Seeking Advice (for others)…

An old friend sent me the following:

Seems to me you had a somewhat unconventional education and career path. What sort of advice would you give to 20 somethings that are very bright , lacking specific direction and all those super bright ADD types out there? I’ve got 3 sons in that boat.

I’m so Glad you Asked!

I’m pretty skeptical regarding the value of advice. It’s easy to give, seldom taken, and frequently well-intentioned but misguided. But it’s fun, so what the heck. My summary recommendations for twenty-somethings:

The sooner you start these, the bigger the payoff:

  • Yoga or other systematic stretching a minimum of 3 times a week
  • Keeping a daily journal
  • Funding your 401K to capture all employer match, or 5% if none. Opening an IRA if no 401K

Education, career, and life outcomes:

  • You’re going to work 10,000 days or likely more. Getting on the right track will pay off even if it takes time.
  • Your initial circumstances, your choices and effort, and blind chance all influence your career outcomes, more or less equally.
  • Decide for yourself what outcomes you prefer. Hint: meaning matters more than stuff or momentary pleasure.
  • Identify and develop your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.
  • Show up—opportunity might not know your address.

That’s it! Keep reading for more details, or stop here and get on with your life.

The sooner you start, the bigger the payoff

These three things pay off more the earlier you start doing them. Each is an investment in the happiness of your future self. Putting them off leaves you poorer.

  • Practice yoga or some other structured stretching routine consistently. Every gain in flexibility pays off until you die. You can lose weight, you can improve your cardiovascular health, but as you get older it gets harder and harder to stretch connective tissue. It’s even better to start when you’re 5, but without a time machine you’re left with today.
  • Keep a daily journal. It’s shocking how little I remember, and what remains isn’t trustworthy. The person that wakes up in the morning isn’t the same one that went to bed committed to an early workout. That personality drift is nothing compared to what happens over decades. The person you’ll become will love reading what the person they were before thought, felt, and did.
  • Fund your 401K to capture any employer match, at a minimum, or at 5% of your salary otherwise. If no 401K, set up an IRA. The magic of compound interest/stock market performance over 40 years makes every small saving worth it. Waiting until you’re older and have more money means less time for compounding, which means you’ll have less and work longer. Invest in index funds with low fees, not individual stocks, don’t borrow against it, just leave it alone. It’s the easiest money you’ll ever make, or not make because you put it off.

10,000 days of work ahead

I think it’s hard to understand when you’re young just how long a life is. You’ll get up, do something with the day, go to bed, and repeat 14,600 times over the next 40 years, plus half again as many before you hit your current life expectancy.

10,000 times in those 40 years you’ll go to work. It’s hard to make up for 10,000 crappy days in the 4600 weekend and vacation days in between. You can try to make enough money and buy things and experiences to compensate for the crap, but for most people it’s a trap. Unless you’ve arranged to have wealthy parents you either sell time for money and end up with money and no time, or work less and have time and no money. The more you make the more you’ll work (weird but true) and the more you’ll spend, but the less time you’ll have. I recommend another path: make the journey the reward, because the journey will get your time one way or the other. If you really want to sell out, here is a chart of jobs and income.

People that know in high school exactly what career they want can get the required education or experience and start work at the earliest moment. They get a head start on growth, development, promotions, and the like. This path comes with some disadvantages as well:

  • they might find they hate the career they picked but they spent the time and money up front, making it hard to change.
  • the expected career opportunities might disappear, and they have no other experience to help shift into another.
  • they have less breadth of experience to help them understand what other people face.

If you try lots of things before committing to one you flip the advantages and disadvantages. It took me 10 years of bouncing between jobs and school before I got a degree. The month after I graduated Apple Computer relocated me to California. If I had known up front that I should get a degree, move to the bay area, and get a job developing software I would have been 6 years ahead on career advancement. Instead I was older than everyone in my management chain the last 10 years of my career. But I couldn’t have known the answer without taking that time, and I wouldn’t trade those exploratory experiences for anything, certainly not for having more money now.

In summary, you’ll spend a lot of your life working. The direct quality of that work experience will play a huge role in your life satisfaction. Taking longer up front to find a better fit for the majority of your working years makes sense. Opening up the potential opportunity space, through trying different types of work, getting a college degree, travel, public service, apprenticeships, internships, or otherwise improves your odds of finding a good fit.

