Scott W. Bradley

in which scottwb thinks out loud

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If I Were 22

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This is a re-post of an article I published on LinkedIn today.

There’s a trending topic going around on LinkedIn, where people talk about what lessons they would impart to their 22-year-old selves. “10 things I wish I had known,” “10 lessons I’ve learned,” “10 pieces of wisdom,” etc. Well, mine goes to 11…

1. Don’t dream someone else’s dream.

It’s very easy to get sucked into pursuing somebody else’s dream. They have passion and vision and can be very convincing. Silicon Valley is built on 22-year-olds breaking their backs and pulling all-nighters to make someone else’s dream a reality. At 22, I used to think, “I have plenty of time to sacrifice everything at startups and start over from scratch when I’m 30.” It doesn’t work that way. When the founder’s dream turns into a nightmare, you’re now living their nightmare with them. Statistically speaking, this is most likely how it will turn out. Pursue your own dreams.

2. You’re not to young to go out on your own.

I wrote a letter to my grandfather when I was 16. In it, I described how I wanted to write my own story, make an impact, do something daring, and not just be a 9-5 employee the rest of my life. It seems by 22, I had forgotten that…or at least tricked myself into thinking that working for a nice salary at a startup somehow fulfilled that ambition. If it’s comfortable and the only risk is your company going out of business, you’re not really daring to do anything extraordinary with your career. Having started my own company now, I can tell you with certainty that I had all the tools I needed to do it when I was 22…and no wife and kids to make me think twice about the risks.

3. Put it out on the line. Take risks.

If you have nothing to risk, you probably have nothing to gain. Wake up young 22-year-old Scott! Just because you are working at a startup that may make it big, or may crash and burn, does not mean you are risking anything as long as you’re getting a comfy salary and good benefits. Sure, you’ll learn a lot and gain great experiences, but you will do that wherever you go. The only real way to elevate to the next level is because you have to. Stay hungry. And more importantly, realize that failure is not the end of the story.

4. Don’t try to be an airbrushed supermodel.

Young women often grow up with body image and self-esteem issues because they compare themselves to the models on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. As we all know, those models are all airbrushed and photoshopped. In real life even those models cannot compare to those pictures, because those pictures are not real. The same thing applies to entrepreneurs trying to build the next big product or business. When I was 22, everyone was talking about being “the next Microsoft”. Today it’s Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. These are outliers, and their successes are touted in the media until we come to believe they were overnight successes. Their stories suffer from survivor bias, and they are all “airbrushed” for public consumption. Don’t get star-struck by Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg. Don’t longingly dream of working at the perfect workplace with awesome cultures like GitHub, 37signals, Heroku, and Dropbox. Everyone’s public persona is airbrushed. Blindly comparing your behind-the-scenes to their highlight reels is a surefire way to cast self-doubt and anxiety.

5. You’re not your job.

At 22, I hadn’t seen Fight Club yet. And when I did, I missed much of the point. Watch it again 20 years later and you’ll see what I mean. One of the many great quotes from this movie goes like this:

“You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.” –Tyler Durden

Is Charles Barkley measured by how many championships he won? No. He’s measured by his performance, not by his teams’ outcomes. If he was measured by his championships, he’d be a big fat zero. Instead, he’s a hall-of-fame legend who’s considered to be one of the best to ever play the game. And he was able to parlay that into a many other successes in life.

You’re not your job. You’re not your startup acquisition. You’re not your IPO, your products, or your company. You’re the sum of your experiences, the connections you make, the ethos you uphold, and the way you treat other people.

6. It’s all about relationships.

It’s been said time and time again, “It’s all about who you know.” There’s some truth to that. The saying carries a negative stigma. Perhaps instead it should be, “It’s all about who knows you.” Make your boss look good, network with your peers, mentor your subordinates. Don’t be the superhero, making sure you’re always the one who comes to save the day. Let other people be heroes sometimes. Help them be the hero. Get out there and network, see how everyone else does it – and respect and learn from it. Don’t stay in Plato’s Cave thinking that you’re so smart you can figure out everything for yourself. There are smart people out there that you can learn from. This will pay off tenfold down the road.

