Recently, a person in their early twenties approached me with a pretty smart question: "What can I do now to help me be successful, no matter what I decide to do in the future?"
In a way, this is a personal version of the prototypical strategy question that arises amidst uncertainty. Much has been written about this on the business side – far less has been said about individual success in these same conditions.
My personal views on this question have been formed over the course of a career defined by random (but extremely intense) curiosity and experimentation. All things considered, I suppose that I subscribe to a theory of strategy by discovery.
My response to the young man? Here goes...
Do something. The most important thing you can do now that will lead to future success is something. Anything. The project you choose is less important than the fundamental skills you'll build in bringing it to life:
- How to push things forward. Whether it's a song, a t-shirt, an app, or a startup, bringing a project to life is an exercise in diligence. Successful people know how to move the puck forward every day.
- How to solve problems. Every moving/growing thing is fighting against entropy and inevitably challenges arise. Successful people know how to break them down and solve them, calmly and confidently.
- How to rally others. To bring a meaningful project to life, you'll eventually have to work with other people. Not only do successful people work well with others, but they motivate them to do their best work.
While you're busy doing something and learning those skills, here are a few tips to guide your way:
- Think about the critical path. Considering all the activities and achievements you might want to pursue, think about the critical path. What is available to you now that won't keep until later? What choices now might unlock different opportunities in the future?
- Pick projects that have natural end points and stand a chance of getting noticed. Do something on Kickstarter. Make something and sell it. Be audacious. Try charging ten times as much as you think you can for something you put your heart into. Try charging nothing and building a movement.
- Surround yourself with "A" players. If you're truly as smart and capable as you think you are, you're wasting your time in a small talent pool. You need to be challenged by the people around you. The best indication of future success is your peer group. That could mean going to Stanford or Yale. It could mean joining TechStars or Y Combinator. It could mean packing a duffle bag and heading to a big city like SF or NYC or London or Boston. Put yourself in a position to be amazed by the people around you. You'll be blown away by how it impacts your motivation.
- Read a lot and write even more. If you're not reading the blogs and books of the smartest people in your field(s), you're missing it. And if you're not writing your own POV on all things considered, you're sitting on the sidelines. Writing is learning.
- Ask. Ask for the meeting. Ask for help. Offer help. Introduce yourself. Be aggressive.
- Take risks. You're young. Screw up. Try too hard. Risk it all. Money is a renewable resource, time is not (yet).
- Pick a craft with a lifetime of runway. Watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi and you'll see what I mean. Don't worry about being successful - worry about doing your craft better each day than the day before, and compound that year after year. You'll be the best in the world. Very few people have the discipline to do this.