What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20

Near the end of my sophomore year, I read Tina Seelig's What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. The book is subtitled A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World and I think it really means it, with lots of solid examples and useful advice. I recommend you for a read and you can take a peek at my excerpts.

Though learned a lot from the book, I still went through ups and downs in my last two undergraduate years. That's life, you know. Along the way, I carefully introspected for every achievement as well as failure I had and collected some unstated truth which, though far from complete, I think would benefit many young people entering their 20s.

So here's my WIWIKWIW20, a list of random advice:

keep integrity

Do not cheat. Failure might be unacceptable to you as you hold high expectations of yourself. But that's not your excuse to resort to cheating. If you do and get caught, you are doomed. If you do but failed to get noticed, you get a false sense of success with shortcuts, which will change your attitude toward hard work and is another way of being doomed. You shouldn't be short-sighted, trading long-term success for short-term self-worthiness.

Keep promises. Trust is the best gift people give you and is the premise of future reliance on you. Don't let them down if you've promised them. If you find it hard to fulfil your promises, do not make easy pledges. Once you've given your word, try to over-deliver to surprise people.

Confess your guilt. If you don't consider yourself a saint, you are expected to make mistakes, faults and wrongs. Instead of trying to hold them back (and thus putting high mental pressure on yourself), speak it out to those who are involved or hurt, explain why you had to do this and express your sincere apologies. Most of the time, people will understand you and appreciate your honesty. Or they don't, then at least you are released from feeling guilty, which gets deeper and deeper as time goes. Remember, innocence doesn't mean not having any fault but means trying to avoid it and state it clear if it occurs.

break assumptions

We live with assumptions. Some are minor, say I suppose I can finish this assignment within 1 hour, while others are profound, like I'm a dull guy and unpopular among friends. Assumptions are essential in our life, silent and most of the time they happen the same as we think.

However, assumptions are just … assumptions, which may not work and lead to surprises, good or bad. I find tacit assumptions especially dangerous when interacting with other people: it's nothing when things go smoothly but it will be awful when things do go wrong. So for important stuff, I try my best to check the assumptions beforehand: will there be any traffic jam that make me late for the job interview? Are three pairs of trousers enough for this trip?

Besides checking assumptions for key events, breaking assumptions of yourself may get you further in your life. Never ride a roller coaster because it's too scary? Try to conquer it this time. Don't like that course because it's too difficult? Calm down for a read and maybe you can manage its complexity. Always had a narrow pass in 2400m? Make a 30-day plan and aim for 5000m (BTW, if you try, I bet it won't take you 30 days. My friend accomplished it in several days.). It's really interesting and rewarding to challenge yourself and exceed your (assumed) limit.

prepare for change

This one follows the previous one naturally.

We human love stability of our life (study/work, relationships with others, etc) because it gives a sense of safety, a property that the reality fits the expectation. Remember your surprise at unpopular John dating with a girl, your anger at a friend blowing you off, or sadness at the cancelation of an long-expected event?

I was once a person maintaining a fixed, precise schedule. A new event would be added in minute's scale. Things like "it depends" and "roughly at 5" horrified me. The result was that when I couldn't finish stuff in time I got angry about myself, or when someone didn't do as they said before I got angry about them. In a word, a control freak unable to control his life is always angry and frustrated.

The only unchangeable truth is that everything changes. I forget when I got this, but keeping this in mind helps a lot. You start to appreciate the dynamics of people's mind and the world around you. Embracing probability, you use but ifs more often: Let's see the movie Pacific Rim, but if there's no good seat, Fast & Furious 6 would be fine. I hope to find a place in the library, but if there's none, I could go to the teaching building. Andy is expected to arrive at 5, but if he's late, I can first read one more chapter of 1984.

You are less harsh about yourself, people around you and the even the whole environment. Your compatibility with the world would have a sudden increase.

be brave to give up

We are taught to endure, to be tenacious, to keep hard working over difficulties. Perseverance is a great quality to have. Most of the time it brings you success as expected and thus strengthens your self-esteem.

