Advice for the college years

What types of value is there to be found in attending university?

  • Soft skills: learning to read, think, speak, collaborate, compete, persuade, negotiate, lead, manage, concede, predict, defer, delegate, etc.
    • Time management & discipline
      • How to optimally design your day to accomplish everything you want in a day while building slack to deal with unintended disruptions
    • Self-reflection and understanding
      • Developing mindfulness practice: control over your emotions under stress, understanding your insecurities and how to take corrective action
    • How to get along with others in all types of situations
      • Becoming great friends with a roommate afflicted by insomnia, possibly addiction and social insecurities
      • How to avoid frat party fights while sticking up for friends & values
      • Building life-long relationships with students, faculty and administrators from around the world and across disciplines
    • Structured thinking, collaborative debate, critical analysis
      • Do you understand your own material well enough to engage people through varying levels of complexity?
      • How well have you mastered the diagnosis of and defense against logical fallacies in an argument?
      • Do you intuit the devil’s advocate position / have you stress tested your ideas? (see the concept of “red teaming“)
  • Hard skills: writing, language learning, memorization, programming, analytical frameworks, solving and/or manipulating equations, etc.
    • Learning how to build a website, write a compelling report, deconstruct a business strategy, develop algorithms to classify and/or interpret large datasets
  • Credentialism/signaling: don’t sleep on the value of signals; it’s how we’ve evolved as a species.
    • In your early 20’s, you probably don’t have a reputation upon which society or employers can rely to make a judgment about engaging or hiring you. Universities bestow upon you a useful proxy – a degree – that signals your character and competence and endows a certain level of implicit trust in your abilities. That said, by developing a project portfolio and a strong network, you can build this reputation for yourself.
  • Career placement
    • Higher educational attainment = more and better job opportunities.
  • Network
    • Alumni networks, faculty, friends, campus event organizers, all contribute to your social capital and are sources of intellectual, social, economic and cultural opportunity
  • Identity affirmation/reconstitution
    • What’s your major? What are you doing this summer? What do you want to do after senior year? All of these questions, compounded by the successes and failures of daily life throughout four development-heavy years in your late-teens/early twenties consistently test your assumptions of your goals and motivations. Hopefully, with the right support in your life, you’ll come out the other end with an intentional plan for who and what you want to be.
  • Concentration of great facilities and events
    • Students are always looking for creative outlets, and if you’re lucky, your university will house cultural events, sports competitions, alumni speakers and more, possibly in quality facilities on campus. Venture outside your dorm and attend once a week. See who you’d be interested in listening to and try to organize an event to bring them on campus.

Yes, many of the above can be obtained without paying university tuition. But you’d be hard pressed to find guaranteed exposure to all of the above within a four-year window.

As a student, how do you create value and/or a brand that goes beyond grades?

  • Brand = consensus expectation for one’s output. Value created, or output generated, is therefore closely linked to one’s brand.
  • The question then turns to this: how do you create value as a student aside from maintaining a worthy GPA?
    • Sociological view: you can create human capital, social capital, economic capital.
      • Human capital: skills (see above), health, motivation, vision. Examples of value creation for yourself: pick up a marketable skill, develop habits and routines for your mental and physical health, reflect and learn the necessary sacrifices for you to achieve your goals. Examples of value creation for others: join an organization to raise charity, develop community events, tutor kids, mentor freshmen, create jobs.
      • Social capital: build friendships, partnerships, communities. Join student groups, greek life, alumni networks, etc.
      • Economic/financial capital: learn mindful spending, accounting, pick up a job/internship, tutor high schoolers, start a business.
    • Stakeholder view: for whom can you create value? Yourself, your family, your friends, your dorm, your student groups, your classes, your faculty, your university, your city, your religion, your demographic, etc.
      • Look around you for 5 examples of how you’re benefiting from each stakeholder. Come up with 10 examples of how you could give back or increase the total value of that relationship.
    • Value chain view: Check out the university value chain.
      • Are there any areas of research you’re interested in helping with? Perhaps there’s a research assistant role that you could inquire about.
      • Do you have a vision or feedback for a course you’ve taken? Reach out to your professor and help them build their curriculum.
      • Passionate about admissions? See how you can help with giving tours, facilitating admin work in the admissions department, creating a YouTube channel, website or podcast to expand the university’s marketing reach.

