, and an MBA. But no one in their right mind would hire me as an economic policy maker. And as an Indian who is bad at math (yes, we exist), I know that you can only lend money for a certain amount of time without getting it back before the roof caves in (student loan debt, for example). 20 years ago, credentials were a sign of credibility.
Today, the world is full of
- PHDs who make economic policies that destroy countries
- MBAs who are bankrupting companies
- Medical doctors who are frauds who do not practice medicine but peddle pseudoscience and new age bullshit.
- Bullshit artists with exaggerated credibility.
Prestige bias creates the illusion that people with impressive credentials are credible, even though they are full of shit. Credentials don’t make you credible. What you create does.
Don’t waste your time accumulating bullet points on a resume. Build an asset that will pay dividends for the rest of your life and give people a reason to find you interesting. Build a career portfolio.
Work in a Service Job
The more privileges one has enjoyed, the less one is aware of the fact that one has won the genetic and socioeconomic lottery. Working in food service is a good way to raise awareness of one’s privileges.
I hated working at McDonald’s. But it was one of the most formative experiences in my career. It taught me that a stepping stone for some people is a daily reality for others, and that you should never be an asshole to people who serve you food or alcohol.
Turn Prescriptions Into Principles
Prescriptive advice is a framework, not a formula. You can read articles and books about success, attend seminars, and participate in workshops. But none of this is a guarantee of success, because all prescriptive advice is contextual.
Many people will try to prescribe a path for you. This is especially true for anyone who has the blessing and burden of being born into the South Asian cultural arms race for Impressive biodata. Almost nothing is universal, and advice that changes one person’s life can fuck up another person’s.
Whenever you receive advice from someone, whether it’s a parent, a peer, an authority figure, or an expert, question the source of the information and question the validity of the advice in the context of your life. Discard the parts that don’t work for you and turn prescriptions into principles.
Life Is Not a To-Do List or Race to the Death
If you’re too busy checking off the boxes of society’s life plan (find a job, buy a house, get married, or have a child), you aren’t really living. You’re just waiting to die.
There’s nothing wrong with wishing for these things. But if you’re always thinking about the next item on the list, it’s hard to enjoy life.
Whenever I was worried about all the things that hadn’t happened in my life yet, my best friend from college would say, “Srini, it’s not a race. What are you going to do, race to your death?”
I’m 44 years old. I thought I’d be married, have kids, etc. Every decision in life is a trade-off between freedom and security. The way my life has turned out has given me the freedom to spend my entire summer in Brazil with one of my best friends (where I’m writing this article).
If I’d known one thing when I was your age, I wouldn’t have been in such a damn hurry. Don’t let the fact that your life didn’t turn out the way you thought it would stop you from enjoying it for what it is.
Yes, you will have a degree and a diploma that you can frame and hang on the wall in your office or your parents’ house. And if you have student loans, you will even receive a bill every month.
But what it represents is much more important than what it is. That piece of paper represents the friendships you make, the memories you have, and the person you become while in college. And that, more than anything, is what I wish I had known, and I hope you’ll take away from this.
People always say, “If only I had known then what I know now.” But if they had done something differently then, they would not know what they do today. No one can give you advice that will save you from making mistakes, but it can save you from repeating THEIR mistakes.
As with any advice you receive from anyone, you should consider the possibility that everything I have said above is bullshit because it could be for you. After all, this is the advice of a man who failed at college telling you you how to succeed.
Stay humble, stay curious, and remember that your future is unwritten, and how the rest unfolds is your story. Do everything you can to make it insanely interesting.
Want to Learn from my Biggest Mistakes and Avoid Repeating them?
This is the first post in a new series on my blog about What I wish I’d known when I started my career, started dating, started a business, etc. If you’re interested in keeping up with it, check out my newsletter. Click here to sign up.