This is based on a talk first presented to the prefects at my old school, Rongotai College, in 2014, and repeated since then at other schools. I always enjoy meeting the senior students and hearing how they think. Please get in touch if you’d like me to give a similar talk to a group at your school.
“Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
— Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune
I’d like to pretend that it wasn’t too long ago since I was in Year 13.
Actually it was so long ago that back then we used the imperial naming system and called it 7th Form. But I do still remember sitting where you are. Old people like me would come to speak to us too, and they would inevitably give the same old tired advice: work hard, do your best, follow your passion, yada, yada.
I never found that especially practical or inspiring. So, instead, I thought it would be more interesting to start with a hard question:
“What is something you believe that nearly no one else does?” 1
Most people don’t have a good answer to this!
I think that this is an important distinction to make:
When you are at school, success is measured by how well you can do things that people have done before. That’s important. You’re building a foundation for yourself by understanding all of the things that others have discovered and learned.
But, once you leave school, it’s the exact opposite: success is often measured by how well you can do things that nobody has done before and, what’s more, that most people don’t think you can do.
By definition, to be successful you just have to do those things that most people don’t.
Think about that...!
Here are five specific things that I believe that it seems like most people don’t:
“Technology is only technology to people born before it was invented”2
— Alan Kay
“That’s why we don’t argue anymore about whether the piano is corrupting music with technology”
— Seymore Papert
Most people, especially as they get older, are not curious about how things are made and how things work.
Most people assume the world is just the way it is, and that their job is to live inside that world3.
However, actually, everything was made by somebody - the places where we live and work, buildings, shops and offices; the vehicles we get around in, cars and bikes and planes; our public spaces, streets, bridges, parks; the clothes and shoes we wear; the sports we play and even the teams we support; the devices that power our lives: computers, phones, software (not to mention the power stations and electricity network that make it all possible); all of the things which entertain us: television shows and movies, art, music, theatre; even the schools, companies, organisations and institutions that make up our communities, with their rules and traditions and processes.
Don’t assume that the people who made any of these things are any different from you or that you couldn’t find some ways to make improvements if you’re so inclined.
When I was younger I used to enjoy taking things apart to see what was inside. One time I dismantled our VCR4. It’s easy to assume that the devices we use everyday, and increasingly depend upon, are a bit magical. But, once you take off the cover you realise that actually this is an object that has been designed by somebody and that a lot of thought has gone into it - for example I discovered that the head which reads the signal off the tape was oriented on a specific angle, so that the width of the tape could be thinner. It wasn’t magic, it was design!
Likewise, whenever I get the chance to watch world class sports people compete live, I try and get to the venue early to watch them go through their warm-up routines. If it’s a team, I try to focus on one player at a time and see the various drills they complete. It’s easy to assume they are superhumans, but actually they are just skilful individuals, preparing methodically, and together with their coaches they have thought about how they want to perform as individuals or as a team. They are following a well-considered plan.
Once you understand this about the world, you realise something important: you can change it, influence it, improve it, and build your own things that others can use to make their own lives better.
So, be discontent. Look out especially for things that make you angry or frustrated5. Don’t just accept things the way they are. Ask yourself, who made them? Why are they made that way? And, what could you do differently to make those things better?
Most people don’t take risks, because they worry about what other people will think if they fail.
I’m not saying you should be happy to fail. I think a healthy fear of failure is a great motivator to do the hard work you’ll inevitably have to do if you aspire to do anything interesting. If you do fail, it will hurt, and so it should - go and feel terrible for a bit, then remind yourself that you’re not most people.
(Some people think that we should be more tolerant of failure in New Zealand. Some people even suggest that we should celebrate failure the way they do in the US. Interestingly, not very many of those people are as excited when I suggest that quid-pro-quo we should also celebrate success like they do in the US. Vive la inequality!)
I am saying you shouldn’t be scared to try.
Most people are generally optimistic, so their thinking tends to be mostly wishful thinking.
The important thing is not to be scared of taking risks, but to better understand the risks you are taking. Try anything, provided you have a plan for getting back on your feet if and when you do fall on your face.
