Stuff I Wish I Had Been Told

For three years now, I’ve taught a fall semester class at Columbia Business School called ‘The Economics and Politics of Digital Disruption.’ The title kinda tells you all you need to know. It’s been a great experience for me. I feel like I’ve provided value for my students, and I know they’ve provided value for me. Firewall listeners have heard me talk about it many times, and this week, we’ll be covering it twice on the podcast. For my Tuesday episode, up now, the main topic is my end-of-semester lecture, which I call ‘Unsolicited Life and Career Advice / Stuff I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Was Your Age.’

The text for my slides are below. I hope you find them interesting, useful, enlightening, whatever it may be, and if you have any comments, or life / career advice of your own to add, please email me at bradley@firewall.media.

Oh, and on Thursday, three of my students join me on Firewall. We recorded the session before the final class where I gave my advice, but I think that’s for the best. It means the subject of our episode is their experience, not mine. It’s a great conversation, I hope you enjoy that one, too.

  • Being a person in the world is hard. Everyone is making it up as they go along.
  • Life is not linear. There’s no one moment where you’ve made it and then everything is great. It keeps bouncing up and down. And often, one part of your life is working really well and another really isn’t. Life, for better or worse, is a constant process of adjustment, of trying to understand yourself, of facing down doubt, uncertainty and fear. That, unfortunately, never really changes.
  • The only right path is the one that feels right to you — no one else’s opinions really matter. Everyone brings their own issues, problems, traumas, fears and needs to every situation. So, while it’s good to get opinions from people you trust — the only opinion that really matters is your own.
  • There’s no objective measure of success or failure. But — if the standard you use has been created by someone else (meaning status, money, things), there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be miserable. So, figure out what success means to you (it will change over time) and pursue that path.
  • You have a relatively brief time on this earth. The only quotient that ultimately matters is happiness. The only way to maximize that is to feel good about yourself. And while professional success is part of that, if it’s all of it, you’re fighting a losing battle.
  • Happiness science is pretty clear that fulfillment and relationships are the two key factors. That can happen in a lot of ways. Fulfillment can come from your work, your volunteer activities, your hobbies, your family, your faith. Relationships mean people you like and trust and feel safe with. It doesn’t matter if it’s family or friends or colleagues or classmates or anything else. It’s just important to have them.
  • The ultimate good is to help people in truly meaningful ways and feeling good about it. If you base your strategy on winning praise from others, you will ultimately lose in every way. Attention, credit and applause comes with just doing the things you want to do well and none of those are lasting anyway. The only lasting legacy is because you did or helped do, create or change something truly meaningful.
  • If you do anything meaningful, anything new, anything different, anything hard, people will criticize you. So what? And it’s not like you ever even totally stop feeling bad from it, but if fear of criticism is your baseline, you will never achieve anything.
  • No one owes you anything. You succeed because you make things happen. If you’re waiting for someone else to do something first, you’re already on the path to failure. Stay away from people with a victimization mentality. They can only make you unhappy.
  • There is no such thing as moral purity. Every thinking person has different views. You don’t have to agree with someone on every single thing in order to work with them. Nor should you let anyone else tell you how to think or what to believe. Figure out what your own moral compass is and live by it and don’t worry what anyone else says about it (and obey the law).
  • Social media is toxic. Use it as little as you can.
  • Intelligence matters, but only as a baseline. Traditional intelligence is wildly overrated. Creativity is really important. Character matters a lot. Hustle — seeing opportunities at the margins and pursuing them. Risk tolerance is critical. Being able to sell is even more important. Street smarts also matter. Speed matters. Your ability to handle failure. Patience can be a virtue. Being non-judgment is surprisingly important. Being tough, being able to say no and being able to make hard decisions is necessary — especially if you are in charge.
  • It is very difficult to have non-linear success working for someone else or doing what’s already been done. The more independence you have, the more you can do.
  • I spent my 20s and half my 30s just focused on gaining as much experience, skills and relationships as possible. I didn’t worry about money or titles. I figured I’d put it all together when I was ready to. That turned out to be the right approach.
  • You perform a lot better at work you like doing. That doesn’t mean the work has to be societally good, but it has to at least utilize things you’re good at and want to spend time on. Don’t talk yourself into a job.
  • Work life balance is important. And hard, especially when you have young kids. It is easy to fall into the trap of focusing on your career, focusing on your kids and letting your relationship suffer because it’s never as urgent. This is a major risk. Figure out the things that you need to build into your life to both give yourself clarity and structure (could be exercise or meditation or prayer or volunteering or learning or a million other things) and if you identify something in your life as really important, then treat it that way throughout.
  • Each moment is equally important with a handful of exceptions. Losing moments worrying about the future or lamenting the past just makes your life worse. The more you can make of each moment, the better your life will be.
  • How you treat people doesn’t just impact your success (being an asshole may sometimes offer short term gain, but is always the wrong choice long term). It impacts how you feel about yourself — and what goes around comes around. It’s not even karma or fate — the way you behave towards others shapes the way you feel about yourself. And when in doubt, show empathy.
  • The only regrets I tend to have is if I mistreated someone. You get over failures and mistakes and you only avoid them if you never do anything.
  • Money does matter. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. But it matters only to a certain point. If the end goal is happiness, its utility trails off after a while. The hedonic treadmill exists and is undefeated.
  • Social status only matters if you let other people think for you. And if you can get to a point where it’s widely understood that you don’t care, you can defeat the need to hit most markers of status entirely.
  • Everything does not have to be perfect — or even good — for you to be happy. There’s too much going on and too many uncontrollable variables to make that the baseline for everything.
  • You have to accept yourself. Odds are, most of your negative qualities don’t hurt anyone but yourself. Fine. You don’t need to be perfect. Everyone has flaws. Accept them and don’t hate yourself for them.
  • Life is rarely easy. It’s rarely smooth or predictable. But if you can maintain the right perspective and if you can stay focused on what matters most, you can lead a really happy life. It’s all there–good and bad–for the taking.

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Bradley Tusk

Venture capitalist, political strategist, philanthropist and writer.