How do you build social capital in a university ecosystem? How do you maintain this post-graduation?

  • Output = Leverage * Volume * Frequency. Build social capital by increasing your social output, thereby increasing your reputation for social competence.
    • Frequency: get out there more often. If you find yourself playing video games alone in your dorm, stop. At minimum, invite your roommate, or better yet, set up a tournament amongst the students in your dorm. Don’t watch TV alone, set up a watch party for your intramural team.
    • Volume: spend more time with others. If you have ~100 hours of awake time during the week, how much of that can you spend with people? Certainly restricted by the course of study and your degree of extroversion, but you can certainly spend more time than you do now.
    • Leverage: this is the key. 80/20 applies everywhere: increase the volume/frequency of your social interactions with those whom you admire/can learn from/can build memories and momentum with. Do different things with these people: visit different neighborhoods/events, discuss fringe ideas, try new tech, learn new things about each other.
  • Same principles apply post-grad, but you lose the serendipity that proximity and social organizations afford you in college. Demonstrate that you can help solve other people’s problems, whether those be professional, social or emotional in nature. Be a cure of boredom for people. If all else fails, carefully approach people with your own problems/ventures and ask for advice.

Where do you invest your time professionally for greatest ROI? Where does Pareto’s law exist?

  • I’m of the opinion that GPA is the lowest-quality ROI activity you can spend your time on, unless like my freshman year roommate, you’re a genius. That doesn’t suggest you give up on your GPA, but the marginal returns from a 3.9 vs a 3.8 are low for most career paths and/or disciplines.
  • At Google, Eric Schmidt organized the team to focus 70% of its time on its core competencies, 20% on adjacent projects, and 10% on entirely new ideas. They couldn’t sustain their business if they didn’t allocate a majority of their time towards the necessary 70% of activities. In college, you should make sure something like 70% of your time is focused on holding down the fort with respect to your classes, sleep/health, social activities, etc. But if you can spend 20+% of your time outside of class and sleep on learning new skills, building relationships with people a few years ahead of you that you admire, and introducing micro-disruptions to your routine like trying new study habits, auditing some challenging classes, and stepping out of your comfort zone, you’ll see those gains compound over time.

How do you build relationships with key faculty/alumni/staff over time? How do you think about finding people who can help you build the life you want?

  • Social networks theory: homophily and proximity are key determinants to social ties. Seek out the ways that you’re similar to said faculty/alumni/staff; perhaps you share backgrounds, friend groups, interests, character traits. If you’re curious, ask for advice on challenges you have associated with these attributes. And maximize the frequency and ease of meetings: make yourself freely available, go to them, meet at their favorite cafe, etc.
  • I think Relationships = Trust + Respect. In college, this is super easy. By my junior year I had met with Northwestern’s president a handful of times, had the support of multiple Trustees for our student group of businesses, was invited to various Northwestern-affiliated events through administrator connections, found mentors spanning all career paths and had a true sense of belonging to the campus. A minority of these relationships I still hold closely today. In many instances, I had a vision for my student groups and/or communities that I needed help on from various stakeholders, and I sought them out for win-win solutions, and in many instances they were pleased and committed to work together. Oftentimes, in college, the simple desire to learn from others is enough to build a connection. Other times, pursue the canvas strategy (below).

What does it mean to design your life? How would you think about choosing colleges today as opposed to when you were 17?

