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Avoid Traps, Pursue Opportunities

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Laura LaViska: What is your number one piece of advice for a graduating senior who is passionate about making the world better? Should I volunteer for a year? Which industry should I get involved in first? With everything being an option, where do I start? Any piece of advice is more than appreciated!

Me: Great question! Well, it's tough to boil it down to a single piece of advice. I'd probably end up with something like follow your heart.

On a more practical note, do your best to avoid traps and pursue opportunities. An example of a trap is a nine-to-five job, that:

  1. pays enough for you to barely get by,
  2. ends up turning into an eight-to-seven with some Saturday work,
  3. which has you working with the same people day in day out,
  4. applying a skill you have already mastered and will never use again,
  5. for the promise of a lousy promotion five years down the line.

An opportunity, on the other hand, does one or more of the opposite things:

  1. It pays enough for you to save plenty of money,
  2. has you meeting lots of interesting people
  3. while developing new and useful skills,
  4. and is constantly yielding new and better opportunities. Which in the end,
  5. respects the only truly limited resource you have: your time.

The whole idea here is to make the best use of this brief awe-inspiring thing we call life. It's a shame to waste it away shilling brown sugar water or filling in spreadsheets if what actually tugs at your heart is something very different (no offense Coke, Pepsi or KPMG).

It is worth noting that opportunities that fulfill all of the five bullets above are rare. More often than not you'll have to sacrifice a huge amount of time or forgo a steady paycheck to develop great skills, mine new opportunities, or cultivate a network. A common sacrifice people make is time for money, and it's my personal opinion that it's not worth giving up ten years to a lucrative job so that you "never have to work again." It's totally uncommon for that to actually pan out. If you want an extreme example, Sports Illustrated found that after two years of retirement, 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt or under financial stress: Don't count on squirreling lots of money away so you can retire early.

I'll share some of the opportunities that shaped my life, but I want to hear from you. What opportunity changed your life, and what price did you pay for it? (post in the comments, tweet @IdeasAndAction or send me an email)

Organizing a TEDx event:

  1. Money: 0
  2. Interesting people: 10
  3. Skills: 8
  4. Brings more opportunities: 10
  5. Time: part-time

If you're ever going to network seriously, plan on being the host. Half my LinkedIn recommendations and two of my jobs have come through my TEDx speakers. It doesn't have to be a TEDx event, but TED is a pretty hot brand right now that you can get involved in.

Living abroad:

  1. Money: 6
  2. Interesting people: 10
  3. Skills: 7
  4. Brings more opportunities: 7
  5. Time: all-consuming for 6 months to 2 years

If you're going to do this, go beyond the vale of tourism and into the non-english speaking part of the country. Learn the local language and get to know the culture intimately. Peace Corps is one way to do this. AIESEC is another. This planet is such an amazing place... get to know more of it! Also, I would recommend working abroad. That makes traveling much more financially sustainable, and something as simple as teaching English pays quite well.

Learning to code:

  1. Money: 10
  2. Interesting people: 5
  3. Skills: 10
  4. Brings more opportunities: 5
  5. Time: full-time or part-time

The reason this is a great opportunity is because there's a desperate shortage of good programmers. The skills are difficult to learn, but very much worth it: programmers can make in the neighborhood of a $120,000 annual salary. Fair warning, though— you'll need a gym membership, because sitting at a desk all day and all night will leave your muscles atrophied. The lesson here is simple: a skill in terribly high demand is worth having, and not just because of the payout you can get. Skills like programming can be applied across organizations and industries and the type of thinking you'll cultivate can be applied to many aspects of your career and life.

Start small, stay humble
   by Honor Vincent

  1. Money: 0-5
  2. Interesting people: 10
  3. Skills: 8
  4. Brings more opportunities: 10
  5. Time: full-time

Don't be afraid to live at home for a while as you figure out where you're going. Ever heard the saying: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"? Well, an ounce of planning will save you a few tons of backtracking at this point in your life. Do you want to help children? Research opportunities as a child advocate or volunteer with an organization like Big Brothers & Big Sisters. Are you more interested in saving the environment? Check out which nature reserves in your area are in need of volunteers and get out there. Get a good gauge on how deep your passions run, and when you find what truly grabs you, devote as much energy to it as you can.

And remember: When you're just out of school, no one is going to be beating down your door to ask you to chair an NGO or non-profit. Find people you admire who have what you consider to be your dream job, and check out their trajectories. Then figure out the best way for you to get there.

It's scary, I know. This is not easy advice to follow, but the path of least resistance will lead no place special. In the end, when you're old and grey, and ready to pass away from this place, you're not going to wish you watched more TV. If you do it right, you'll be in nostalgic tears of joy for dreams made real, love found and stories your loved ones will not soon forget. You only get one shot at this thing, is it not worth your very best?

Sorry, Laura. That ended up being a bit of a long answer, but if you like you can always follow your heart.