However, sometimes you get stuck and cannot find a way out, even you are trying hard. Worse, your relentless effort may only adds to the complexity of the problem. But giving up is still your least choice, since the opportunity cost would be too high: not only the already devoted effort is lost but your self-worthiness would suffer great damage.

What I would suggest is to definitely consider giving up as a high-priority choice, especially when you've actually realized that you are on the wrong path but have to be stubborn for this reason or another. In your early 20s, nothing is really that important or once-in-a-life. Opportunities are abundant (you will learn this in Tina Seelig's book). Only time is priceless, so don't waste it on dead ends.

Give up and learn from your failure.

action over complaint

People tend to complain about bad experiences. Sure, who lives a life without worry or trouble? Some speak out loud, and some, sensitive but silent beasts like me, utter curses to themselves.

But it's strange that many almost never find a solution to their pains. A friend of mine had a tooth ache and he simply complains about it every day. At first people around him were concerned but later nobody cares. Why not see the doctor? Another common scenario in life is when several friends hang out (for a movie, a trip, whatever) and some accident happens, everybody, thinking about "what if…"s and "had we…"s, start to complain (about each other). The anxiety, uncertainty and quarrel won't end until someone lights a bulb above her head and comes up with a solution.

You can't just complain and wait some miracle to happen. It never happens. If you really want to live a life maximizing for happiness, then stop complaining as quickly as possible and think about how to get through instead. For example, instead of complaining that a product you use sucks, you'd better send feedback so that you can get heard. You'd be amazed how effective such customer feedback is.

nothing is too late to do

I wonder how many people there are like me, who has many things worth doing but (almost) never put any resource doing any. Then gradually, the initial passion diminishes to a level where there's not enough motivation to do it any more. The the only thing I get at the end is deep regret and even a sense of guilt.

But you know what? You can just do it and you'll find it still worthwhile, as long as the core remains unchanged. The external factors don't really matter. I've heard the story that a man finally accomplishes something he's been missing for the whole life, more than once. You've heard of that, right?

The real sorry story happens as it passes some point and therefore you will never have a chance to do it. Never confessed your love for a girl but she's married. Wanna go to that country but now it's heavily polluted. Had a unique idea but someone else did it first.

You don't have to wait.

And for procrastinators, delaying near the deadline is already bad. Thinking I'm done. There's no way I can do it. and giving up without any struggle is even worse. You should do it, right now. There's always a chance.

health is a life-long investment

I used to stay up late, with infrequent all nighters (procrastinator, you get it). After a few hours of sleep I would get invigorated again, like a Duracell rabbit. The power of youth, you know, dude.

The first time I feel totally burnt out is the first night I moved to another campus. I packaged everything in the previous day and only had about 2-3 hours of sleep. The moving was laborious, took all day along and exhausted me. Unfortunately, a deadline was due the next day so I had to hurry. After having all my packages in place (no time to unpack them) and taking a shower, it's already dark. With a friend, I moved to McDonald's after the lab's closed, then to a net cafe after my laptop's power ran out. I guess when I finished 80% of what was expected, gosh, it was 5 am. After brief calculation, I realized that in the past 48 hours, I only slept around 8 hours. Collapsed in the chair, taking in the awful smell of the net cafe, I could feel my heart beating fast and loud. Thirsty and hunger were a minor problem then. It was a life threat, sort of. I just needed to take a nap. The "dream" was full of vast reveries although I think I didn't really fall asleep. I "got up" at 7 am and hurried to the lab to finish the final part. On the way to lab, a kind-hearted friend gave me something to eat but I had not a slight appetite. The deadline was 12 pm and I magically managed to get it done (in poor quality, sure). At lunch, a friend of mine vomited, me luckier. If I remember this right, I slept 10 out of the following 12 hours. The moment my back fell on the bed, I was asleep.

After this incident, I made three decisions:

  1. improve self-management and try to prevent this kind of tragedy happen again.
  2. if it's unavoidable, let it be and just sleep; it's not worth it damaging yourself to such a level to gain some stupid points.
  3. do regular exercises and live healthier.

People say you should do something crazy when you are young and have the passion, which I once misunderstood. But the truth is: getting older doesn't mean losing passion, and do crazy things doesn't mean damaging your health.

