advice to ambitious young people

09.18.22

written at the first time in a while not starting some kind of new cycle in the fall for education, and reflecting on what i would tell myself if i was to start it all over again.


if i could go back and tell my 17 y/o a few things they would include

3 things to 10x your journey

1. play your own game.

with a strong herd mentality causing people to decide what to do, belonging in a social setting is often unconsciously decided. the two main games played throughout school are grades and parties. 

markers of success in these games usually are badges of sleeplessness paired wither with how many hours go into problem sets or how many nights out a week. 

in the angel philosopher podcast, naval ravikant the ceo of angel list, said it took him multiple decades to figure out that he liked hanging out without being tempted to have to drink.

both of the above are also finite games meaning they are over as soon as they end. grades do not guarantee interesting paths when classes finish up, and parties do not guarantee meaningful friendships when the sun comes up.

one way to play your own game is to do something because you want to, not because it’s on the syllabus or because it’s set ahead for you by someone else. if you don’t know what you want, that’s okay. that’s your main goal: do things to figure out what you want.

🎯 practice: at the end of each week answer this one question: “am i doing what i want to?”

while seemingly simple at first, it’s challenging to cut through the mimetic influence from the environment, family, and friends. asking it repeatidly will help filter through some of the noise.

if the question is too intimidating and you don’t know where to start, some ways to break it down:

tip: make sure this time is on your calendar or it won’t get done. if you process outwardly, socialize it into a ritual — find a good local spot and do it the same time every week with a squad.

when you do figure out what you want to do, figure out what that means in the best in the world context. school will not stretch your ambition, and don’t let that limit you.

2. make a portfolio of projects.

this is common for architecture and design students because everything is a project that is documented showing process and problems solved. no matter your path, figure out a way to turn what you are working on into a side project and publish proof of work publically.

keeping a personal website is a helpful way to tell your story, and individual pages and unlock unique opportunities with specificity. 

if you need some ideas for what a portfolio looks like:

if you need inspiration, find tutorials and “how to’s” online. you are not the first person to work on a project in the area you are interested in. replicating what’s been done is the best place to start.

the top mistake i’ve seen others make is also limiting themselves to their major. “oh, i can’t code that because i’m not in cs.” don’t let your major limit what you build, follow your curiosity instead. 

some things to spark your curiosity:

🎯 practice: send a quarterly email update for everyone in your network with your top project and a personal update.

this is a way to build a stronger network of people who get to feel a part of your journey. it doubles as an accountability mechanism as you have to do something worth sending in an update.

and if you are looking for ways to build things outside of school, go to hackathons. you can do in one weekend what most will not do in a semester.

3. run 1 year hypotheses

each quarter is a chance to experiment with who you want to become and explore what you find interesting in the world.

thinking at a longer time scale to the full year ahead is helpful because you can plan for your ideal summer first and then work backwards. what skills, knowledge and network would you need to get that ideal summer experience?

while in school, each summer is a test bed for working with different people on different projects or having different life experiences, and you can use the year to prep for it.

this will help with focus and should have compounding advantages as most people don’t a) test personal hypotheses, they only work at the name brand internships or b) plan for a year, as they let the funnel of their coursework decide the momentum of their path ahead.

some examples:

the best thing about running a summer as a hypothesis, is you get to collect data to see if you were right or wrong if you want that kind of summer to happen again.

i’m still running 1 year hypotheses to figure out different things, like which city to live in. experience is one of the best data points, which can get lost if there’s not a knack for seeking out new ones or reflecting on ones had. 

🎯 practice: write down what your ideal summer will be and leave it by your bed side. bonus: make a phone and desktop wallpaper that reflects that visually back at you.

napoleon hill mentions in think and grow rich that all achievement starts with having a burning desire for something. if you don’t want something bad enought to look at it daily on your phone passively, then keep exploring.

some more perspective

4. build your “T”

go deep in some areas and continue to expand your breadth of knowledge in others. get enough depth to be dangerous and apply knowledge to do something in an area, and breadth is about connecting dots back to problems at hand. 

5. be patiently impatient

i thought i had to have it all figured out by first year in college. the self set pressure i put on myself had a good rooting for creating a synthetic sense of urgency to figure more out. no one will push you to get things done, so it’s good to figure out what motivates yourself. 

what i was missing from that equation was also patience for a longer time horizon. the larger the ambition the longer the time horizon needed. 

my favorite piece of advice when getting ready to start a startup is “will you want to work on this for the next 10 years?” it immediately shifts perspective out of the short term excitement of thinking something is a good idea and evaluate it in a backdrop of relevance for a large part of life. also, it’s the minimum time frame for startups to make sizeable impact. 

6. develop a bias towards action

there’s no culture of immediacy from school. everything moves at its own pace, which is relatively slow. spending the last 5 years in startups, the opposite could not be more true, where each day and week is meaningful for the ability to make progress and do something.

make your own pace and test how responsive you can be and quickly you can move. this is a good edge to understand about your own self limits. 

one tip is done > perfect. in the real world, there is no such thing as a 100%, so look out for diminishing returns on time. 

7. ask for feedback

without feedback, there is no opportunity to grow. seek feedback early and often from the smartest people around you both to learn and to continually get better.

in architecture school it’s common because every week we had to pin up our work to get critical feedback on it. continuing this to advisers for technical projects and peers for writing has been invaluable for perspective seeking and leveling up skills. 

