Advice for Graduating Seniors: What I’d Tell Myself if I Could Go Back
A few years ago, before my first book was released, I gave a talk to my high school AP English teacher’s class of graduating seniors, some of which I’ve published before. I realized that a lot of what I shared applies to people graduating from college as well. One of my dreams in life is to speak at a college commencement, but I haven’t cured cancer, built a unicorn, or done anything warrants an invitation yet. So I decided just to write this.
If you’re graduating from college or high school, you’re 4 months away from one of the most significant inflection points in your life.
There’s no other time in your life when you have so much freedom, and your life is ripe with so many possibilities. There’s no time more ideal to take risks, get into an epic adventure, and write your own script.
Not too long ago… well actually almost 22 years ago (time which will go by in the blink of an eye for you), I was sitting exactly where you’re sitting, doing what you’re doing, on the verge of finishing high school, or graduating from college, at a time and a place in my life much like the one you’re in, when in the words of elle luna“Nothing is known and everything is possible.”
So I thought that I would share with you the advice that I would give myself if I could go back and talk to the 18 or 22 year old version of me, a version with narcissistic ego-driven ambitions that came back to bite me in the ass over and over.
Ironically, if I had known everything I’m about to tell you, I may not be here telling it to you. That’s the thing about being so young. You think you know everything.
So in no particular order of importance, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned on this journey.
Chances are you’ve given a lot of thought to the following question.
What do you want to do with your life?
It’s a loaded question because despite what you might think, you hardly know who you are. You’ve only lived a small fraction of your life. You might be tempted to answer that question with how you plan to earn a living. But there’s a difference between what you plan to do with your life and how you plan to earn a living. So often, you inherit your goals from the world around you instead of basing them on your lived experience.
When you don’t limit the answer to that question to how you’re going to pay rent, you open yourself up for a hell of a ride.
Even though you’ve probably spent the last 20 years of your life searching for the right answers in order to get good grades, pass AP tests, get into the college of your dreams or land the highest paying job, and become masters of the universe, I’m not sure there are any right answers. And even if there are, I encourage you to search for interesting ones.
- Make a list of EVERYTHING you plan to DO with your life.
- Write it down in a notebook and always carry it.
- Don’t worry about how crazy or insane it sounds or how it’s ever going to happen. Just make the list.
- At the end of every year, see how many things you’ve managed to cross off.
The greatest thing that you can do with your life is to make it interesting.
One of the best ways to do that is with experiences. Unlike your possessions, your experiences will be with you until you die. Your memories will remain timeless.
When I was looking around my living room the other night, I realized I don’t have any of the material possessions that I acquired in my 20’s. There’s a diminishing return on happiness of material goods. Everything new becomes old and everything eventually becomes your new normal.
As you get older, fatter, and slower (which I know sounds unlikely to you right now), some of the experiences you’re curious about might not be possible. This is true for physical activities like surfing, snowboarding, and anything else that might cause you to break a bone, because you will eventually reach a point when broken bones don’t heal.
The author Neil Gaiman refers to his list as “the mountain”, and he said that as long as he kept walking towards the mountain he knew he’d be alright. That’s the first piece of advice I’d give to you and my younger self. Don’t walk away from the mountain.
Maybe you have plans….
Even a career in mind. If you have Indian parents, some options might have been implicitly or explicitly suggested to you:
Do you want to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer?
Maybe you’ve had this conversation at your kitchen table with your parents. I wish someone had told me that you don’t have to choose from the options in front of you. There’s a whole set that you’ll find if you’re just willing to look for them.
But I didn’t look for them. My plan included Berkeley in the fall, straight A’s, and some high profile job that I could eventually brag about on my resume. Which takes us to the question….
What is school for?
- To attend the greatest party of your life and have lots of sex if you weren’t cool enough to do that in high school?
- To change the world?
Ideally both. And I know this because I managed to do neither. I had a map and a plan. I thought about being an English major and I went to a career fair on campus two weeks after school started. A recruiter at Accenture told me they didn’t hire English majors. So I dropped that idea. Every single choice I made from that point forward was based on what I thought would lead to a job.
I didn’t get straight A’s. I never got the high profile job.
