Looking back on my first years out of school and the countless mistakes I made, I can’t help but feel that any success I’ve enjoyed is more through dumb luck than any particular brilliance on my part.
Through Farnam Street, I detail my journey of self-discovery and learning. Basically, I explore two things in parallel:
First is the enduring search for how we should live and what it means to live a good life. And second, more practically, I explore things we can learn and connect that better equip us to solve problems by thinking.
While unqualified, I’m often asked to give advice to young people who are just beginning their own journey of self-discovery. With that disclaimer, let me share a few things that I’ve learned in the hopes that these help you navigate your journey.
1. Learn to say “I don’t know.”
Being caught without an opinion on something can be the kiss of death for the modern knowledge worker. This fosters an environment where we borrow our opinions from others without doing the necessary thinking.
And to make matters worse, once blurted out, we feel the need to defend these borrowed opinions because we don’t want to appear inconsistent. So we end up defending a superficial opinion based on the thoughts of others all because we couldn’t say three simple words: “I don’t know.”
2. Learn the difficult skill of changing your mind.
When was the last time you changed your mind on something? If you’re honest, it was probably a long time ago. We tend to accumulate knowledge and assume, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that we are right.
The point here is to re-examine your conclusions and attitudes. When someone has a better one, adopt it. Seek evidence that contradicts what you think and try to explain it.
3. Your reputation for helping others is the most important thing.
Harry Truman had a saying that resonates a lot with me: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
The thirst for credit fuels our ego. When culturally reinforced, this leads to predictably disastrous outcomes. Ego often prevents us from being as generous as we would like. It causes us to show how smart we are by making others look bad rather than making them look good.
Ego causes us to withhold information. And so on. When your ego gets too big, people won’t want to work with you. Help others achieve their goals and you’ll be amazed at the places you’ll go.
4. Knowing what to avoid is often more valuable than knowing what you think you want.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is invert the problem. It’s often as helpful to know what you want to avoid as what you want. Things that ruin lives tend to be predictable over time.
Avoid debt or leverage as well as over-consumption of drugs and alcohol. But there are some less obvious things to avoid.
For instance, when you start out in the workforce you’re looking for a cool place to work, but the person you work for is important, too.
Generally you want to work with people who have three traits: intelligence, energy and integrity. Avoid at all costs the seductive allure of smart people that lack integrity.
Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond. Learn to recognize mistakes and correct them. (see #2.)
6. Goal-orientated people mostly fail.
Goal-oriented people mostly fail. What you really want is a system that increases your odds of success. Even if that system only improves the odds a little it adds up over a long life.
Friendship is more than just being there for your friends. Being a great friend means that you let your friends be there for you.
This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.
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