8. find your squad

a squad is a group of 3–5 people who all care about each other’s growth. this is something tks taught me. as i had individual friends i would sync with regularly but no group.

once a week, head to a good coffee spot, bagel bar, or a good place to walk, and reflect on week passed and week ahead.

  1. what were your top 3 goals this week? how did they go?
  2. any blockers or challenges you are seeking perspective on.
  3. what are the top thigs you want done before next squad sync?

what i have found works well, is socratic method when sharing. everyone can only ask questions to help the individual discover insights, as it will take a while of listening before anything sharing.

9. explore with intention.

there is so much opportunity in the world that does not fit into a traditional paths in school, spend time exploring to see for yourself.

explore how the world works. listen to smart people on podcasts, like kunal shah on the knowledge project or check out interesting newsletters like mit tech or axios to learn about what’s happening in the world.

explore new skillsets. write cold emails like sam parr, who built a $20M business at the hustle. try out how to time block like elon musk for a calendar with clear priorities. learn python free from google.

explore new tools, like figma for making a logo or an odin kit for in dorm gene editing experiments.

be intentional with the why and the how and what will follow.

10. keep a long view.

it’s so easy to get wrapped up in what’s in front of you. 

most of that is not what will matter in 5 years.

to find what matters, keeping in mind that we all die in the end is helpful. tim urban’s “the tail end” blog shared how many pizzas would be shared with relatives not in the same city. the frequency drops to 2x a year for holidays, and seeing in one square grid of emojis on screen shared moments, helped realize that where you live matters. 

11. have one day a week where you are meeting people for >3 hours.

discovering this was a happy accident. as an introvert, i found that i enjoyed 1–1 conversations better than group talks. 

by the time i was running cornell’s accelerator, i had days with 6–8 hours straight of lunch meetings, walk and talks, and team calls. and i didn’t know this was not normal, until i had a team member follow me around for an afternoon curious to see how i spent my time. 

by focusing on one day, there is minimal switching cost. scheduling is also easy as there will always be the next tuesday.

12. seek unconventional experiences.

travel abroad for 2–4 weeks if you can in an emerging market. time in kenya and india were most eye opening for me personally. i met amazing people and got to volunteer with teachers and farmers to see a whole different way of living. and if you need money to make it happen, figure it out. 

spend weekends away in new york city or san francisco for interesting evernts or interesting people. it’s both a way to see how the most ambitious live, as well as test possible cities to live in. 

for building that portfolio, explore the biggest hackathons or work with friends outside of normal day to day. what’s pursued on the weekend, often finds its way to be the main thing weekdays. 

13. surround yourself with the best in the world

build relationships outside of campus. this is one of the biggest mistakes i made as i thought the campus ecosystem had all the things. it was an illusion of all the things. the most interesting people are spread across different research labs, startups, and cities. 

this can start by learning from the best in the world. online classes or podcasts make it easy to start. linkedin is 🔑.

14. maintain a day one mindset

that first day is one of optimism, hope, and hustle. everything is new, so there is no option but to figure it out and experiment. 

bezos mentions that it all starts to go away on day two.

to me this is about staying away from complacency. every day is a refresh and reset. work towards keeping that day one edge. 

15. don’t get the mini fridge.

okay, this is a more personal faux paux when moving away from home. i fell into the marketing trap that i couldn’t survive in dorms without a small ice box. 

this is false. there is plenty of food around, and you don’t need to change yourself by living somewhere else.

next time, move first, and see what’s needed second. 

do what makes sense for you. 

the growth and learning only continues 

i’m surprised by how much i continue to learn about myself and the world even after school is done. i think i unintentionally inherited a previous generation’s narrative that ending school is a stopping point for some areas of knowledge. 

i like yuval harari’s point that the world is changing so quickly, that the main skill needed to succeed by 2050 will be reinventing one’s self. 

keep learning and keep growing, with an environment that challenges you, friends that support you, and a purposeful path that excites you. 

everything above are principles that are just as meaningful now as they wre the day i discovered them in the last decade. 

tl’dr

  1. play your own game by asking yourself each week if you’re doing what you want to or are you following what others have laid out for you.
  2. make a portfolio of projects and send a quarterly email update to your network to increase serendipity and build connection.
  3. test 1 year hypotheses by figuring out what your ideal summer is and work backwards intentionally.
  4. build your “T”. seek depth in application and breadth of knowledge in connecting dots. 
  5. be patiently impatient. have a sense of urgency to get things done, and be patient for your ambition. 
  6. develop a bias towards action. don’t let other people set your pace. test how fast and responsive you can be. 
  7. ask for feedback. always be seeking perspective. 
  8. find your squad. make meaningful relationships that support your long term growth. 
  9. explore with intention. find different skillsets, mindsets, and knowledge. 
  10. keep a long view. the longest view being end of life, but a 5–10 year time horizon will also do. this will help filter what’s important. 
  11. have a meeting day weekly with 3+ hours blocked off to meet new people.
  12. seek unconventional experiences. travel to see other countries and cultures is one of the best ways to understand how big the world is. 
  13. surround yourself with the best in the world. learn from and connect with those who are the top of their game. 
  14. maintain a day one mindset. be allergic to complacency. 
  15. don’t get the mini fridge. do what makes sense for you. 

h/t to @zayn @sriya and @anuraj for the conversations that inspired this piece.


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