This was my experience. After I left school I went to university and worked hard and got a good degree. After I graduated I was fortunate to get a good job at a good company with good prospects for a good career. And then, after a few years of that, I quit to start my own venture. At the time, most of the people who knew me thought I was mad, and that I was throwing my career away6. Actually they were probably right to be worried - there was a very slim chance that what I was doing would be successful and a much greater chance that it would be a complete flop.
But I didn’t think I was taking a big risk. Because of the work I’d done and the opportunities I’d had, I was confident that if I did fail I could always go back to wearing a suit-and-tie and working for somebody else. It would have been embarrassing, but not fatal.7. But, given what happened, it would have been a much greater failure not to have tried just in order to not seem a bit crazy to people who didn’t understand that.
So, don’t spend too much time agonising about what other people think. Especially those who are lot older than you, like me! With age comes experience, and with experience comes an understanding of all of the reasons why something is impossible, as well as a much greater fear of falling.
(And for good reason: when you are a kid you fall on your face multiple times a day and it doesn’t make much difference, but by the time you are an old person a fall can literally be life threatening, so it’s worth constantly assessing where you are on that spectrum!)
There is a caveat to this, which is that most people who make things are terrified of criticism, so they generally prefer to keep the new things they are working on secret until some mythical point in the future where the thing is finished and perfect. This is nearly always a mistake. As Elon Musk says, better to take the view that you are wrong and that your job is to be less wrong and the best way to do that is by asking for considered feedback from anybody who will give it to you, but especially from your friends who know you well, and will give you an honest opinion.
By the same measure, don’t spend too much time judging other people for the risks they take. It’s a foolish thing to predict somebody else will fail anyway, as if you’re right then you look mean and if you’re wrong you look silly, so you lose no matter what happens.
Most people think they need permission from somebody else, before they get to work on the things they’re interested in and passionate about.
As you decide what to study at university you’ll learn about prerequisites. That is, somebody else will decide what things you need to have done first in order to qualify for the things you want to do next.
This is how it works on reality television too. If you want to be a “pop idol” or “master chef” the way to do this is to wait for the auditions for the show to come to your town, then line up with all of the other hopefuls, compete in some contrived challenges and have your fate decided by some random celebrity who will give you the thumbs up or thumbs down, followed by either fifteen minutes of fame or shame.
(Of course if you want to be a real pop idol or master chef, without the double quotes, then probably best to avoid the televised audition - do the hard yards in the relative anonymity of the shadows).
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the whole world is like this, and to continue with that mindset once you leave school. But, reality television isn’t real. If you want to do anything interesting you nearly always have to work it all out for yourself.
This is not to say you should ignore the experience of those who have gone before you. You should learn as much as you can about the things they did right, and wrong. Just don’t wait for them to open the door for you.
It’s worth constantly asking yourself: what or who are you waiting for?
If it’s not clear then often the best option is to just press on and do what seems like the logical next step to you, based on what you’ve learned so far. If you’re wrong then you may find yourself having to apologise to the owners of the toes you’ve stepped on, but that’s nearly always better than leaving yourself to wonder what could have been.
Most people think they need to work for somebody else.
Luckily, not everybody, or else there would be no jobs.
Of course, to start with you almost certainly will work for somebody else.
That’s not a bad thing. While you do, try to treat them as a “we” rather than a “they”. Your boss was in your position once, probably not that long ago. Aim to become what they are, and get them to help you with that, rather than spending your life being suspicious and resentful.
On the other hand, don’t put them on a pedestal. They are likely unsure about a lot of things too, and will need your help. That’s why they’ve hired you, right?
When I work with early-stage companies, I always encourage the founders to hire people smarter than them who could, if things go well, eventually do their job. Because, when everybody hires their replacement that enables them to take on more responsibility at the next level up. That’s how you grow a great team. A’s hire A’s. But it’s a scary thought for most people. B’s hire C’s.
Most people mindlessly believe what they see on television and read in the media.
Always ask yourself: who is telling the story, and why? It’s okay to be suspicious. Think about what that person or group is trying to sell you, or how they might benefit from having you believe one thing or another.
You should learn about the different types of bias that can confuse or distort how stories are presented.
