Somebody asked me what I would do if I was 18 in 2016. It’s a good question because it’s such an odd time where old institutions and traditional thinking don’t really make sense anymore. I can’t say I’m an expert on this though, because when I was 18, I really had no idea what I was doing. I might be able to give you an original perspective though.
Firstly, 2016 is an interesting time:
If you look pessimistically there’s less opportunities for young people than ever: jobs are gone, the jobs that are there hardly give raises, and there’s no real upward career trajectory anymore.
If you look with a fresh mind though, there’s never been more opportunities for young people if they’re smart about it: they have the freedom to build their own jobs from scratch on the internet, they can have clients and customers from anywhere in the world and if they want themselves work from anywhere they want. They can learn almost anything for free on YouTube and free websites with tutorials on them. And they can the most diverse set of people from the entire world, make friends and have relationships with them. Also, age doesn’t matter as much at is used to do (thank young startup founders for that). So you can pretty much do anything. It’s an amazing time, if you pick the right perspective.
So what would I do now if I was 18? Well…
I wouldn’t go to university. This was a hard one for me, because I finished a Master’s degree myself. But I did it mostly to prove to society I wasn’t a complete idiot because I’d been kicked off a very elite high school. I can’t say I learnt anything useful in university except how to talk to people better and do presentations in front of large crowds without getting sick.
As I also kinda employ people now, I can tell you from both sides too. I’ve never even asked about people’s academic credentials. I don’t care. I ask them if they can do specific tasks and have specific skills that can make my company better and take work off from me. That’s it. So I feel universities are a scam now (especially in the US where they’re very pricey).
If you do want to go to university, go abroad to a place where it’s cheap like Germany (I think it costs less than $1k/y there). I also heard it’s actually free in some Scandinavian countries (even for foreigners).
Instead of going to university, go online and learn how to code. That’s the most important one. Learn the basics of programming, learn different languages, web and native, whatever is relevant at the time.
Learn design, copy other designers and start putting your own ideas in slowly.
Learn to draw on paper, it’s a skill I never really mastered but I feel is useful because it’s something not many people can do well, and it’s analog!
This is weird but learn to dance, it will teach you about body language, movement and your posture which benefits you in other areas of life (like love!).
Learn to write, start a blog and just write for yourself, writing this blog has done wonders for me. It’s been therapeutical to do brain dumps, and after awhile I’ve slowly developed a style of writing which is very beneficial.
Learn to market yourself on the internet, I see career coaches even tell people this now “you need a personal brand” etc. It’s kinda true because you’re competing with 7 billion other people from the internet soon. Learn to socialize, go to meetups (use Meetup.com), go out to bars and clubs and talk to lots of strangers. It’s something I learnt in university, but if you don’t go to university, you’ll need to double down on this.
If you have social anxiety, you’ll think it’s your problem but many times it’s just that your subconscious senses something’s off with the people you’re hanging with and you’re probably hanging with the wrong crew. When I’m with people I really like, I never get nervous. Social anxiety is a sensor telling you stuff and everyone has it a little bit. Listen to it.
Learn to love! Have lots of non-serious relationships (with people from all over the world!) until you’re late 20s and then slowly start having serious ones. Don’t lock down with one person, relationships can develop you throughout your whole life and every person has a new lesson to give you, as cheesy as it may sound. Fuck peer pressure to settle down, have your own timing. Get your heart broken and break other hearts (it’s inevitable). Love has the broadest dynamic of feelings I think. It can make you feel the best you’ve ever felt, and when it goes wrong it can make you feel the worst you’ve ever felt. It’s beautiful and horrible at the same time. Relationships are impossibly hard and I still don’t understand them. Being with another human that’s completely variable and unpredictable (that’s humans), is the hardest thing I’ve ever pursued.
If you’re a guy, don’t objectify women. You’ll do that any way, but learn empathy. It sucks to be nothing more than a physical body to somebody, and you wouldn’t want to feel that either (although at moments it can be nice!). If you’re a girl, be nice to guys as guys can be scared of you if they like you a lot. If you’re a guy, go to strip clubs just to experience it. Then make your judgement about it. This will probably learn you more about objectification and empathy. It’s better to get it out of your system early on. If you’re a girl, maybe even do the same.
Build an income machine
In terms of income, I’d try to set up some little online business that gets you about $5k/m. This seems like a lot but is doable if you spend a few years on trying and keep trying. If you build a software product (like a website or app or subscription-based service), you can usually scale it pretty easily without having to work a lot more on it. Get a few contractors to help out and make sure you don’t have to work on it a lot. You now have a $5k/m income stream that is essential to staying free from the capitalist slave system.