Because of that, I wasted one of the greatest gifts that was ever given to me: Berkeley, with a world of possibilities that I would have seen if I hadn’t just been looking at the options in front of me.
That’s what a college campus is. It’s a world filled with possibilities, opportunities, people to meet, and things to try. There’s so much more for you than the ability to study and get good grades. As Chris Sacca once said, “Your GPA only matters to people who have no other reason to find you interesting.”
So give people a reason to find you interesting and don’t let the options in front of you blind you to the possibilities that surround you.
Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up and get a real job. Embrace your curiosity. Study how to make films, cook delicious food, make good art and other things that seem like they have no practical purpose.
I started writing and using the internet to create towards the end of college. I never had an audience or a way to share my work with the world. But 20 years later, it all came full circle. Without knowing it, I had planted the seeds for my work as an author, podcast host, and producer of an animated series. But I still experienced only a fraction of what I could have if I hadn’t been so rigid about my plans.
There’s great value in activities that seem like they have no practical purpose, in creating art for an audience of one.
If you indulge your curiosity, you’re much more likely to find a calling. That beats the hell out of a career.
Maybe college isn’t part of your plan. The good news is there are other ways to attend the greatest party of your life, have lots of sex, and change the world. And given the rising cost of tuition, they’re probably more cost effective.
The beautiful thing about being young is that you have no real responsibilities. You can take big risks, the kind that your parents, peers, and society might initially frown upon, but will ultimately cause you to grow in ways you never imagined.
Some of my happiest, most successful, and most interesting friends are the ones who did stints as ski bums, meditated at Ashrams in India, back packed around the world, and worked at jobs that were interesting, and a questionable use of their degree before they became “productive members of society.”
Just because something is the next logical step in society’s life plan, it doesn’t mean it’s the right step for you.
When it Comes to Your Career
You might be tempted to pick the job with the highest paycheck or the one that is going to look best on your resume. I encourage you to look for the one that gives you the most responsibility, the one that might not pay much right now, but increases your earning potential. Ask yourself the following questions when you consider each opportunity:
- How am I going to grow?
- How am I going to learn?
- Will this turn me into the next best version of myself?
- Am I going to look forward to doing this every day?
If you use these as the filters for your career choices, you’ll pay more attention to what you find engaging, become the author of your story, and increase the odds of becoming the architect of your destiny. As Tina Seelig once said to me, “Passion follows engagement.”
Remember there’s so much more to you than can possibly be expressed through bullet points on a resume or a job title.
On Measuring Your Life
We live in a world filled with countless ways to measure your life. You can measure it with fans, followers, traffic, downloads, book sales, bank balances, and social status.
Or you can measure it with the hearts you touch, time spent on things you care about with people you care about, and anything else that has an infinite value that can’t be measured. Nothing has caused me to suffer more than measuring me mine with the former, and nothing has made happier than to measure it with the latter.
When it Doesn’t go According to Plan….
Even if you have this whole journey all mapped out, it probably won’t go according to plan. Besides, what fun would that be if you knew how it was all going to turn out?
I graduated into 2 recessions.
- The first was in December 2001
- The second was from graduate school in April 2009
One of those recessions some of you grew up with, the other you probably have little recollection of. Just imagine a time when there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no iPhone, and no Instagram. I know what you’re thinking. “Damn, that dude is really old.”
At 31, I was broke, had two degrees and a resume that looked a bit more like a rap sheet.
- I got fired from my first job out of college
- I got laid off from my second one 3 weeks after I started. But, I guess Ben Horowitz saw it fit that I got 2 months of severance pay for my 3 weeks at Loudcloud (thanks Ben)
- I got fired from my next job on my 25th birthday
- I left my next job just before I was about to be fired
- I finally bailed out to grad school after getting laid off and almost fired again
In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman says “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.” I’m not sure my feathers were too bright, but it was pretty clear I wasn’t meant to be caged.
So I turned to the two things that have become the driving force of my life: surfing and writing. I finally did what I wish I had figured out when I was your age.
I ditched my map for a compass
A map is great if you want to go where people have been before. A compass, even though uncertain and unpredictable, will cause you to pave new paths, and lead you to unexpected and amazing places. So for the last 10 years, I’ve trusted my compass.