  • Choosing colleges:
    • I would begin by creating a list of schools that meet a certain set of criteria.
    • Prestige and academic rigor would be high (they tend to go together and while certainly imperfect, are generally a good proxy for the access to most of the types of value in college outlined in the first question).
    • An important factor that I got lucky with but should’ve been more deliberate about is the location of the school: proximity to a great city, and the right city is hugely important. You can attend a school in Ithaca and still have access to opportunities and communities in California, but it’s much, much harder. If you know that you’re interested in tech, consider West Coast schools. Finance? NYC. Health/medicine? Boston. Most of the time, in high school, you won’t know this. I’d recommend going to a school either in the middle of or in close proximity to a top 10 city in the U.S. for the serendipity it presents.
    • For many, other critical factors to be considered are costs, weather, proximity to friends/family, availabilities of the right major, and legacies.
  • Designing your life:
    • I’m not a big fan of bucket lists, although they can be helpful to brainstorm some cool accomplishments. Most of the time they’re too cliche and generate little commitment to action.
    • Linear programming approach: a framework to solve optimization problems
      • Imagine if your life could be expressed as the sum of a weighted sequence of variables. To simplify, say we have 5 variables: health, family, career, friends and faith. At different times of your life, these variables will be weighted (prioritized differently). At certain times, you should spend 5x of your resources on career as opposed to your friends. At others, 2x on your health something else. As a directional exercise, how many hours of your next week do you need to spend committed to these different variables? What constraints exist (i.e., I need to spend a minimum of x hours at work? I don’t want to spend more than 4 hours on physical activity this week? etc.)
    • Debbie Milman: take an hour out of one of your mornings this week and do the exercise at this link.
    • Jack Ma / Marc Andreessen / Patrick Collison: spend your 20’s learning as much as you can about what you’re interested in from people you admire. Learn public speaking, technical skills, finance and sales, either by your own hands or from the best people you can find. This gives you the freedom and optionality to leverage your skills for the rest of your life.

How do you find out what you want to do?

  • Framework 1: the Scientific Method
    • Formulate a specific question you’d like to answer about your reality. Develop a hypothesis around what might explain the problem and how it can be changed. Experiment: conduct primary and secondary research, tweak different variables, measure the impact. Draw conclusions based on your observations, while noting limitations to your experiments. Stress test your findings with other reputable sources and iterate.
  • Framework 2: the Hero’s Journey
    • Identify your ordinary world, where you feel safe. What are your capabilities, outlook on life? Next, your call to adventure. What might threaten your security, what challenges the identity that you claim for yourself? Pursue any opportunities to meet, learn from and follow mentors that have faced these challenges in the past. Use their support to venture into the belly of the beast while you leave your previous naive and sheltered self behind. Ready yourself for the trials that lie ahead.
  • Framework 3: the Simplex Method / “grow where you’re planted”
    • We can only seek local optimization instead of global optimization due to computation constraints. In english, it’s impossible to know the true extent of your capabilities in life because there’s infinite possibilities. However, you can test a few different directions and measure whether you’re getting closer or farther away from where you want to be. Write down what your current situation in life is. Who are you? What do you stand for, what are you aiming at? Take a look behind you and write down what defines your past. Now, recognize that your future is not path-dependent; your past actions need not dictate nor influence your future performance. Identify 2, 5 or 10 potential steps forward that you could take today, this month, in the next 3-5 years, across different categories of your life (career, intellectual, social, financial, health, etc.). Try one. Are you getting closer or farther from where you want to be? Adjust accordingly.
  • Framework 4: the Canvas Strategy
    • Find ways to promote the activities and reduce problems of those around you. Elevate their performance, and they’ll reward you with recognition, opportunities and more.

I have an idea for what I want to do, now what?

  • Write down a list of what you think you’re interested in. Could be cities, jobs, industries, people, whatever. Write it all down. Don’t worry about the viability just yet – this is pure, unadulterated brainstorming. Idea filtration will come later.
  • Next, figure out how you can learn more about each item on the list. Make some calls, sign out / buy some books, listen to interviews, set up coffee chats. Make some more lists: what do you like about it? What are you curious about? What would be fun to learn more about it? Who’s an expert on it? What are the emerging and/or exciting parts about it? Who can you talk to for a different perspective on it?
  • Find ways to experiment with it. Job shadow someone for a few days. Pick up a part-time internship. Volunteer on the weekends. Try to re-create someone else’s masterpiece in your own way. Bring it up in your writing, social media, LinkedIn, conversations with friends; make it a little easier for the ones that can help you to find you.

Other great thoughts on college/paths:

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