Advice for Incoming College Students

I felt like answering a question on Quora about what you’d tell someone about to start college. Here it is, reproduced below.

This is what I’d tell my sister, who’s about to start college in the fall this year. Note that I haven’t read any of the previous answers so as to not influence my own, so forgive me if I’ve repeated anything.

1. Good grades ARE important.
The people who harp about how GPAs don’t matter are (usually) the same people who land mediocre jobs or no jobs out of school. Besides, why would you not put your best foot forward and gain an advantage over others if you have the chance to? That being said, 3.7 is often good enough; I wouldn’t kill myself to obtain an extra 0.1 or beyond. Spend that extra time developing other skills, learning new hobbies, and meeting interesting people.

2. Actively find and make amazing friends – which includes your professors.
I believe one of the most important reasons for going to college these days is the network that you build during those years. You may not know it now, but that person in your first year frosh group or your dorm mate can turn out to be a very important person later on. They may become an eventual business partner (see: Peter Thiel & Reid Hoffman, Mark Zuckerberg & Eduardo Saverin, etc.) or a future spouse. You may be tempted like I was to stay inside on Thursday/Friday nights, but don’t fall into the trap of complacency. Do something scary at least once a week and try to have a conversation with at least one new person a week.

The difference between college and high school is you won’t see the same people in every class. You won’t know the names of most of the people you see, nor will you ever even get a chance to speak a word to them. So it’s up to you to actively find and meet people you want to be friends with. Note that you shouldn’t limit yourself to the people in your classes or even in your year. Once you leave the confines of college, anyway, you’ll realize that it’s only during school years that your friends are exclusively people your age. Get used to making friends with people older and younger than you.

3. Be very careful about your ideologies.
At 18, despite thinking you know everything, you’re still *very* easily influenced. You’re bright-eyed and hopeful, and may have lofty dreams of fighting for social justice and becoming an activist for what you believe in. It’s admirable but just be careful. There’s a great article here: “Everything is problematic” | The McGill Daily about one student’s experience with political activism and how it almost ruined her.

I’m not going to go too much into it here, but the key is to keep an open mind and not become too affiliated with any group. It is very easy to get peer pressured into becoming someone you are not, fighting an “us” versus “them” battle that leads nowhere. Focus on what you can control, and how you react to things.

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Chinese Parenting Fails to Produce Children of Greatness?

Chinese parenting is great at producing skilled and compliant knowledge workers, but it utterly fails to produce children who can achieve greatness, remake industries, or come up with disruptive innovation.  All the Chinese-American people I know who now perform at the highest levels – both creatively and technically – either achieved this without being driven to it by their parents (ask Niniane Wang about her upbringing) or in rebellion against the paths their parents set out for them (see Tony Hsieh http://www.businessinsider.com/tony-hsieh-life-before-zappos-2010-10).  The others – the skilled and compliant mediocre – make superb employees for the truly great, and if that is what their parents consider “successful,” then that’s exactly what they’ll get.

This quote comes from here, where Yishan Wong gives his take on whether Chinese mothers are superior.

It’s a fascinating response, and it can probably be generalized to most types of Asian parenting. What’s more, I fully agree with his view.

To give some background on Yishan and why his statement should hold some weight, he’s worked at PayPal, Facebook, Square, Sunfire, and reddit. All of his roles culminated in Manager/Director/CEO status. In short, he’s worked with and managed a lot of employees. He’s written broadly about the hiring process, the secret to career success, and a thousand other answers on Quora.

He’s also Chinese-American himself, and was the recipient of the type of Chinese “Tiger” parenting he describes as producing compliant and mediocre employees. But what has made him so successful in the traditional definition of the word is not because of, but rather despite, overbearing parenting methods.

While his parents pushed him to learn the piano and speak Chinese, they largely left him alone when it came to computers and gave him some lee-way to have a social life. As a result, he was able to pursue his passion of computers, an in-demand, lucrative career, while developing strong communication skills.