7. Don’t associate with people that brag about their failed relationships.

If the first conversation with a prospective boss involves bragging about how much of a hard-ass he was when he fired the last wave of employees because they were idiots, that’s a big red flag. He’s either constantly hiring idiots, or he’s the idiot. I’ve known people who have never held a job for more than 6 months, and their reason for leaving is always something about how the company was mismanaged, the boss was a jerk, the team wasn’t smart enough, etc.

Likewise, don’t be that guy. It turns out Mom was right when she said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Ignore this advice at your own peril.

8. Lifestyle is more important than money.

When buying a home, they tell you the three most important factors are location, location, and location. For building your career, think “lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle.” It’s not to say that mastery, autonomy, purpose, money, titles, upside, coworkers, etc. aren’t important…in fact, those are all factors in your lifestyle. But consider things like commuting and vacation time. How much better is your life when you can have flex time to eat breakfast with your kids, vacation whenever you want, work from anywhere in the world, and not have to waste an average of 33 hours per month sitting in traffic? Studies show that people give up 20-30% in salary for these kinds of benefits. I’ve made those kinds of decisions, and I believe those studies are bang on.

9. Build habits intentionally.

The older you get, the harder habits are to build, and the harder they are to break. Decide, while you’re young, what habits you want to develop (and which you don’t!) and deliberately design your trigger-routine-reward habit loops to set yourself up for success. In my youth habits formed unintentionally. Then, they were much harder to break when I got older. It seems the negative side-effects of bad habits are masked by youth…but they will catch up with you. Address them while it’s easy.

10. Choose to be healthy over being macho.

My generation of software developers pioneered an odd machismo culture of pulling all-nighters, drinking energy drinks, and coding 18-hours-a-day while cranking tunes and shooting each other with nerf guns. We sat in cushy high-back chairs with our feet up, and ate potato chips and fast food all day long from our limitless supplies of free sodas and snacks. The generation before me went to work at Initech 9-to-5, and lived normal work-lives like everyone else. The generation after me has their stand-up treadmill desks and exercise ball chairs. Their ergonomic keyboards, and company-sponsored gym memberships. Be more like the next generation. Bring a healthy lunch. Drink your coffee black. Drink more water. Sit up with better posture. Skip the sugary drinks and snacks. Get at least 8-hours of sleep.

Embrace The Eight-Hour Burn philosophy from the Extreme Programming movement. Work so hard and focused in 8 hours, that you could not possible output any more. Then enjoy the other two thirds of your day. You’ll be WAY more productive than the 18-hour-a-day folks, who’s big unspoken secret is that they still only get about 4 hours of real work done in a day. And if you work for a boss who’s offended by you only working 40-hours a week, no matter how productive you are, then quit. He doesn’t get it. Follow this advice and you’ll be more productive, more creative, and have a longer career.

11. Start saving now.

When you have your first kid and start thinking about how all those get-rich-quick schemes never panned out, and those one-in-a-million startup dreams never hit it big, it’ll largely be too late to start saving money for college and retirement. The beauty of compound interest is that the variable with the biggest impact is time – and you can control it. Start early. This is one of those habits you want to form early.

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.” –Albert Einstein

The odds of retiring off of your startup win are like the odds of winning the lottery. You need a better game plan. My dad’s generation retired with millions of dollars in retirement funds because they saved from day one with pension plans. They played it safe, worked hard, earned money, saved regularly, and lived within their means. Emulating that doesn’t mean not playing for the big win. It just means not being ignorant about it. Having a plan to build wealth will free your mind in ways that just might enable you to go get those big wins without worrying about having no Plan B.

(Photo credits: morgueFile, Despair, Inc.)