Advice to my 20-year-old self

Advice to my 20-year-old self

In my early 20s, I remember asking older folks a bunch of questions. Trying to pick up some guiding principles for decision-making. Choosing the ‘right’ university, career and on how to manage money.

Fast forward a decade later, these are advice I wish I have heard back in my early 20s.

Try many things

Yen Liow of Aravt Global shared, “In your twenties, go try a lot of things. Skill up in your thirties. And in your forties, go for it and do everything, if you can, quicker.

Don’t be too obsessed with finding the ‘correct’ job. Or be influenced by peers gunning for the ‘glamorous jobs’. It is normal to not know what to do, to not want to be a consultant, investment banker or lawyer.

Your make-up is different from your peers. Turn inwards and listen to your heart. Let that lead you and try many different things — internships, side hustles, co-curricular activities, etc.

Spend your twenties understanding what work makes you tick and what turns you off.

80,000 working hours

We all have about 80,000 working hours in the course of our life. More importantly, work out how best to spend the 80,000 working hours, and reflect on what you’re doing at the moment.

You may be focusing on micro-optimization, ‘How can I ace my exams and build up my CV?’. But what you should spend more time thinking about is macro-optimization, “What are actually my ultimate goals in life, and how can I optimize toward them?”

Work backwards from there.

We spend at least 5% of our 2 weeks vacation planning for the vacation on how to spend that 95% of our time. It seems reasonable given that we would like to have a fulfilling vacation that energizes us.

If we did that with our careers, that would be 4,000 hours, or about 2 working years. And this is a pretty legitimate thing to do, spending this amount of time trying to work out how we should be spending the rest of our life.

A good guiding principle is that the biggest predictor of job satisfaction is mentally engaging work. It’s the nature of the job itself — whether it provides a lot of variety, gives good feedback, exercise autonomy, contributes to the world, is it actually meaningful, and does it allow you to exercise a skill that you’ve developed?

It’s never too late

Often times when embarking on new projects, many will tell you that it has been done before. That the market is too saturated. It is too competitive and what makes you think you can do it?

Do it anyway.

What matters is that you have not done it before. You never know where this project will lead you. New ideas, connections and opportunities will arise from taking action.

Before Facebook was MySpace, Google was Yahoo, Apple was Blackberry and Netflix was Blockbuster. Our lives would be drastically different if people stop trying when ‘it has been done before’.

Longevity is key to a good life

Borrowing this phrase from Shoban, a superb physiotherapist and friend who helped me recover from my ACL operation. Shoban also recommended the book ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker which changed the way I view sleep.

You can read Bill Gate’s review of the book here.

We live in a culture where we carry our ability to get by on very little sleep as a badge of honor. As though having very little sleep symbolizes work ethic, toughness, or some other virtue. In fact, it’s a total failure of priorities and lack of self-respect.

The same goes for training through pain. Our culture frames it as a pre-requisite to attaining greatness. When injured, focus on recovering. Equally important, include mobility exercises and corrective exercises into your routine.

As Naval Ravikant says “When you’re healthy you have 10000 needs, but when you’re sick you only have one need.”

Beware the perils of success

“The problems of failure are hard. The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.

Neil Gaiman

I strongly recommend you to watch the writer Neil Gaiman’s 2012 graduation keynote address.

There is a lot of advice on how to deal with failure. Not so much on how to deal with success. However, success can also make you miserable.

The tabloids are nothing short of wealthy Hong Kong families suing each other. Or successful celebrities committing suicide.

Despite having insurmountable success and wealth which could last many generations, they were unfulfilled.

Make sure you pause and reflect on success, be it big or small. Decide if this is what you really want to do.

Never mistake achievement for fulfillment.

Be prepared to fail

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

J.K. Rowling

Uncertainty and the prospect of failure can be very scary noises in the shadows. Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.

Be prepared to fail. That’s how you are going to expand yourself and grow. If you are not failing at things, you are not pushing your limitations. You’ll be living a cautious life on a path that you know is guaranteed to likely work.

Failing and learning is how you’re going to expand and grow. It will bring out the potential within you.

What we fear most is usually what we need to do most.

A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have. Resolve to do one thing you fear every day.

Financial Independence

Don’t forget to live in the present.

Your early experience with money problems will cause you to dwell excessively on the past and worry excessively about the future. Measuring life by wealth alone will not lead to a fulfilling life (refer to above ‘Beware the problems of success’).

A fulfilled life is measured by the quality of your relationships, a satisfying career, and your ability to give back.

Iffy? I know. I’m still trying to figure this one out. Maybe 40 year old Thomas care to chime in?

It is not a weakness to appreciate what’s good about this moment. Stop and enjoy the view. Life is fragile. Appreciate every day that goes by without a major disaster.

Being busy

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal

When you ask anyone how they are doing, the most common response is “Busy, so busy!”

Most people are not busy, they are tired. Busyness is usually a choice, driven by anxiety. Being busy is like a drug that makes you feel important and sought-after.

The truth is many dread what they might have to face in its absence. When the curtain falls, anxiety and guilt sets in.

Being constantly “busy” serves as a hedge against emptiness, a kind of existential reassurance. After all, if we are always busy, completely booked, in demand every minute of the day, our life can’t possibly be silly or meaningless. Right?

All that noise, rush and stress seems engineered to drown out some fear lurking at the core of our lives.

Space and quiet are necessary for standing back from life and seeing it whole. For making unexpected connections and waiting for the random strikes of inspiration. Paradoxically, this is key for achieving breakthroughs in personal growth and creative work.

We now live in a world where we’re connected to everything except ourselves. Continue to set aside time for reading and reflecting. And read books that stood the test of time.

When people ask you ‘how’s it going?’ Make an effort to tell them what is actually happening or the project you are working on.


Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.

In my next post, I will be back to writing on investment topics!

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