Health is the precondition of everything and it should be the item with extra-high priority on your to-do list. Meanwhile, doing exercises not only keeps you in shape, but also greatly enriches your life.

Finally, for those workaholics, life isn't all about hard work. Read this please.

make less safe choices

You are always told the safe paths: safe dishes to eat at an unfamiliar restaurant that are tasteful to most people, safe courses to elect that are most "cost-grade effective", safe career path where you are about to take a middle managerial role at 35, and so on.

And most of the times, maybe, you follow them. Why not? Not being part of the mainstream incurs (much) more risk. Nobody likes taking risk. Or really?

The problem is that doing things everybody does imposes a greater chance that you become an ordinary person. By ordinary I mean near the middle of a normal distribution. In contrast, following less safe paths makes you a more unique entity. Having a (relatively) less popular hobby, electing a purported difficult course, trying some food with strange name or fancy appearance… (but don't be too extreme.)

This is actually a problem of probability. Safe choices may be statistically better, but there's still a chance they don't fit you well. And vice versa. Moreover, safe paths may be the result of Matthew Effect and Anecdotal Evidence. You should be critical about this matter.

A specific form of whether to take less safe path is when you get an idea for improvement but have no authority. Naturally, you have two choices: wait for authority, or just do it and beg for forgiveness afterwards. This problem is also discussed in Tina Seeling's book. You should figure out this yourself.

attack the essential problem

Life is said to be much more complex than mathematics. I cannot agree more. When you finally make the decision to get your hands on something, most of the time you will realize that, gee, despite the apparent difficulty, this problem is even harder with all the real-life constraints.

You gotta focus on the core issue.

If you find it hard to start working on a problem, you should take a while to think about this issue. If your process is to first find a comfortable place, ensure nice lighting and low disturbance, take some extra activities (like browsing the web meaninglessly) to get yourself in the zone and even get your favourite tea ready, you are doomed. Instead, as long as you get the right problem, the right tools and a conscious mind, you should jump directly to solving it. Just forget about the place, the environment, and everything extraneous.

I learned this from a friend of mine. He has a large knapsack and there's everything in it. It's heavy to carry but this enables him to have the tools to most problems at any time. Power running out? Get the adapter. No Wi-Fi in this room? Get the network cable. Outlet too far away? Get the power strip. In the zone but hungry? Get some food. I would wow every time he conquers an extraneous problem with no effort. We were teammates for many times. He would open his laptop and start coding immediately after he has some idea or we find some bugs in discussion, regardless of the place we are and what we are doing. I'm really inspired.

Non-essential factors can be dynamic. For example you are going to see a movie and everything's ready, but it happens to rain. Your mood might be destroyed and you start to complain about the weather. Keep in mind the large picture, don't let tiny, annoying things disturb you. When noticing that you've digressed, ask yourself: has the core problem changed? If not, return to the right path. In the above example, ask yourself if you really want to see the movie. If yes, just grab an umbrella and go for it.

be reasonable

I gradually realized that reason is not absolute and truth might be vague. The key is people. Telling the whole truth sometimes hurts them, so it depends whether to do that. I also learned that for me, I prefer to nod my head on something I actually don't agree about rather than involve in a quarrel, since most of the time it's not worth it. Everyone has his own system of beliefs and it causes trouble to break it with force. Most of the time people sit around a table for a leisure talk, not for a debate contest. Not everybody owns a PhD.

By the way, you should also beware that most stuffs in your mind are just opinions, not facts. Admitting you don't know or holding back your opinions is not a sign of weakness.

In relationships with people, especially strangers or acquaintances, white lies and half truth are great for consensus and reconciliation. If telling the whole truth hurts people, only do it when there's an absolute necessity. It's harder to be kind than clever.

We are emotional creatures. When we are in a bad mood, are hurt or ecstatic, we make irrational decisions. But often they will hurt ourselves in the end. So be alert and think twice when you make a decision in such a state.

So the random pieces of advice end here. Maybe I'll add more and correct some in the future. Though fragmented, the list items share the same core: 1. be a person holding the right standards, and 2. don't impose limitations on yourself.

Hope this rant is helpful to you. :)