“Dear Karim”—An Open Letter to College Students Struggling with What to Do with Their Lives

I was recently a guest speaker for a University of Washington entrepreneurship class that let me speak about my experience leading up to and during my time as an entrepreneur in Brazil. The following is excerpted and edited from an email I sent to a pseudonymized student from the class who asked me for advice.

 

Dear Karim,

I’m glad you enjoyed the class, and thanks for reaching out.

Before I continue, a disclaimer: I’m in the top 0.01% of the world in terms of opportunity as a healthy, white, upper-class, American man. Moreover, I’m fortunate that my family has always paid for my very expensive education, so I’ve never had student loans. I say this because, yes, your circumstances matter a lot, and I don’t know you, so I can only speak from my own experience. Nonetheless, following what I’m going to tell you, I’ve been able to at least support myself since June 2013 after my graduation.

I understand the stress you’re feeling now, probably much like many of your classmates. With a couple years of perspective since college, I can confidently say you actually don’t need to narrow down what you want to do with your life in your early 20s.

Those who do narrow it down now often end up telling themselves they don’t want certain things they’ve always wanted, or they just get so consumed by their new lives that they forget what it was they ever truly wanted. It’s okay to try lots of different things to see if you like them, if you’re good at them, if they’re good for the world, and if you can survive doing them.

Students who take it as dogma that you should have the rest of your life figured out by now are the ones most likely to rationalize themselves into comfortably numbing but less-than-fulfilling careers and lives. Most of my peers from college have fallen into that trap, and I know it’s hard to resist because family, friends, and society exert tremendous pressure on young people to follow conventional paths. I always felt suffocated by the banking, consulting, and Fortune 500 recruiting events at school because those companies do such a good job of convincing you that working for them will solve your problems and prepare you for the rest of your life.

Nevertheless, if you get a corporate job, you aren’t necessarily bound to get sucked in and live a rich but empty life. Moreover, you might even make a career for yourself in a company like Amazon or Microsoft that is both gratifying and pays well. Getting many honest inside references (especially from people who lack the incentive to recruit you) at different levels of a company is a good way to predict what working there would be like.

Since making a safe and fulfilling career is so difficult, I caution you against pursuing a soul-crushing, high-paying job in order to pay off student debt, save enough money for a business, travel long-term, etc. Even if your plan is to work such a job for only “a couple years,” I still caution you against doing so for the following reasons:

First, you’ll probably get accustomed to significantly more lavishness than you have in college. Your job where you work 60+ hours weekly will largely determine the friends you have, the activities you do outside of work, and even the most core principles you hold. Often, there’s novelty and fun in the “expense budget lifestyle” in the beginning. However, I know from close friends that the ensuing focus on fancy outings, expensive possessions, and high social status can quickly become bothersome and outright toxic.

Second, the more years you work in such a situation, the more commitments you’ll gradually acquire (long-term relationship, children, mortgage, etc.) and the less energy you’ll have. With more obligations, you’ll become more risk-averse because you’ll have higher costs in time and money to maintain those commitments. As such, it’ll be far harder to risk everything you have to follow an unconventional and uncertain passion that you’ve long dreamed about. On the other hand, you’ll much more easily adapt if you take the leap from being a poor college student to a poor entrepreneur or one of the first employees at a new company.

Starting my business was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I might have actually had to tolerate more bullshit in different ways than my peers in conventional careers. However, that 1% of the time (since it’s at least 99% dealing with mundane and agonizing bullshit) when I felt self-actualization for my achievements and impact was so rewarding that it more than made up for everything bad. Better yet, I probably left Brazil with more money in my bank account (~$35,000) from the business than many of my banker friends in NYC blowing their salaries on rent and bottle service. Now I’ve easily traveled the world for the past nine months while those bankers pull 100-hour weeks in anticipation of their year-end bonuses and next promotions.

In my case, to answer your original question of how I made my original decision, it came down to purpose and risk.

There was superior meaning for me in (1) learning more so than any other option I knew of by starting a business, (2) being in a place I loved–Rio de Janeiro, and (3) doing something that might benefit poor, marginalized favela families.

Furthermore, I knew I had very little to risk by failing–little money to lose, no debt, no wife, no children, and no dependent relatives. The worst case scenario was I’d gain an interesting story, learn a few things, and have to temporarily get a conventional job while plotting my next adventure.

Stay risky,

Elliot

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