Zen Habits : Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
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Recently an 18-year-old who is finishing school wrote to me, asking for advice on choosing a career without enough life and work experience to make an intelligent decision.
He said, “Should I take the road less traveled, which may be risky and fearful, or choose a college course that interests me to some degree and see where that leads to. I suppose I don’t want to end up as the typical everyday-joe at the office from 9-5. I want to be different from the masses, to make an impact on this world, to be fulfilled. How do I get the best start into adulthood?”
It’s such a great question. And what I love is that he’s asking the question in the first place — most 18-year-olds just take the safe route.
Here’s what I’d say: take the career path less traveled.
If you don’t want to be the typical Everyday Joe, in a 9-to-5 office job, don’t go the route that everybody else takes.
If you want to be different than the masses, you have to take a different path.
I took the safe path when I was 18, and got a job and went to college, and it didn’t screw me up … but it also took me nearly 20 years before I finally found what I loved to do. It was a struggle, being on the road that’s well traveled, because I was consigned to a career I didn’t really like.
Yes, the career path less traveled is scarier. There are no guarantees. You are sticking your neck out, taking risks, being different, probably to the scorn of others. This is lonely.
But the loneliness is temporary. Soon you’ll find others who are doing things different, and you’ll connect with them in a way you’d never have connected with the people taking the safe path. You’ll be inspired by them, and inspire them in turn.
And the scariness is a lesson worth learning — if you can overcome a bit of fear, you can do anything. You’re not limited to the world of comfort and safety.
So what do you do on this scary, lonely, exciting path?
That’s totally up to you — you are empowered to figure things out on your own.
But here are some ideas:
- Learn about who you are. Meditate, and blog. Those are the best two tools for learning about yourself.
- Teach yourself stuff. The Internet has anything you want to learn, from writing to 3D animation to programming to carpentry to guitar. Never stop learning.
- Find out how to motivate yourself. There will be times when you don’t feel like doing anything. This is a good problem to have, because you’ll have to figure out how to solve it or else go get a boring job where someone motivates you. Solve it. You’ll be much better prepared for the road.
- Figure out what you’re passionate about. This isn’t easy, because it takes a lot of trial and error. Try a lot of things. When you get good at something, by the way, you’ll like it much more. You’ll suck at everything at first.
- Help others. When someone doesn’t know how to do something, teach them. When they need a hand, lend it. When they’re stuck, offer yourself up. Seek ways to help. It will teach you a lot, including who you are and what you’re passionate about. It’s also good motivation.
- Connect with others. Find people who love what you love, who are doing weird things, who travel, who make their own path. They are awesome and fun to hang out with.
- Learn to need little. If you need very little, you don’t need to make much. This frees you up to learn and explore more.
- Explore the world. You can travel very cheaply if you need little. Meet new people. Learn languages. Work odd jobs.
- Get really good at something. Practice, read more, watch others who are good, steal ideas and make them your own, work on projects that excite you and learn as you work on them, practice more.
- Teach something valuable. If you learn to program, teach a beginner. If you learn poker or guitar or martial arts, teach that. People will thank you.
- Get paid as a freelancer. When you’ve learned a skill, hire yourself out online. You don’t have to be awesome yet, just don’t charge a lot. Try to really deliver. On time. Be trustworthy and your reputation will grow.
- Sell something. Make a small product, whether digital or real world, and sell it. You learn a lot by selling.
- Learn to be a good person. Show up on time. Try your best to meet deadlines. Be honest. Learn compassion. Keep your word. Especially to yourself.
If you do half these things, you’ll love the path. If you do almost all of them, your impact on the world will be palpable.
And when you’ve been traveling this path for 6 months or more, write me back and tell me how it’s going.