Dear Freshman Me

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With four weeks remaining before my “first day of my final year” of formal schooling, I have collected some thoughts on my “college experience” thus far. This essay is not comprehensive nor prescriptive. It is not a recipe for others to follow.  Rather, it is an open letter to a prior version of myself. If that last statement – a prior version of myself – sounds bizarre to you…well it should. I write this to think and learn about myself, not to teach.

For the sake of emphasis, I will reiterate and bold: this is not advice. I am not good at giving advice – I consider myself quite weird and unusual – so please do not take any of the following as such. 

Overly dramatic disclaimers aside, I have been toying with this type of essay in my head for awhile. While the future of formal education is both scary and exciting – the past is also quite interesting to observe. In particular, I am fascinated by my own past – how I have come to where I am today – and how I can abstract my learnings and apply them to my own life. 

In particular, my past, my experiences, and my learnings are really what best form my perspective. I do not think I have mastered college – or really come close to it. Rather, I am simply getting closer to understanding my own thoughts – the pursuit of self-awareness.

The question I hope to explore today, via this essay, is: 

If I were to re-start college tomorrow, what “gained knowledge” would I bring in with me? In other words, how would I prepare a freshman version of myself for his first day of class?

I will write as little as possible here…I know my former self would appreciate that. Without further ado, here are my thoughts. Be sure to question each and every sentence: 

Rules for college. learning. 

  1. Prioritize yourself – whatever keeps you excited to be alive. This includes going to the gym, eating healthy (do not eat muffins), surrounding yourself with the right people, etc. Do things for you, at times, no one else will. If you are not happy, it is your fault, do something about it. The problem is you
  2. Be curious. Keep asking questions. Be annoying. Read tons of wikipedia. Listen to podcasts and audio books whenever you are walking around campus. Get up to 2x speed. Curiosity is a rare superpower – most people do not harness theirs and let it die, alongside imagination and creativity. Keep your fire alive. 
  3. Do not accept the status quo. Ironically, there are no absolutes in life or in school. Everything about school is optimized for the masses and conveniently packaged as an absolute. People will tell you, perhaps in good intent, “this is how you get x job” – this is especially true of people who work for big companies. People will tell you this is how you get good grades, this is how you learn, this is how you will have fun, this is how you should live…They are not bad people. They are just telling you what they know, and what they know is limited in scope. Imagine everything everyone knows is limited in scope – and recognize that – before you accept their beliefs. Think for yourself. Question everything. Question this essay. Question your current self, former self, and future self. You are not a pessimist – you just seek the truth. And the truth is rarely presented by talking to just one person or just by observing one opinion or strategy. The truth takes time and experience to uncover. It is worth digging for it
  4. Listen to people. Respect their time and opinions. Everyone is fighting a battle that you do not know about. It is one thing to think for yourself, it is another to ignore people. When you ignore people, you close yourself off to potential learning. Do not make that mistake. If people disagree with you, find out why. “Understanding opposing view points in detail is a super power that is harder than it looks.” Many times…the easier route is to “throw out” people who hold different beliefs than you…don’t. Not because you must conform to them. The opposite. Understanding them will help you understand yourself. 
  5. Don’t pull teeth. No one wants to be explicitly told what to do, all the time (even this absolute could be debated so I am not sure about it). If you are interested in something, and others are not, you have no obligation to make them interested. You cannot force interest. You cannot force engagement. People will do whatever they want. They are humans. And they follow their own personal incentives. Everyone has ego – yourself included. Most people are unaware of how powerful their own ambitions and motivations are – how much they will determine their choices. The better you get at understanding those – via empathy – the easier time you will have.
  6. Build skills with the following: google calendar, running miles, sql, python, cold emails, excel, writing, reading, public speaking, pushups, and the history of the world. Just start – everything you will get in life will come when you do things. Make action (experimentation, building, failing, trying) the only constant. Figure out what you are bad at as quickly as possible and double down on your strengths. They say college is time to explore…sure…but do not spend it aimlessly exploring. Find your super-powers. Find your defensible, competitive advantage that no one can take from you. Have urgency in doing this. You are young. That is not an excuse. You can literally do anything – that is rare. Aim as high as possible. Email anyone. Apply for any job. Ask why not. Everything in life is relative. You define how impossible something is. Be legendary.  
  7. Don’t compete. Do not worry about everyone else. Competition is a waste of everyone’s time. Be a monopoly. Monopolies win because they do not have to compete. Do things no one else is doing. Read things no one else is readings. You are unique. I know it is hard to think you are…in a growing world of 7 billion…how do you stand out? You do not stand out via one skill. You are not really world class at anything. You stand out with a combination of skills…the magical cluster. That is what differentiates you. That is how you become a monopoly. 
  8. Cut out bullshit. Your time is your most valuable resource. Invest wisely. College is the first time in your life that you will have more time than you can even think about. Most people “waste it” doing semi-fun things, semi-productive things, and semi-interesting things. Don’t. Who has time for that? If you want to have fun…have lots of fun…If you want to be productive…be very productive. The faster you learn this the more memories you will make. The more you will get done. The more you will love living. How do you do this? Work in a quiet place – not in the cafeteria. The cafeteria is neither that fun or that productive. Listen to podcasts/audio books while you are walking around campus. At the same time – recognize this: the most valuable aspect of college is the fun. Say yes to doing fun things. You can define what fun looks like. But make sure you prioritize fun. De-prioritize boring things (television, sleeping in, eating), and make sure you make the most out of the rare opportunity of being on a college campus.  
  9. You get to decide what matters. The “hack” is that nothing really matters until you want it to. Social pressures will tell you that certain things matter more than others. They are likely wrong. Your major does not matter. People invested in their majors will tell you otherwise. Clubs do not matter. People invested in their clubs will tell you otherwise. Entrepreneurship centers, teaching assistant positions, and school events do not matter. It is up to you to decide. Importantly, you cannot let a single thing define you, or else you are competing and you violate rule #5. 
  10. Give back. Call your parents. They love you. Your friends do too. They care about you. You will be busy. So will they. Make time. Make time for the people that care about you. Life is really short. Most things will come and go in life. If you can find things that stick around, keep them. Or cut them. Don’t waiver. 

Some of these thoughts are abstract…while others are overly specific. I understand the limitations of this essay – writing this in 2018, as a 21 year old, who carries a very specific perspective – but I also recognize how valuable it is to gain an understanding from several sides of the table. 

You will not learn everything you will want to know by reading essays. You can learn some…but most things in life require action. 

Good luck…

This is an extraordinary time to be alive. To aim for legendary. 

Luckily, you have a big team. You have people in the world that want you to succeed. You are in the best place possible, for you. And it is up to you to make the most of it. You will not succeed via complacency. Take risks. Mess up. Work hard. And have a ton of fun. 

Also published on Medium.