At the end of every semester, I get a very weird responsibility. By the nature of my teaching schedule, for about a quarter of my students, my Monday evening class ends up as their last class ever. Twelve years of primary and secondary school, four years of college, and on one random Monday evening, I’m the last one standing between them and academic freedom.
So, after I wrap up my final lesson, I tack on a few extra minutes to talk about this very special moment in their lives. Here’s what I say: this is the day the escalator stops.
Nuances of personal circumstances aside, until this point, life keeps pushing upward and forwards. First grade turns into second grade; high school turns into college; fall semester turns into spring semester. As long as you don’t hop off or fall off, the path is pretty clearly laid out for you – right up to the minute you walk out of commencement in a few days.
When the escalator stops, you have to figure out how to live a life for yourself. Do you get a job? Do you make a job? Where do you spend your life? Who do you spend your life with? Who do you want to be tomorrow? Who do you want to be in fifty years?
There’s no right or wrong answer to any of these questions. But I implore you to answer them consciously; otherwise outside forces will answer them for you – and there’s a chance you might not like the result.
This is not sage wisdom. This is just the truth. I certainly don’t know all the answers to these questions for myself.
Since I can’t answer these questions for you, I’ll give you a few answers that I do have a pretty good sense of. One caveat before the list, a bit of meta-advice: remember that all advice is autobiographical. When people give you advice, they’re really giving advice to their younger selves. Take that grain of salt with everything here and beyond.
- Get your LinkedIn up and polished. No typos. No blank spots. It's the one social network that is still worth it for everybody.
- Connect on LinkedIn with everybody you know. But don’t be too weird about it.
- Make sure you have at least one really great professional photo of yourself – that’s not more than five years old. You’ll need this more often than you’d expect.
- Buy yourname.com, set up a landing page on something like Carrd and point the domain there. Buy the .org too if you can.
- Register @yourname on everything. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around.
- Every time you meet somebody professionally, send them a note (the next day). You can follow this cadence to be remembered but not annoying: Day 1: Meet. Day 2: Send an email. Day 3: Connect on LinkedIn.
- Sign up for MailChimp or something similar, add everybody you meet to your list and send brief career updates once in a blue moon. Keep in touch, but don’t spam.
- Sometimes moving a job is the right decision even if you like where you are.
- Get really good at writing, design, or both. Communicating is 50% of all work.
- Try to make a dollar at some point. Try to make and sell something, to do a freelance service for somebody, or anything else that makes you money not via payroll.
- People disproportionately remember assholes. Don’t be one.
- Check your spam folder at least once a week. A surprising number of the most important emails in your life will accidentally end up in there.
- There are not many problems of quality than quantity doesn't solve. If you want to be a better programmer, writer, or chef, then program, write, or cook every day.
- Generally, don’t get into debt. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, but you really don’t need to pay interest on that bar tab or H&M haul.
- Don’t buy shit you don’t need. When you have to move, you realize how much stuff falls into that category.
- Keep the big expenses down. Buy or rent a smaller home, or older car. After that, everything else pretty much solves itself.
- Set up a 401k and get that sweet, sweet employer match.
- Set up a Roth IRA and put in whatever you can.
- Buy a bunch of index funds in both of those and just sit back. Day trading is for suckers.
- Finding ways to make more money is often easier than finding ways to cut spending. You can only save to zero. You can earn to infinity.
- Buy most of your stuff on credit cards, but pay it all back every month. If you are disciplined about it, you’ll build credit, get a few bucks back, and benefit from a number of other perks.
- Sometimes, spending is more important than saving. A thousand dollars on a trip in your 20s that you’ll remember forever is far more valuable than an extra ten thousand dollars in your 60s.
- Everybody I’ve ever met thinks that the salary that solves all their problems is coincidentally about 50% higher than what they currently make. Beware the hedonic treadmill.
- Find meaning outside of money.
- Don’t let laziness be the reason you lose friends. Be willing to be the person that reaches out and makes the plans. It’s counterintuitive, but not every relationship has to be 50/50 for it to be worthwhile.
- Increase your surface area of luck. Regularly get out there and explore new ideas and meet new people. The Kool-Aid Man isn’t bursting through your wall to hand you a new job or a romantic partner.
- The best way to become friends with somebody new is to act like they are already your friends. That’s how we made friends in pre-school, and it still works.
- Be the person that hosts, the person that plans. If you want to go to a dinner party, host a dinner party. If you want to be on a softball team, organize a softball team.
- Ask them out, the worst that happens is a no.
- It’s never too late to reach back out to an old friend, mentor, or colleague. They’ll appreciate hearing from you.
- Most of the time you spend with your family is already done. It’s later than you think – make the most of your time.
- Make your house a home. Decorate and organize it like you give a shit. Invite people over, even if it’s not perfect. Our places shape us.
- Get your sleep. Buy the nice mattress, pillows, and sheets if that helps you get it.
- Don’t drink your calories. A lot of problems go away when you mostly drink water, tea, coffee, and seltzer instead of sodas and juices.
- Try to eat a vegetable every now and then, and then figure out how to prepare them in a way that you crave.
- Find a way to avoid screens as your first and last thing. This is easier said than done.
- Get into a habit of working out, ideally first thing in the morning. Not much comes up at 6:00AM to derail your workout plans – but 6:00PM is an hour full of excuses.
- As part of that workout, lift heavy things.
- Develop a healthy relationship with drugs and alcohol. Maybe for you that relationship is none.
- Find a hobby that moves your body that you can still do when you are 75: biking, hiking, tennis, golf, yoga, etc.
- Wear sunscreen. There’s a reason that everybody who looked hot twenty years ago still looks good.
- Floss. My dentist once told me that you only need to floss the teeth you want to keep. I’ve flossed pretty much every day since then.
- Take a multivitamin, probably.
And a few more
- Read more books. They’re great.
- Read real news (but not too much). Paul Simon sang that “the only news I need is on the weather report,” and he wasn’t entirely wrong – in the content economy, most "news" is noise.
- Just email people. The answer to every question you don’t ask is no.
- If you ever find yourself stuck or directionless, organize an event. A big meetup or conference can jumpstart your career, but even just a picnic can give your days purpose and fulfillment.
- Simplify your stuff (wardrobe, kitchen etc.) to minimize your thinking about it. Your stuff shouldn’t take up your mind.
- Try to take care of something (a plant, a fish, a dog, a baby).
- Travel while you can – but don’t be guilted by Instagram. Your dream trip doesn’t have to be somebody else’s.
- Take more photos of people, that’s what you ultimately want to remember. There are already lots of stock photos of the Eiffel Tower.
- Love the weird or nerdy stuff you love, unashamedly (my nerdy love is Star Trek). One of the nice things about growing up and making a few bucks is that you get to spend it on whatever stuff makes you happy.
- Spend some time trying to understand the world around you: What type of trees are on your street? Why is your neighborhood named what it is? How does the caffeine in your coffee actually work? Being interested makes you interesting.
Lastly, through everything, keep this in mind from the stoic philosopher Seneca:
"Life is long if you know how to use it"
Congratulations and give 'em hell.