Advice to a Young Graduate

2022-May-03

I was recently approached by a young graduate of computer engineering as she was struggling with deciding on a direction for her life post-graduation. Coming from an Eastern culture, she had always followed the straight and narrow path that her parents and family laid in front of her. She enrolled in computer engineering because that seemed to pay well. Now nearing graduation, she got a job offer from Amazon, and she accepted due to pressure from her family. Yet she was sitting in front of me, questioning whether following this predictable and safe path is really all there is.

I told her how I made my decisions and how I see the world, which is all I can really do. (This may have consisted of encouraging her to 'break the script' and consider even not taking the Amazon offer altogether). But those things are specific to me. I decided to take the path less travelled. I did that because I have a contrarian streak. That won't be the right answer for everyone.

In hindsight, I could have told her something better. I could've told her things that would be true and helpful in figuring out what kind of life you want to build regardless of your personal traits. I didn't tell her some of these things because they seem obvious to me now, but I realized that they weren't always obvious.

Here is some advice that would be fairly universal:

  • Study people who are accomplished in their field and try to tease out common characteristics. Then focus on cultivating those that resonate with you.
  • When studying others' accomplishments, always see yourself in their shoes. They are just as human. If they did it, so can you - but only if you want it bad enough.
  • While studying others can be a source of inspiration, know that you'll never be them. Your life is a journey in discovering your capabilities and potential. Role models are great, but emulation is deadly.
  • Allocate time for random experiences that are outside of your comfort zone. Our social conditioning trains us to view the world in a fixed, limited way. To discover new possibilities, it's important to introduce an element of randomness.
  • When making a difficult decision, go for the harder choice. If the easy choice was the right one, it would have been an easy decision.
  • When making a difficult decision, pick the option that would be most memorable.
  • Be wary of people who are overly sure of themselves. Nobody has figured this out, including your humble correspondent.
  • Work on personal development but not too much. It's important to check one's ego, deal with adversity, and connect with people. But don't dwell on these or make them the centrepiece of your life.
  • Large numbers don't make right. Many people can be wrong at the same time. Don't let consensus compromise your thinking.
  • Study the psychology of human misjudgement to learn the most common errors people make in their lives.
  • When seeking the opinions of others, remember their biases. The professor will tell you to get a PhD, the entrepreneur will tell you to build businesses, the corporate ladder climber will tell you to climb corporate ladders, and your hair dresser will you tell you you need a haircut. These people are all biased. To get better insight, ask people for their mistakes. There will be more truth in the mistakes than in what people think has gone well.
  • Goals are good and you should have them. But systems are better.
  • As long as you're happy, there are no rules. You don't have to have some insane ambition. You don't have to do anything. You have to be able to provide for yourself. Everything else is up for debate.
  • Do drugs – nothing too strong and not too much.