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Robert Greene on Dealing With Fools

In the course of your life you will be continually encountering fools. There are simply too many to avoid. We can classify people as fools by the following rubric: when it comes to practical life, what should matter is getting long-term results, and getting the work done in as efficient and creative a manner as possible. That should be the supreme value that guides people’s actions. But fools carry with them a different scale of values. They place more importance on short-term matters – grabbing immediate money, getting attention from the public or media, and looking good. They are ruled by their ego and insecurities. They tend to enjoy drama and political intrigue for their own sake. When they criticize, they always emphasize matters that are irrelevant to the overall picture or argument. They are more interested in their career and position than in the truth. You can distinguish them by how little they get done, or by how hard they make it for others to get results. They lack a certain common sense, getting worked up about things that are not really important while ignoring problems that will spell doom in the long term.

The natural tendency with fools is to lower yourself to their level. They annoy you, get under your skin, and draw you into a battle.  In the process, you feel petty and confused. You lose a sense of what is really important. You can’t win an argument or get them to see your side or change their behavior, because rationality and results don’t matter to them.  You simply waste valuable time and emotional energy.

In dealing with fools you must adopt the following philosophy: they are simply a part of life, like rocks or furniture. All of us have foolish sides, moments in which we lose our heads and think more of our ego or short-term goals. It is human nature. Seeing this foolishness within you, you can then accept it in others. This will allow you to smile at their antics, to tolerate their presence as you would a silly child, and to avoid the madness of trying to change them. It is all part of the human comedy, and it is nothing to get upset or lose sleep over.

Start Your Day as a Producer, Not a Consumer

One of the big obstacles that I faced – and still face, to some degree – when I began working full-time was restructuring my every day routine. See, for about 16 years from kindergarten to the end of college, I would spend the morning and afternoon learning things, and then go home and work at night. I essentially conditioned myself to be in a passive state during the day, soaking up what others talked about or mindlessly taking notes in class. I was generally not one of those people who did much work at school.

In college, I took this model to the extreme. I would rarely wake up before noon, head to class, and would have the most energy around 4-5pm. I did my best studying and work in the evenings.

Unfortunately, this model doesn’t work too well in the real world. I’ve had to retrain myself to do work during the day. This was by no means an easy task, but one change in my daily routine helped me get on the right path.

Most of us have two modes: producer or consumer. The trick is to start your day as a producer, rather than a consumer. What this means is doing productive, beneficial tasks that are meaningful first thing in the morning, as opposed to checking and responding to email/social media. It doesn’t necessarily have to be work, although tackling your to-do list is great. It could be exercising, meditating, writing on your blog, cooking, etc.

The point is it should be an active activity. Passive activities like scrolling your newsfeed and skimming the news should be avoided. It’s about being proactive, rather than reactive. It’s knowing that you’re in control of your life, and are focusing on your needs first.

For me, I’ve found that journaling and writing first thing in the morning has been the most beneficial. For many others, it’s exercise. Whatever it is, once you repeat this routine long enough, it becomes one of those keystone habits that lock all your other productive habits into place.

On the days where I get something big accomplished right away, the rest of the day is that much more productive. The distractions that were once tempting feel like a waste of time. I can actually catch myself browsing Facebook, asking myself What am I doing?, and then closing the tab.

On the off days where I start off as a consumer, I’m trapped in that vortex of endlessly surfing Reddit or Elite Daily (is this you right now?) trying to fill a void, trying desperately to entertain myself but never feeling satisfied.

In fact, I’m convinced now that how you spend your morning is indicative of how you’ll spend the rest of the day, and there may be some science behind this. It’s hard to shift from the shallower, more transactional frontal cortex to the other parts of your brain that govern conceptual, deep thinking. It’s easier to start in the deep recesses of the brain and shift to the shallower parts. What this means is it’s easier to go from producer mode to consumer mode than vice versa.

And by starting your morning off doing something you enjoy, you elevate your mood for the rest of the day, which then positively impacts everything else you do.