Don’t spend money
Now here’s the most important. Don’t. Spend. Money. Don’t buy a car. Or a house. Or diamonds. Or brand-name clothes. Live cheaply. Don’t spend more than $1,000/m. $1,000 is A LOT. If you make sure your rent is low, you can still go out, have nice food etc. This is the hardest of anything to do in your 20s. You have to understand that great experiences don’t have to (and usually don’t) cost a lot of money. Having sex is free. Going for hikes is free. Talking to friends is free.
Materialism and consumerism is a farce. Stuff doesn’t really make you happy. You get used to a new object after weeks or months and you’ll feel the same. In fact, materialism might be a signal that you’re intrinsically unhappy:
Unhappiness unfortunately generates a need for material possessions and more wealth. For this reason, unhappiness and materialism reinforce each other; materialism breeds unhappiness and vice versa. (Akers)
Happiness comes from intangibles, like experiences, relationships, activities, not stuff. Stuff can amplify it though (e.g. making a photo with your iPhone of going on a hike is probably beneficial).
Move and travel to cheaper places
You probably live in an expensive place. If you do: go travel and move around places every few months. Most places outside the West let you live for $1,000/m as a king (comparable to $10,000/m in the West). And now is the time because you’re super healthy and young (both physically and mentally). If you think travel is expensive, you’re wrong. Hostels can be $5/night and cheap airlines can fly you to cities from $35 per flight! Become a cheap traveler and be smart about it. See Asia, see South America, see parts of Africa. See how you develop when you travel and how your identity is shaped by each environment with its own smells, people and buildings. Sleep in hostel dorms with other people. You won’t be able to sleep because there’s 12 other people, so buy great earplugs (the yellow ones by 3M) and an eye mask. It’ll be annoying sometimes, but you’ll meet lots of great and less great people in dorms. And you’ll develop from it socially. Also remember to eat healthily on the road. Stay fit.
Save and invest into ETFs
Learn about compound interest. This concept means the earlier you start saving, the exponentially wealthier you’ll be later. As you make $5k and spend $1k now, save what’s in between. If you pay tax, you’re probably left with ~$3k. Put that straight into a market tracking ETF by Vanguard. This is a long-term fund that will invest the money to follow the market. That means over 10 or 20 years, you’ll probably have an annual return of 7%. If you save that $3k/m over 20 years and put it into Vanguard ETFs (at 7% over 20 years), you’ll be 38 and have $1.5 million in the bank! Save $6k/m, and you’ll have $3 million at 38. Yes, I said that correctly. Save $1k/m and you’ll have $500k by 38.
It’s debatable if you can start a $5k/m business at 18, but even if it takes you 4 years, you’ll be 42 with $1.5 million.
I got a lot of flack for writing that it was easy to make $10k/m at 18, so I’ve changed it to $5k/m. But I still think it’s not super hard if you’re persistent and spent 2 years on it. You only need 50 customers to pay you $100/m and you’re making $10k/m. Except for your own labor hours, costs in software are almost 0.
Market tracking ETF funds have a higher average return than owning a house. Overall, houses only match inflation. Your friends and family will tell you owning a house is smart and how they made lots of money with it, but they will not tell about the people that lost so much money with it or about how most price increases with houses is merely inflation. Owning a house is a cultural institution that’s ripe to be challenged. Houses cost a lot in tax and maintenance. Also houses lock you down to one place, which you don’t want in a flexible job market that both demands and gives you the freedom to be anywhere.
Having a spare million on your bank account means freedom the rest of your life if you continue to live humbly.
P.S. Legalese, but this is not financial advice. I’m not a financial person. I know nothing. If you lose everything, your fault, not mine, kthxbye.
Now follow your passions
Now that you have cashflow that doesn’t need a lot of work, and you’re saving properly, go and follow your real passions like creativity, art, music, writing, poetry, dance, travel, help people, whatever it is. Go for it. Most people cannot do this, and it’s the epitome of the Maslow Pyramid.
Having resolved the financial part of your life probably means you’re further than most of your peers. It seems very boring to pay attention to money so much as such a young age. YOLO right? But you’ll discover why when in 20 years you’ll see people with low wage jobs that never saved money and are now very very fucked.
Don’t have regrets when you’re 40 with a family and kids and you can’t follow your passions anymore. You’ll never have as much a freedom as in your 20s (and possibly 30s if you choose).
Actually, this advice also applies to when you’re 30 or 40 or 60 or 90. Age is a social construct and is increasingly irrelevant. Be smart!
P.S. I'm on Twitter too if you'd like to follow more of my stories. And I wrote a book called MAKE about building startups without funding. See a list of my stories or contact me. To get an alert when I write a new blog post, you can subscribe below: