The Duke Class of 2017 just graduated, and it honestly shocked me. It’s hard to believe that it’s already been two years since I left college. But looking back, it’s clear to me that a lot has happened since I entered the real world.
After getting my computer science degree from Duke, I joined Google as a software engineer. Around that same time, I co-founded Dancing Pineapple, a music company that serves as a platform to showcase up-and-coming electronic artists through online curation and live events. These first two years in tech and music were filled with a rapid succession of ups and downs, and plenty of hard-won lessons.
I know that these lessons would have been really useful for me after my own graduation, so I decided to take some time to share some actionable advice for those of you just starting out in the real world.
If you’re truly the sum of your friends, make sure your relationships are additive. Find friends who are authentic, passionate, fun, and weird; Ones who remind you what you’re worth, energize you, and support your pursuits. Drop those who slow you down, pressure you into making poor choices, and never show up – it’s cathartic. And don’t expect anything specific from them in return. Your friends will surprise you in ways you can’t predict or imagine.
Give more to get more. Time, money, advice, love, whatever. Mentor an inexperienced yet motivated kid. Donate a Saturday to help others. The act of giving is not only immediately satisfying, it pays off tremendously in the long term with all your relationships. Your network (and net worth) grows as you earn a reputation as someone who serves and provides value to others. Business partners want to work with people who show a commitment to elevating their peers. Friends will go out of their way to help you succeed.
Thinking ahead 🔭
Don’t fixate on reaching some singular point of success. Success is a moving target. Just create things that matter to you, be a good person, and enjoy the beautiful randomness of the ride.
Achieve sanity by finding a productive balance of ambition and patience. Insanely competitive people like entrepreneurs are addicts of achievement. But as much as they crave easy highs, they exercise a degree of patience that allows them to survive the journey's inevitable lows. To quote Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
Don’t get too nitty gritty with your long range plan, and avoid the one-track, one-company mindset that our parents had. What you should instead plan for is change, and that unexpected opportunities will come your way that may really shake things up.
Avoid activities that are immediately pleasurable, but nothing more. Resist the urge to splurge on material possessions, eat junk food, browse memes, watch TV, and get wasted. You’ll be rewarded manyfold for resisting these temptations down the line.
Start accruing wealth now. Learn why a savings account is a terrible way to do so. Teach yourself how to invest and understand the power of compound interest. Subscribe to The Economist. Learn why FANG stocks are popping off. Read up on crypto. The market is booming right now.
Relish in life's unpredictable nature. Instead of cowering away from uncertainty of the future, embrace the ambiguity and complexity of the world. Most of your peers are at least as confused as you. Constantly putting yourself out there, showing up, and trying new things prepare you to confidently face the road ahead.
Luck you can’t control ✨
A lot of your luck is unexplainable, so keep that good fortune as a reminder for you to be grateful for life.
I wake up feeling incredibly lucky every day. I wouldn’t have been born if my parents didn’t move to the U.S. (China had the One Child Policy and I have an older brother, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre gave my dad reason to seek political asylum in the U.S.), or if my mom’s second pregnancy didn’t end up as a miscarriage (My parents only wanted two kids). That’s just scratching the surface. Today, I’m happy and healthy, and so much of that is attributed to things I can’t control.
Luck you can control 🏙
Exercise the control you actually do have over your luck. Luck is often deeply situational, with your environment shaping what realm of “lucky” opportunities could show up in front of you. If you have the privilege of being able to uproot yourself and unlock a whole new caliber of opportunity, do it.
Moving to New York was my conscious effort to create my own luck. I wanted to see what would happen if I immersed myself in a uniquely energetic and creative environment that offered some of the best of both the tech and entertainment industries. And it’s working out well so far. Many of my best partnerships today are the result of serendipitous interactions with fellow hustlers in the city.
Environment matters because we take ideas from the people around us -- from those we learn from, from those we observe from afar, from those we run into during our coffee breaks -- and we stitch them together into something new. Innovation thrives in this sort of chaotic environment where ideas are bound to come together, where people of different backgrounds and personalities collide in interesting, unpredictable ways. The likelihood of these serendipitous interactions are much of what is so appealing about big cities, incubators, and coworking spaces.
Remember that your degree does not determine your life track. In college, we try a bunch of things, and specialize in one or two of them. However, just because your degree is in computer science doesn’t mean that you have to be a software engineer. A one-track mindset will hinder you from seeking out new experiences, and finding ways to make your life better and better.
Don’t stop learning after graduation. College should be responsible for just a tiny fraction of the knowledge you ultimately accrue. And most of the practical wisdom you’ll develop will be learned in the real world.
Treat your intelligence like it’s malleable. You brain is like a computer processor that gets faster the more you push yourself.
Find mentors. Their wisdom and connections will help you leapfrog your peers. Before you reach out to a mentor, make sure you’re totally prepared, and know why they can uniquely help you in your journey. They’ll recognize when you’ve done your homework, and will appreciate it when you ask thoughtful, challenging questions about what they’re doing.
Learn from people you’ll never meet. So many of the most successful people in modern history have distilled their life experiences into books. Read them. One that I highly recommend is Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris, which is full of interviews with inspiring people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tony Robbins.
Don’t idolize anyone. You’ll find yourself blindly mimicking not just their good behaviors, but also their vices. Sometimes people are successful in spite of their flaws or idiosyncrasies, rather than because of them.
Don’t envy anyone. Just figure out why they are successful. And do it better.
Constantly learn to stay relevant. In software engineering, half of what you know one year is going to be obsolete by the next. And if your business is tied to pop culture, you also have to learn what’s “in” to keep your brand hot.