All of the most successful people I know and have read about share this philosophy of starting their day off with an important, focused project.

There’s a great story about Charlie Munger that exemplifies this. As a very young lawyer, he was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on construction projects and real estate deals. Over time, this one hour of self-learning compounded and ultimately allowed him to race past his peers.

OK, you’ve consumed enough of this. Try it for yourself. Start your mornings as a producer. You may be surprised at the difference it makes.

Experts

It’s amazing how much we trust “experts,” given how infallible they are sometimes.

In December 2000, the majority of investment banks forecasted that by the end of 2001 the dollar and the euro would be about equal in value. This list included Credit Suisse, Bank of Tokyo, RBC, UBS, and Deutsche Bank. The real exchange rate at the end of 2001 was only $0.88. Every bank overestimated.

In compensation for their overestimates the year before, the banks uniformly corrected their predictions downward. But the euro went up; the true exchange rate was 1.05, higher than any of the banks had foreseen. Surprised by the upward trend, the banks corrected their forecasts upward for 2003. Once again, the actual exchange rate was outside the range of estimates.

This continued on until 2010. Almost every year, the actual rate was outside the predicted rate.

Why do banks pay large amounts to entire departments for these meaningless predictions? For one, there’s an element of defensive decision making, where senior managers can point and say, “Well, this is what our mathematical models said would happen. It’s not our fault.” But two, there continues to be a large enough demand for these predictions that they’re supplied. Humans place an inordinate amount of trust in experts, and even desperately seek them out, so banks maintain the illusion.

The truth is anyone can become a market guru. Roger Babson is credited with correctly predicting the stock market crash of 1929, but what is less known is that he had been predicting the crash for years. Of course, no one remembered those misses after he was right once. Elaine Garzarelli predicted the stock market collapse in 1987, and four days later it really did crash. She became known as the Guru of Black Monday, but thereafter, her predictions about the market were right less often than a coin toss.

Warren Buffett often gives the following example: Consider 10,000 investment managers whose advice is equal to flipping a coin. After a year, 5,000 of them will have made a profit. The next year, 2500, and so on. After ten years, about ten managers will have gotten it right every single year. We would classify these ten people as gurus, attributing such a feat to their unique, deep insights of the market and some innate talent.

In my undergrad businesses school, we took a lot of complex finance classes teaching us the intricacies of portfolio optimization, where you have a chunk of money and want to invest it in a diversified portfolio. In the academic world, this involves fairly complex formulas and a host of assumptions to deal with. The professors promised us it would all come in handy on the job.

Well, it turns out there’s a one-line sentence that trumps all of these strategies, even beating a Nobel Prize-winning portfolio strategy. It’s this: Allocate your money equally to each of N funds. 

In a study, this rule of thumb was compared to a dozen complex investment methods. Seven situations were analyzed. In six of the seven tests, 1/N scored better than the others, and none of the other twelve were consistently better at predicting the future value of stocks.

The Nobel Prize-winning method isn’t a sham, it’s just that we live in a world of unknowns and uncertainties that can’t possibly be quantified in assumptions. Experts will tell you otherwise, but really, what is an expert?

Whose Fault Is It?

You’re 6 years old, playing with the class teddy bear. Your friend, who is also 6, comes up to you and asks to play with you. You don’t want to share your toy, so you say no. He grabs Teddy and begins tugging. You do the same. As the laws of physics would have it, Teddy rips.

The teacher comes running in and yells, “Whose fault is this?” and you and your friend both point at each other. Both of you concoct stories of the event, and the teacher spends an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out whose story is more true.

Whose fault is it? It’s a classic question parents and teachers ask children whenever something bad happens.

What purpose does this question serve – and could it even be a hazardous thing to say to a child? Seemingly, it trains children to find faults in anywhere but themselves, assigning blame to others and external factors. As these kids grow up, they continue along this path, blaming others for their own shortcomings. Personal responsibility is shunned.

