The year is 1997. I’m walking toward my Computer Sciences class at seven o’clock in the morning and it’s pitch black outside. The city is Grenoble in France and as I shiver under my rain jacket, soft snow paves the way to my classroom. I often joke that I chose to major in CS by accident; I had never used a computer in my life until my first CS class! At the time, it seemed so simple, to choose a major that would challenge me and propel me into an unknown, bright future.
Unbeknownst to me, I was entering a field that would soon revolutionize the way we work, the way we socialize and even the way we think. Back then I was just obsessed with high grades, swimming, and doing the things college students do. I didn’t much care about getting to know the people in my class or blogging about my journey in a foreign country as an exchange student.
Fast forward to 2019. I’m in downtown Austin at a networking event and the question comes up for the panelists: what is one thing you wish you knew when you were 20? I really think it through. Other than the obvious (e.g., invest in Apple!) I realize that there are some things that have proven true time and time again in my life; truths that only experience have given me but that I wish I knew in my early twenties. You may relate to a few of these:
“The only source of knowledge is experience.”
1. You’re never stuck with the way things are. If someone had told me I was going to make a successful career change from engineer to professional dancer, I would have told them they were nuts! But that’s exactly what happened later in my career. (If interested in this career change, check out my blog on the Art of Good Enough.) The sooner you embrace change, any and all change, the faster you will be able to adapt to new situations both in your professional and personal life. So, no matter where you are today, you can radically change your life: you can change careers, you can move to another country, you can learn a new language. Truth #1: You can (and will) always change.
2. Relationships are key to your success. And I’m not talking about networking for the sake of networking. I’m talking about genuine, long-lasting relationships with people that care about you as a person, your well-being and your career. It’s never too late to start building and cultivating your tribe. Strong emphasis on cultivating for the long-term. Dread networking? Check out this podcast by the Harvard Business Review: Networking Doesn’t Have to Be a Drag.
“Just as a calculator can extend our mental capacities, other people help us extend our intelligence – both in a cognitive sense and in an emotional sense.”
– Stephen Kosslyn, Psychology Professor at Harvard
3. Passion is more important than talent. Passion will give you the motivation to work hard, harder than you ever thought you could. By contrast, being good at something you don’t actually enjoy may not fulfill you. Passion, however, will fuel your creative juices and give you the motivation to build a large body of work because you enjoy what you’re doing. Passion will also help you work through hurdles and overcome shortcomings. Thus, look for things that make you feel alive and excited and work on those whenever you can. They can lead you to unexpected opportunities. In my case, my passion for dance led me to world-level competitions and even the local version of Dancing with the Stars.
“Be believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
-Nikos Kazantzakis, twentieth-century Greek philosopher
4. Where you are now is connected to where you’ll be five, ten, fifteen years from now. No matter how unlikely it may seem, the knowledge and experiences you are acquiring right now are helping (or hurting) your future self in small and big ways. Pay attention to your present moment; that’s where all your power is.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in the future.”
5. Who you are becoming is more important than your title, a degree, or how much money you make. At the end of the day, success is more about the way we feel about ourselves and less about the material things that we acquire, the external representations of success. When I transitioned careers from engineering into a completely different field I was left title-less and with less disposable income than in my previous job. But it didn’t matter to me because I was creating a new version of myself, a new identity. Be patient as you transition from one chapter of your life to the next. And trust the process of growth.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
-James Clear, Atomic Habits
These are five truths I wish I knew in my early 20s. What about you? What are some hard-earned truths you wish you knew at 20?