Meaning and Measuring

I believe that life satisfaction mostly depends on meaning. It’s not the summing of your moment by moment emotional state. Instead it’s the reflective self considering the outcomes impacted by those moments.

This video gives some examples of core contributors to meaning: accomplishment, beauty, creation, community, duty, enlightenment, freedom, harmony, justice, oneness, redemption, security, truth, validation, and wonder. It’s not an exhaustive list but provides a good start. Finding meaningful work increases your opportunity for meaningful experiences by 3 (14,600 rather than 4,600).

While I don’t share the author’s belief system and its business-centric tone might be off-putting How Will You Measure Your Life? makes a similar case.

Develop your Strengths and Compensate for your Weaknesses

One of the best books on career guidance and development is Now Discover Your Strengths. (All of the books in the series are worthwhile, by the way.) In summary it argues that:

  • individuals are good at some things and not good at others
  • they are good at those things because they possess relevant skills, aptitudes, and interests
  • these skills, aptitudes, and interests in turn depend on the makeup of their particular character
  • if you understand your own strengths you can focus on improving the things you’re good at
  • and you can figure out how to cope and compensate for the things you don’t do well
  • leveraging your strengths will make you more valuable than attempting to get better at what you do poorly

The book includes access to an online survey that helps identify your strengths. When I took it years ago my strengths were:

  • input (I like to gather new information),
  • learning (I don’t mind feeling incompetent initially when learning something new),
  • strategic (I enjoy setting direction, challenging the status quo, exploring new opportunities, fixing something that’s broken),
  • command (I’d rather deal with a difficult problem than leave it to someone else), and
  • ideation (I find value and become immersed in concepts, abstractions, patterns).

These seem consistent with my self-experience. You can see the list here to get a sense of what other areas aren’t my strengths. A great example is Arranger—I’m not great at organizing work. It’s not that I can’t do it, but I don’t much enjoy it, I don’t find it satisfying, and I’m more effective if I find some way to compensate (get someone else to do it) rather than imagine I would ever be a world-class operations person.

In my experience the single most important personal characteristic is accurate self-assessment. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. People frequently get in their own way, behaving in ways that decrease the likelihood of achieving their intentions. Nearly always the explanation is a lack of self-awareness. Greater success increases the probability that someone will convince themselves they’re good at everything, which in part explains the Peter Principle.

Showing Up

Your starting point (aptitudes, health, childhood experiences, family support system), your effort, and pure luck will all play a role in what happens in your life. You only control your effort and engagement. Showing up is a precondition for serendipity. Waiting for Ed McMahon to knock on your door was never a good plan, and he’s no longer with us.

My career hinged on attending a user group meeting. I had bought an Apple ][ and used Apple Pascal for my last year of course work. I ran into a number of software issues that I couldn’t resolve working alone in southeastern Ohio, so I attended a UCSD Pascal User Conference in Philadelphia in Jun 81. The manager of Apple’s Developer Technical Support group attended, one of maybe 50 or so people. In a small group he asked if anyone was interested in joining his team. I held up my hand, not because I thought I was qualified, but because I wanted to know what more I’d have to do to be considered. In an interview he asked me how I thought I could help. I said I’d called Apple twice to get help with my problems, each time directed to someone that ended up yelling at me. I thought I could probably not yell at people. He invited me out to interview at Apple in Cupertino. I was hired, and within a few months yelling at people on the phone for pay. :)

It won’t Go as Planned

I grew up in a town with fewer than 5,000 people. Apple grew to about 13,000 employees while I was there. HP had several hundred thousand. In my 20s I had no idea what it was like to work in a large corporation. I had no intention to do so. I wouldn’t have guessed that I would find any satisfaction doing so. I never had a plan to move up, to get a better job, to be promoted. Part initial conditions—I was interested in and capable of writing software. Part decisions and effort—I worked hard, and worked on developing relevant skills as I moved into management and later executive management positions. Part luck—in the right place at the right time, doing the best I could in a role, holding up my hand when opportunities arose.

Go and do likewise, and best wishes!