Asking whose fault something is is almost like unnecessarily dwelling in the past. In the example above, it makes no difference who actually broke the class teddy bear. Both parties were probably responsible to a degree. It’s much more effective to consider the options going forward. What can you do to prevent this from happening in the future? What lessons can be taken away from the incident? Why did the mistake occur?

Thinking along these lines can save you a lot of energy trying to frivolously figure out who was right or wrong or good or bad. You also begin to stop looking for the victim in every situation, instead assigning everyone some degree of responsibility.

Taking personal responsibility for things gone awry, owning up to your mistakes, and being vulnerable are rare traits in people, precisely why those that exhibit these traits actually garner respect.

Just imagine these scenarios. If the CEO of your company took responsibility for the company’s problems instead of blaming others, wouldn’t you like him more? If your doctor told you she had screwed up a procedure, instead of trying to cover it up, wouldn’t you appreciate her honesty? If a politician revealed that their policy proposals had failed, wouldn’t you be more likely to trust him?

Objectively examining our own mistakes isn’t easy. Because we see the world from our own perspective, even our mistakes make sense from our perspective. When we screw up, it’s because of XYZ reasons. When others screw up, it’s because they’re stupid.

Instead of looking for faults and trying to blame the government, society, or your parents, look within yourself. Try to take the outside view. Embrace your failings. It’s much better to accept you’re bigoted and try to improve than sleepwalk through life ignorant to the fact. Failure to take responsibility for your own life almost guarantees your staganation in life.

How to Make $1 Million in Four Years After University

There’s an amazing answer on Quora in response to a question of how to make $250k/year in income.

Anonymous writes:

2010 (90k/yr):
Graduated from uPenn and went to work for Bloomberg (80k base and 10k bonus). Decided that was not enough at all so I started creating websites on the side. One site I made was called biteads.com, barely made anything out of it but the site introduced me to affiliate marketing.

2011 (105k/yr):
Quit my job in Bloomberg and went to Amazon (85k base and 20k bonus) because I was sick of fortran (30% of bloomberg’s code base). Bought a half completed vacant wreak house for dirt cheap with the intention of finishing it up and selling it.

2012 (200k/yr):
Still at amazon (90k with 20k bonus). Still building the house. Continued making websites, I used my affiliate marketing experience in biteads.com to make another site called mutex.me. Mutex was a small hit generated (5k-8k) a month which added up to around 90k a year.

2013 (215k):
Still at amazon (100k + 25k)
Mutex still making money (90k)
Finishing up the house.
Bought another house to finish and sell.

2014 (1.18MM)
Still at Amazon (110k + 30k)
Mutex still making money (90k)
Selling house with projected profit of 250k.
Nearly completed 2nd house with projected profit of 700k.
Using that money to buy/build 3rd house. Which based on the market should make around the same as the 2nd house.

It’s a great answer because of how frank he is revealing his path to creating wealth. These are relatively clear action steps that others can take themselves to replicate it. Obviously it takes a great deal of time to learn how to actually execute on them, but anyone could theoretically learn how to. Under this light, making $250k/year, which very few people ever do, seems much more attainable.

It’s worth the note that he did this all while maintaining his full-time job, which I think is great. Our society seems to admire the “all or nothing” approach to success. We love hearing stories of college dropouts who went on to achieve great success. We revel in stories of those who laid it all on the line by quitting their full-time job or mortgaging their house to start their entrepreneurial journey.

What’s hardly ever touted, arguably the less sexy route, is holding your full-time job while working on a side hustle. I’d argue that this route, however, is probably better suited for most people. The job provides you with a source of income that you can use to reinvest elsewhere (paying for the down payment of real estate, for example). It gives you much needed time to validate your idea, test the proof of concept, and acquire early leads and pre-sales, all while maintaining your current lifestyle. This mitigates risk early on in the business, which is conceivably when risk is highest.

