Last year, I visited my high school and was invited to give a talk to their GCSE and A-level students. I’m sure there was lots of room for improvement in my speech, but I enjoyed the experience regardless. In this article, I present the advice that I would give my teenage self if I could travel back in time (assuming I don’t have to worry about causality or time travel paradoxes). This article is aimed at children, teachers, parents and free-thinkers who might have an interest in what I have to say on the subject.
Read, read, read
Why spend an entire life making the same mistakes or learning the same lessons that others have already learnt when you can learn all that from books? This frees up your time to make new mistakes and learn new lessons of your own. Those who read have an enormous advantage in life over those who do not. If you look at ultra-successful people, reading is the one thing they all have in common (The Reading Habits of Ultra-Successful People). That can’t be just a coincidence, can it?
No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.
– Atwood H. Townsend
In particular, I recommend non-fiction genres such as biographies, history, philosophy or books on topics that you have a specific interest in. Autobiographies are my personal favourite. I think reading an autobiography is the closest you can get to walking around in someone else’s shoes. You can live their life and learn their most priced lessons in just a handful of hours. It doesn’t even cost more than £10 or so usually. Isn’t that amazing?
Of course, fiction is valuable too. I only really started reading non-fiction in my university years. However, I discovered the joy of reading in primary school through story books and novels. And, like most people from my generation, Harry Potter had a strong influence on my childhood.
I’d also strongly recommend getting hold of a Kindle so that you can take your entire library everywhere with you. It makes it a lot easier to maintain a strong reading habit.
Don’t be limited by exams, school and university
If you perform well at school, it’s easier to get into a good university. If you perform well at university, it’s easier to get a good job. However, once you start your career, your academic record means very little (unless you decide to stay in academia of course). High grades are so overrated. Grades are merely a snapshot of where your knowledge stands at one point in time. They do not have the final say in what your future is. What’s more valuable than grades is learning how to learn so that you can become a lifelong learner.
I failed in some subjects in exams, but my friend passed in all. Now he is an engineer in Microsoft and I am the owner of Microsoft.
– Bill Gates
The pressure that our education systems place on students to get the highest marks/grades/ranks is abhorrent. Schools and universities give you a foundation and guide you through the initial part of life, nothing more. If all you’re aiming for is top grades, then you would have set the bar really low for yourselves.
If you spend all of your time studying, that’s an abysmal use of your time. Remember that you don’t have to ace your exams; you only have to do well enough. Use the remaining time to have some fun! Do things that you enjoy. Hang out with friends and family. Learn some useful skills like cooking for example.
Find your passions
One of the things that I’ve noticed about successful people is that they’re passionate and sometimes even obsessed about whatever it is that they do. Passion does not make it any easier to achieve results, but it makes it more natural to put in the hard work that’s required. When you work hard at something that you enjoy, it’s a phenomenal feeling. It’s also addictive.
Your passion could be anything: painting, singing, football, making money, cooking, art etc. You may also be passionate about multiple things rather one specific thing. However, you do need to discover it. The only way you can do that is by trying as many things as possible. You also have to make an effort to enjoy the things you try. For example, say you decided to try learning the piano. You probably won’t enjoy it very much on your very first lesson. However, if you keep at it for a few months; you may find that you’re hooked.
Bear in mind that your passions can change with time. There is no law that you have to dedicate yourselves to one thing for the rest of your life. It’s highly likely that your passions will evolve, and sometimes they may even change track completely. Just do whatever you enjoy and do not worry about what anyone else has to say about it.
Learn how to manage money
The world runs on money. Knowing how to manage and make money is one of the essential life skills. However, schools do not teach you about money. Most parents are probably not very good at explaining it to their children either. So, you’ll have to learn for yourselves - which is the best way to learn.
You do not have to wait until you have a degree before you try to earn money. You could start with simple things like running a lemonade stand in the summer, doing part-time jobs such as waitressing or running errands for your family. Warren Buffet, one of the world’s wealthiest men, started out as a paperboy! As you learn from your experiences, you may feel comfortable taking on more rewarding jobs/businesses. Now, it doesn’t matter if you lose some money in some of these initial ventures but you will learn a lot about money, and that’s what’s important. You’ll also have to learn how to budget and save money for the future.
To get rich, you have to be making money while you’re asleep.
– David Bailey
It’s not enough to make and save money, but you also need to understand how to invest it to make even more. You may invest some of your money in a high interest paying bank account, loan money to friends/family, invest in a friend’s business and so on. I’d also strongly recommend investing in the stock market (i.e. buying shares of companies) from an early age. Your parents can open an account for you. You’ll probably lose a lot of your investments in the early stages, but as long as you learn how to make better investments in the future, you will do well.
I explore money management in more detail in another post.
Learn to code
We’re in the middle of a digital revolution. In a future that’s dominated by computers, those who can code and exploit computers will have the edge over others. I explore the benefits of coding in more detail in another post. I also wrote a post about getting started with Python where I start by explaining why Python is a good language for beginners and then direct you to lots of good resources for learning to code.
I tried to limit myself to just giving you five bits of advice so that I don’t overwhelm you. To recap:
- Read, read, read
- Don’t be limited by exams, school and university
- Find your passions
- Learn how to manage money
- Learn to code
Each one of these is just as relevant to me today. I’m currently averaging about 1.6 books a month, but my target is 4. Even though I’m not a student anymore, I have to remind myself not to worry about little things like salary or performance grading and not to compare myself to others, but to focus on the big picture and to learn as much as I can. I’m obsessively passionate about programming and spend every minute I can spare working to become the amazing programmer-engineer that I dream to be. It’s still hard work disciplining myself when it comes to spending money, and I’m learning more and more about investing every day.
I do hope my advice is useful to you in some way. I’d love to know what you make of it? If you’re an adult now, what advice would you give to your teenage self if you had the opportunity? Let me know in the comments below!