It hasn’t always been fun. It hasn’t always been easy. It hasn’t been perfect, but it’s always been interesting.
- I wrote every single day…until I was writing 1000 words a day, which changed my life.
- I started a show called The Unmistakable Creative that thousands of people around the world listen to today.
- Since I couldn’t achieve anything worthy of being invited to speak at TED, I planned my own conference, and convinced 9 friends to speak and 60 attendees to show up.
When I applied to business school, I had a dream of working in media and entertainment. I wanted to work in television and pick what went on the air. I got rejected by NYU Stern and Columbia, and I got waitlisted at USC. When I started my MBA at Pepperdine, I realized that nobody hired MBA’s to do creative work in the entertainment industry.
But in some round about way, I do work in media and entertainment. Now, I don’t just choose what goes on the air. I create it. Deep down, that’s what I wanted the most. Creative dreams come true in unexpected ways.
There was also a time when I almost quit. That’s the thing about a life in the arts.
- It will test your commitment
- It will push you to your breaking point
- It will cause you to stretch and grow
- It will make the people in your life question your sanity and wonder, “Where is all this is going?”
Because I wasn’t sure what else to do with myself, I told my parents, “Give me until the end of the year, and if it hasn’t worked out, I’ll quit and I’ll get a real job.” Two months later, an editor found my work online and about a month ago, I got an offer with Penguin Portfolio to write two books. That happened right after I was almost ready to throw in the towel.
Have there been hard things? Sure.
- I’ve seen my friends lose their parents, some lose spouses, and others lose their kids.
- I’ve fought my own battles with debilitating depression.
- I’ve faced profound uncertainty and discomfort which is the price of admission for a meaningful life.
People will break your heart, betray your trust, and disappoint you. But for everyone of them, someone else will warm your heart, earn your trust, and delight you. Don’t punish the people who love you because of the people who hurt you. That’s how you end up closing your heart.
Life is a combo of soul smashing and beautiful things, none of which you can really prepare for. But its also filled with “tiny beautiful things”, as Cheryl Strayed would say.
So I’ll leave you with this, which I hope you’ll take to heart more than anything else I’ve said :
May your eyes be clear.
May your hearts be full.
May curiosity rule your senses.
May enthusiasm ignite your actions.
May you see what can’t be seen by the world around you.
May you make the impossible possible.
May you strip away your fears, your expectations, your doubts, and unleash upon the world your gift of boundless originality that resides within…
May you steal like an artist, (when appropriate) as I have throughout this speech, from people more eloquent and more accomplished, who don’t make typos, grammar mistakes, and questionable fuck ups for a person who writes about how to succeed as a writer on the internet.
Let your life be filled with the magic of hours that feel like minutes, and minutes that feel like seconds.
Let it be filled with words that sound like music, paintings that look like movies, and people who touch your heart.
Let it be filled with sunsets, sun rises, perfect waves, long drawn out kisses in the rain, chocolate cake with ice cream, and moments that flash before your eyes like a montage when you die.
Let go of the injustices you want to nurse and your resentment towards the lovers who broke your heart, the bosses who fired you, and the friends that betrayed you. These are all just part of living what my friend Pamela Slim calls a “full-color, full-contact life”. It’s much better to travel with a light heart than heavy baggage. That way your temporary circumstances won’t become your permanent identity.
Treasure the time you have left with people who matter most to you because nothing is more precious.
Forgive your parents for the countless hours you’ve spent or are going to spend in therapy because of how they raised you. They were doing their best with what they had. They were acting on what they knew. The fatal flaw of our humanity is that nobody really knows what they’re doing, particularly if they’ve been given the of job of turning a helpless human into a productive member of society.
When you arrive at the crossroads of should and must, choose must. When you must choose between the map and the compass, embrace the compass.
When you have a choice between the most efficient way to get somewhere or the scenic route, take the scenic route. It will give you twice as many reasons to stop, twice as many experiences to treasure, and twice as many memories to take to your grave.
Make living your art, and life your canvas. And remember…you, like the gods, were born to create.
Note: If you’re a parent, I hope you’ll consider sharing this with your kids. If you’re a professor, teacher, or educator of any kind I hope you’ll share it with your students.
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