The problem with working full-time and managing a side-hustle is if holding a safe corporate job inhibits you from taking any further risks or trying new things outside of work. We all know people who continue working jobs they hate while doing nothing about it because they’re complacent with their steady paycheck. I experienced this through a drop in dedication on my side projects immediately after I began work (although I’d like to think I’ve picked it back up now).  All else equal, the person with the job providing a steady income is going to work less hard on his time off than the entrepreneur who has to work just to pay the bills. This increase in risk-aversion can be profoundly  negative to future success. As late billionaire Felix Dennis said, the ability to live with and embrace risks is what sets apart the financial winners and losers in the world.

So the way around this complacency is to view your full-time job as a means to an end, rather than a permanent position. This doesn’t mean you can slack off at work. Ideally you’d work as hard as you can in your job, and then work just as hard at home (I’ve found that laziness has a way of easily seeping into everything you do, so it’s best to be avoided in general). But the idea is to one day have the freedom to quit the job and work full-time on your side-hustle-turned primary business.

This approach will essentially require you to work two jobs, resulting in 60-80+ hour weeks. This is what it’ll take if you want financial freedom though. Nobody ever gets rich working forty hours a week. Nobody ever gets rich complaining they don’t have time or don’t feel like working after a long day. While everyone else heads home from their 9-5 and turns on Netflix, people like Anon spend their nights coding side projects and closing real estate deals.

It’s a great story of hustle and one worth emulating.

Writing Should Be Personal

For a long time, I’ve struggled to write anything too personal because I was afraid of the consequences of doing so. What if someone I know reads this? What if my boss finds out? I avoided publishing any of these posts, or when I did, I distorted them in a way that reflected positively on me.

But how can writing be good without a personal element? Writing is the process of turning the inner thoughts in your unconscious mind into concrete, coherent words on paper. Good writing should therefore be one of the most personal things you do.

They say that everyone has a unique voice and ought to be sharing their story. I believe this, and also believe everyone has something interesting to say.

The problem is most people are afraid to share the inner workings of themselves to the public. We’re so used to hiding behind the facade we put out to the world that we’ve lost the ability to be ourselves, even on our own blogs. We fear the judging eyes of others as we lay ourselves bare on paper. Coming to terms with this fear, however, may be a necessity.

In the fabulous book If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland encourages writers not shy away from using “I” in their writing.

Now to have things alive and interesting it must be personal, it must come from the “I”: what I know and feel. For that is the only great and interesting thing. That is the only truth you know, that nobody else does.

The most interesting kind of articles to read are those that show vulnerability. I look to James Altucher for advice here. He says he never publishes a post unless he feels scared to do so. Sometimes he’s even afraid he’s shared too much to the world. He tries to bleed every time he writes by sharing the darkest and worst moments he’s experienced.

Ultimately, this is how people relate to you through your writing. Everyone has gone through their own struggles, and everyone is simply trying their best to be happy. The feelings that make us human are universal. Conveying these feelings in your writing is how you get people to care.

You can learn a lot about someone through their writing, perhaps more than you ever could through conversation alone. I’ve been able to learn more about some of my friends through their blogs, and it’s strengthened our relationship. I’ve even met people solely through reading their blogs because I knew we operated on the same wavelength. This was only possible because they put themselves out there.

At the end of the day, good writing has to be a reflection of your inner self. Good writing can’t be faked. Beneath any words you read is the personality of the writer himself. Whatever that personality is will eventually shine through. Even if the words themselves tell one story, you can tell if the writer’s true self does not coincide with their message. You can deceive people vocally and even in-person, but you simply cannot deceive people for long through extensive writing.

Internet Scams

When I was 13, I saw a post on a forum about an easy way to make $20 a day in 20 minutes. I figured why not. I downloaded the free pdf, read it, and got to work.

The method was essentially me pretending to be a female looking for desperate men. It worked like this:

Post an ad on Craigslist pretending to be a girl looking for a date. Setup an autoresponder email to reply to anyone who messaged you forwarding them a link to some dating site with your profile. When they signed up and paid, hoping to land a date with you, you’d get paid a commission.