For example, history is normally written by the winners. The reason I get to tell my story is because the things I’ve worked on have mostly been successful. You normally don’t get to hear from the many others who tried similar things and didn’t have the same result, even though you would probably actually learn a lot more from them than you can from me.
You should seek out media coverage of a topic that you know well. You’ll most likely find that it’s confused and shallow, if not inaccurate and misleading. Then, extrapolate from that and consider what this means about all of the other areas where you are not knowledgeable and therefore take what is reported at face value.
You should look for repeating patterns.
One of my guilty pleasures is seeing how the media cover large Lotto jackpots. It’s the same stories repeated every single time: the buzz of anticipation as the prize pool grows; the excitement of the “lucky” outlet that has beaten the odds and sold the winning ticket; and finally the winner, once identified, will inevitably tell journalists about all of the things they are going to spend their windfall on, while at the same time wanting to remain anonymous and/or continue with their existing life.
Interestingly, we never hear from the unlucky losers.
We soak in this sort of high-calorie/low-nutrition news constantly, and hopefully (from the perspective of the people selling us the stories) also notice the advertisements which are sold around them.
You should try to avoid confusing famous and successful. Those that make the most noise about their achievements aren’t always the only ones who are most deserving of your respect or attention. It’s good to have heroes and role models to compare yourself to, but be careful who you choose. Try not to compare your inside with anybody else’s outside. Chances are you don’t have to dig too deep in order to find some major flaws or shades of grey.
And, don’t forget that everybody spins their story. I’m doing it right now! Few things are as simple, or obvious or absolute as they are often presented.
Last but not least...
Most people don’t realise the influence that their friends and colleagues have on their life.
We all normalise our behaviour. We reasonably quickly become the average of the people we spend the most time with. If you hang around with people who behave a certain way, odds are that you will behave that way too, for better or for worse (unfortunately this seems to be true for negative behaviours just as much as for positive behaviours). So, it’s important that you choose those people carefully.
You can use this to help you change something about yourself that you want to change. If you want to be fit and healthy, choose friends who are fit and healthy. If you want to stop smoking, stop spending time with people who smoke. If you want a better balance between work time and family time, find people to work with who already organise themselves this way. Likewise, if you want to really push yourself in your career it will be much easier in a company where your colleagues are doing the same.
At the same time, work hard to keep in touch with the friends you’ve made at school, because you’re probably not going to have the same opportunity again. It may seem to you now like that will be easy. At the moment you all have a lot in common. More than you realise. But, once you leave you’ll find your lives diverge quite quickly. Some of you will go to university, and study different things. Some of you will get jobs. You’ll find yourselves in different places around the country and around the world. Some of you will have a family. Some of you won’t. But, either way, all of you will get older, and as you do it’s worth remembering those who knew you before you were any of those things. They will keep you honest.
So...think about the definition of success. You don’t have to be most people if you don’t want to be. You just have to ask yourself: what is it you believe that nobody else does?
(1) This is an interview question recommened by Peter Thiel in his book Zero To One.
Peter was asked this question himself in an AMA on Reddit and his answer was:
“Most people believe that capitalism and competition are synonyms, and I think they are opposites”
Ben Horowitz adds a follow-up that is potentailly even more interesting:
“And, how did you learn it?”
(2) But, as Danny Hillis points out:
“Technology is everything that doesn’t work yet”
(3) This is not an original observation, and not even an original wording. I’m directly quoting Steve Jobs from this old video:
(4) At this point in the talk I segue into a brief lesson in ancient history, to explain what a VCR is, but assuming the audience for this post is a bit older than at the schools, I’ll skip that here and just provide a link to Wikipedia.
“Boring people focus on the past, restless people focus on the future and content people focus on the present. The lucky ones are those who are content, but the restless ones change the world”
(6) Interestingly, there was only one person who was brave enough to say this to my face at the time - the managing partner at the company who had hired me, and he may have just been saying that in his own self-interest, hoping that I’d change my mind. It turns out that there is also some risk telling somebody that they are throwing their career away, as they may turn out to be making a fantastic decision which will make you look a bit silly down the track.
(7) Actually, my observation is that this almost never happens, because in the course of trying something new you change, and so the thing you want to do next is something different, even if you fail.