After launching a product or hitting some kind of milestone, be retrospective with your team, and be brutally honest about what went well and poorly. Your memory is way worse than you think. Make sure those hard lessons don’t go to waste.
Diversify how you learn. Even though I am challenged every day at Google, I’ve learned so many unique lessons from starting a business in the music industry. Plus, lessons from my music industry experience make me a better engineer at Google, and visa versa.
Opportunity cost 💸
Don’t view any decision as black and white. One of my professors at Duke was memorable for his stance on foreign language education. Unlike his academic peers who extolled the virtues of learning new languages, he went out of his way to evangelize monolingualism. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate ethnic or intellectual diversity; It was that he wanted to teach his students the principle of opportunity cost. For example, you might be able to consume a hundred books across myriad subjects in the time it takes of you to become halfway decent at speaking a foreign language. The lesson is to not get caught up in viewing life decisions as singularly good or bad, but instead through the lens of cost-benefit analysis.
Ups and downs 📈
Remember that things are never as good or bad as they seem.
Don’t take praise too seriously, especially from those who are financially incentivized to suck up. And keep in mind that it’s socially unacceptable to give real criticism to acquaintances. If I shit on your music, and give you hard advice, realize that I respect and love you enough to believe that you can take it.
Don’t make big decisions when you’re in a bad state. It’s dangerous to do so when your brain is bogged down with insecurities and unjustified fears. Go to the gym and shake it off.
Time management ⌚️
Block out your day into large chunks to reduce decision fatigue and mitigate switching costs. I now force myself to do this every weekend, because I was tired of vaguely planning to be both productive and social but ultimately being neither. On the weekend, my mornings are now for reading, alone time, and exercise; afternoons are for cranking out work; and evenings are for socializing.
Kill time wisely. Listen to podcasts on the subway, read books on the plane. Watch movies and documentaries that teach you about the world.
Workplace etiquette 👩💼
Be ready. Before you worry about going above and beyond, first make sure to approach your work with a good attitude and baseline readiness. Show up on time. Be present in meetings. Express openness to feedback and willingness to grow. Be a person of your word. Meet deadlines. Proofread your emails. These rules are basic, but they set you apart, even at the highest levels.
Test all your bullish assumptions. Why? Because even geniuses and billionaires have flawed intuition, the theory you read in books doesn’t work half the time, and something that works for one business might not work for another. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never know if something will work until you have put it to practice. And smart investors and business partners don’t care how confident you are until your ideas are backed by numbers.
Eliminate limiting beliefs, which are assumptions we have that serve simply to constrain our potential. Three limiting beliefs that I’ve purged from my life are: “I can’t pursue my dreams because I will fail,” “I’m not smart enough to make a big difference in the world,” and “I can’t be my real self and still be loved”. If you want to overcome yours, first recognize that they exist, and then fight them with daily positivity and courage.
Whenever you’re sketched out by someone or something, trust that intuition. If a business proposal smells fishy, rip it up and move on. I’ve been cheated almost every time I’ve given shady people the benefit of the doubt.
Keep tabs on what competitors are doing, but don’t follow them too closely. See if there are aspects of your business that others do better, and adopt parts that make sense. For example, it might make sense to take pieces from Zappos’ award-winning customer service model. But blatantly copying others rarely works (unless you’re a monopolistic incumbent like Facebook eating Snap for breakfast), and it’s easy to misinterpret why others are successful. Plus, while everyone is fixating on breeding a faster horse, you should really be trying to invent the automobile.
If you’re going to “go for it”, don’t look back. Business partners will respond negatively to your half-assed work. Romantic partners will get tired of your wishy washiness. Friends will remember your tendency to flake.
It’s totally possible to work both a challenging full-time job and side hustle. Just accept that you’ll have limited free time and will have to sacrifice a lot to preserve sanity. That said, you have to internalize that it’ll all be worth it in the end.
During the past couple of years, I’ve made the bittersweet decision to shift my time away from dancing, playing tennis, and creating music to commit more time to becoming a better engineer and entrepreneur. Growing up involves making hard decisions, and sometimes that means deprioritizing certain things that you love.
Preparing for the worst case 🤷🏻♂️
Have two backup plans for everything that’s mission critical, where failure is not an option. The first backup is because people tend to flake and drop the ball. The second is for peace of mind, because life is simply unpredictable.
Fan love 🥰
Create something that people love or hate, because if you’re not doing something radical, you’re not doing enough. I’m not a fan of people who do things just for fame. But if no one is talking about what you’re doing, if no one is moved by your mission, and if you’re not hated on by some troll in some corner of the internet, you’re barely a blip on anyone’s radar.
Remember that a customer can easily sniff out sellouts. If your business depends on a small base of passionate customers, don’t cut corners and figure out a way to serve your niche perfectly. Deliver quality, consistently.
Turn down tempting offers to make a quick buck, because it’s in your interest to think long term. Don’t compromise your values or brand for short term gain. Your fans or customers will notice. In Warren Buffet’s words, “the difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”
Choose gratitude and love over fear and resentment. This habit changed my life.
Every moment is an opportunity to choose love over a negative reaction, and bring yourself more joy, peace and happiness. People that love more attract more love, and have easier, more fulfilling, and more purposeful lives. And when you are loved, you have less fear, because small stuff like workplace drama pales in comparison.
Gratitude is important because it magnifies our happiness. It reminds us how lucky we are, and it helps us get to a place where we can trust others and recognize the amazing opportunity that life gives us.
You made it all the way here? Thanks for reading. I know this was a long post, so please let me know in the comments which parts were most useful for you.