Surprisingly, it actually worked. I spent about five minutes a day just posting ads up on Craigslist for a couple weeks. At the end of the month, I actually passed the threshold point to receive a check for my earnings.

I came home from school one day, and my dad handed me a check for a couple hundred bucks. He looked at me weird. Eventually he asked why it was from “XXX Entertainment Inc.” or something along those lines – and yep, there it was, bold and center. I lied and said it was just an edgy company. I don’t think he believed me, because a week later he cautioned me about watching porn.

Why did I just tell you that story?

To caution you about getting scammed. I’ve come across a lot of “lifestyle design” blogs recently. These blogs all espouse the themes of living abroad, working remotely, earning passive income, and living the dream. Nothing new, but these types of blogs have always irked me.

Most of them are frauds.

Maybe they do live abroad, work remotely, and yes, even earn a little passive income. But my estimate is the vast majority of them are not living the dream. They’re faking it till they make it – which is fine. But they’re selling people products that promise “the dream” when they themselves aren’t living it.

The funny thing is the secret formula of many of these products is to start your own website selling “the dream” for others. So you have all of these people selling information products about how to teach others how to sell information products. Very meta.

Some of these “passive income” methods are so shady they border on fraud. An example includes selling books that you’ve outsourced the writing process to India for. You hire cheap labor to write 10-20 pages on how to lose weight, package it up, and publish it on Amazon. You do this for a hundred different topics, and let the dimes (literally) roll in.

The above method would really only provide you enough money to live in a developing country, which is why so many of these lifestyle entrepreneurs live abroad. They have to.

Like all get rich quick methods though, this method of selling outsourced books won’t work anymore after a period of time. So these same entrepreneurs will then create another product describing their secret formula on how to earn passive income, describing the now obsolete method. The launch of this product is the real money-maker

There are a million of these kooky ways to make money online. Most of them are scams, looking to take advantage of you.

So be careful who you listen to online. It can be very easy to fall in love with a dream someone is trying to sell you on. The love of your life might even turn out to be a 13-year old boy.

Some Much-Needed Brutal Honesty

My girlfriend just called me out.

She said I wasn’t hustling or working hard enough to achieve my goals, specifically waking up earlier.

I couldn’t deny it. It’s true, I have been slacking. And it’s clear that my girlfriend has a front row seat to my current lack of integrity. I said I would do something, and I haven’t. I’m not being true to my word. And if I haven’t been true to my word in this case, it’s unclear what she can count on me for in the future.

So what’s the consequence? Well, I feel shame, for one. Not only to myself, but to her, who wants to see nothing but the best for me. And when she saw that I hadn’t made enough of an effort, she was bold enough to call me out on it.

It’s not easy to objectively look at ourselves, but it’s absolutely essential if we want to improve. It’s tough, though, hearing something like that about yourself. The words sting at you. All sorts of mental barriers came up and excuses instantly popped into my head about the external factors that prevented me from doing what I said I would. I ignored the temptation to justify my lack of integrity, however. I simply allowed the pain of knowing I was in the wrong wash over me.

I needed the tough love, and I appreciated hearing it. It’s not often in life that someone will directly tell you about your personal weaknesses, allowing you to improve on them. We hate hearing bad news about ourselves, and our first instinct is to avoid it. Even when we do confront it, we try to explain it away or downplay it, like I almost did with my excuses ready at hand.

When my girlfriend finished her spiel, we were both relieved. Of course I knew that I hadn’t been achieving my goal of waking up earlier, but I hadn’t realized the impact of not staying true to my word. I came to terms with the fact that I had failed thus far, knew what I had to do going forward, and had an accountability partner. My girlfriend was relieved that I had really listened to her, and saw that I wasn’t going to take the easy way out by abdicating from my word.

No one said NY’s resolutions were easy. Here’s to leaning into the pain.