A few days ago, whilst visiting Jakarta, Indonesia, I was asked by some young people if I had any advice for them. I was flattered, of course. But talking to Millennials about the challenges they face is difficult. It feels rather presumptuous to lecture the current generation of up-and-comers. Having grown up with high-tech, they’re probably very well suited to thrive and become leaders in the brave new connected world without the advice of people from the generation whose legacy is that we’ll be leaving the planet in a considerably worse state than when we found it. The world is in the midst of cultural and economic upheaval. Perhaps that’s nothing new, but it is challenging, to say the least. There’s so much information, so many choices, so much distraction. Just those things alone present more complexity than any generation has ever had to deal with.
But perhaps wisdom really does come from real-world experience and maybe it’s relevant to every generation. So I wondered to myself what I would want to tell my twenty year old self. And here’s what I came up with…
If you want to achieve great things, you have to do great work. If your goal is to just skate by in life, you can probably pull that off without much effort. But if you want to accomplish some great things that give your life meaning, you’ll have to do great work. You only get out of this life what you put into it.
Take big risks. Roll the dice. Jump into the deep end of the pool. (I’d like to say “dive”, but I can’t quite bring myself to go head first.). Throw caution to the wind. Be fearless. Success in your career and wider society are a function of your willingness to face your fears and take chances. That simple but powerful truth is probably the most important piece of advice anyone can give you.
Travel. Always seek to broaden your experience. Perhaps the best stroke of luck I ever had was being invited by the UK Scouts to become their International Commissioner. The opportunities I had to travel and meet people from other cultures with vastly different life experiences completely changed the way I viewed the world.
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s a certain time factor related to all goals, strategies, and achievements. The bigger the objective, the bolder the strategy, the more rewarding the accomplishment, the longer it takes, generally speaking. That runs contrary to our attention deficit culture and our growing addiction to instant gratification. You need to fight that real-time tug to achieve long-term results.
There’s a certain balance to the equation of life. In school, you learn that there’s symmetry in the world. Every force has an equal and opposite reaction. Chemical equations must balance. Supply and demand are intimately related. Life is no different. It’s full of tradeoffs and cause and effect relationships. You’ll never get something for nothing. Everything has a price. First you do the work, then you get rewarded. You give, then you get. Those equations appear throughout your career, your life, the business world, everything.
You probably take yourself too seriously. Children have enormous egos. They think everything revolves around them. That self-centered worldview is essential to survival. But in adulthood, it can be a real problem. Maturity is very much about developing empathy for others, about understanding their needs and wants, what drives and motivates them. I am still trying to grow up.
Try not to make self-limiting assumptions based on limited experience. When you’re young, there’s a temptation to be headstrong, to make sweeping decisions based on limited information. For example, it’s popular these days to romanticise entrepreneurship, but it’s not for everyone. Keep your options open.
Don’t confuse freedom with entitlement. You’re actually entitled to very little in life, but it should be enough. The USA’s founding fathers were brilliant. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is phrased that way for a reason. With those basic building blocks, you’re free to pursue what you will. The rest is entirely up to you. Your happiness and success are in your hands–and only your hands.
Real success takes real relationships in the real world. The Internet has definitely levelled the playing field. And social networks enable you to connect with virtually anyone. But if you have real aspirations, you’ll need to develop real relationships with real people in real time.
Have faith that things will work out for you. Steve Jobs said it best. “You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something–your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”
Or, to put it another way, “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, then it isn’t the end…”
I wouldn’t think of depriving any young person of the chance of learning these lessons in their own good time. If they want to throw caution to the wind as I suggested earlier, they should go ahead and hit “delete.” I suspect that the twenty year old me would not have listened to the forty eight year old me with much interest. The young people I spoke to last week listened very politely, but I suspect they were just humouring me.
But there’s an old expression that I think still applies in our information society: “Forewarned is forearmed.” And, after all, you can never go back.