Recently, a friend messaged me on Facebook, asking a question about pursuing his dream. It went something like this:
Friend: What would you consider more noble, right, and helpful for the future: working toward a passion and balancing work or sacrificing a lot of time for an excellent opportunity that will help you in the future (but it may interfere with your passion and work/life balance)? And briefly why?
Me: what do you define as an “excellent opportunity” and what do you define as “helping you”?
Friend: “Helping you” as in stable job and income flow, and “Excellent opportunity” as a competitive internship.
Me: haha as I thought. I mean it’s ultimately your choice.
Friend: I just rejected a competitive internship so I can pursue my research interest in cryptography and systems research, so I am not sure what I did was right.
This is a struggle familiar among all persons of the human race. Everyone struggles at some point with whether they should pursue what they love or pursue what is practical. At the very core, it is a struggle between security and risk.
And the thing is, people are constantly faced with such decisions nearly every day. Almost every decision has an option that appears to be more secure, and an option that appears to be riskier.
To my friend, it seems foolish to reject a competitive internship that is very practical and desired by many, and he is justified in thinking that way. If an internship looks good on your resume, will help you find employment in the future, and perhaps can provide you some money, it almost doesn’t make sense to not accept it. However, the part of being competent and wise person is knowing when to reject good looking opportunities in order to pursue prospects that are more appropriate for them.
My Old Model Airplane Hobby
Yesterday, I rummaged through my closet, pulling out my collection of airplanes that I had built in middle school.
In middle school, I used to build and fly wooden airplanes. It was a hobby that consumed hours of my day, and kept me from having a social life and perfect grades. Building and flying airplanes gave me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that appealed to me, and almost completely consumed me. I loved the feeling of completing a plane, winding up the rubber band, and letting it take off into the air, watching it circle around the gym.
However, by the time I reached high school, I stopped building and flying. It wasn’t because I got bored with the craft, nor was it because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped because I realized that there were bigger and better things for me, and that I had to let go of how much time I was spending on it.
It was a conscious and intentional step for me to say no to something that was extremely attractive to me in order to move on in my process. I don’t regret any of the time, money, or energy I spent on building and flying these airplanes, and I would love to have the chance to once again fly them with someone.
Being Competent and Rejecting Opportunities
Not all opportunities that present themselves to you are ones that you should take. Being able to decisively and confidently reject an opportunity shows that a person truly understands what they want, what their goal is, and how they are going to get there.
In order to navigate the decisions that you have to make and opportunities that are made available to you, there are three main elements to consider.
- Definite of Purpose – I need to know who I am.
- Knowledge of What One Wants and How One Wants to Get There – I need to know what I want.
- A Burning Desire to Possess it – I need to declare that I will get it.
The person who doesn’t know who they are, doesn’t know what they want, and doesn’t really want it is the person that will accept any random opportunity that comes their way, hoping that somewhere somehow, it will lead them to a better place.
But without the intentional drive and passion to get what you want, it’s easy to get lost and confused in the midst of all the tempting, shiny opportunities.
“The words you hear are what you start to think about. The words you start to think about in your mind will form your goals, beliefs, and ideas. These will move from your mind to your heart. These become an outward habit. These define your character.” – Anthony Arnold
Knowing who you are and what you want helps you to filter and process the things that you listen to and the things that you think about. And as these thoughts eventually determine your character, they also determine the way you carry yourself and how you relate to and impact the people around you.
That’s why you can’t just take every opportunity or thought that presents itself, you have to learn to filter and process what actually matters.
A hundred years ago, the only way out of poverty was to work as hard as you possibly could. It was a test of endurance, grit, and brute strength. People faced many problems that are much less significant today such as starvation, disease, illiteracy, etc. Resources were scarce and life wasn’t guaranteed. Being successful a hundred years ago meant survival.
However, in most first-world countries today, success and the path to success looks vastly different. Being successful and rising above the mundane everyday means that working as hard as you can is no longer enough.
The access to resources, opportunities, and connections that we have today is infinitely greater than what our grandparents had. The devices that we carry in our pockets today are more powerful than what presidents could do twenty years ago. As Seth Godin puts it, we are moving from an industrial economy into a connection economy.
The industrial economy is about the factory worker, working as hard as he or she possibly could in order to support his or her family. The connection economy is about the individual, finding their own personal niche to change the world with his or her own unique art.
In other words, being successful today is not as much about working hard, but more about working smart. Hard work pays off, but smart work is what grounds hard work. Working smart is about the individual, creatively crafting their own unique journey in order to find their niche. Sometimes, working smart may look extremely unconventional, perhaps forgoing education or conventional paths of hard work. And to people stuck in industrial mindsets, it can be difficult to comprehend someone else’s personal process.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon currently worth $25 billion, was once a fry cook at McDonalds. McDonalds, often heralded as the epitome of horrible, low paying jobs, was a step in the process of his entrepreneurial career. To Bezos, working at McDonalds was not accompanied by a sense of failure, but simply part of the process.
Working smart means leveraging the resources and connections around you. And no matter what you might think, there is an absolute abundance of resources and connections available to you. It has never been easier to follow your dream and do the work that you love with people that you love.
Only work as hard as you can if you’re working as smart as you can.
The only difference between a problem and an opportunity is in the mind. A problem means that there is no clear solution, while an opportunity means there is a chance to exercise creativity.
To the unprepared, an opportunity looks like a problem because they have no idea how to solve the problem. But to the prepared, a problem looks like an opportunity.
Therefore, under the right mindset there is no such thing as a problem, only an opportunity.
The challenge then, is learning how to be prepared and take action when opportunities arise.
Student Voice, a non-profit organization with a simple goal of allowing students to speak up about education, did exactly that. Recognizing the disconnect between education boards and students, Student Voice began simply by using twitter as a medium to chat about education, and has now evolved into a weekly chat on twitter between students, parents, and educators.
Prior to the rise of popularity of Student Voice, the founder had no clue what the response would be. Nevertheless, he took the opportunity to present a solution. The response, to Zak, was a complete surprise. Not only were teachers and students interested in participating in Student Voice chats, Student Voice was noticed by companies that began offering support.
No matter how insurmountable a problem might present itself, anyone can solve problems. Social media has made it easier than ever to share an idea, present a concept, and make connections.
The reason why people fear problems is because they fear failure. But ultimately, people who begin actively making a difference and changing the world are people who accept themselves and embrace failure, knowing that the most powerful successes come out of failure.
So what if a problem is an opportunity to fail? If you can’t afford to fail, then you’ll never be able to afford success.
Understanding flow is something that no one taught me when I was younger, and only have I recently been thinking about. Flow, in this article, is defined as the zone of productivity when a person gives their complete, undivided attention to an activity, often to the point of losing track of time, and occasionally even other human needs (sleep, food, restroom breaks).
A friend recently sent me an email asking if breaking activities into one hour chunks was an effective way to be productive. Essentially, he was proposing a modified version of the pomodoro technique, which some people swear by.
However, an aspect that stands out about the pomodoro technique and similar techniques is the rigid time frame that can potentially end up interrupting flow. The reason the pomodoro technique works is because it is using time as a physical and tangible inspiration to become more productive.
Having an external motivator like time is often necessary, especially under circumstances where the activity at hand is not the most appealing, or you would otherwise have no desire to do the activity.
After I realized that something like the pomodoro technique was a way to inspire flow, I decided I would rather figure out a way to directly get into flow and maintain flow rather than using a measurement of time to inspire productivity.
The unfortunate truth is that relying on a time keeping device to manage your productivity can potentially train a person to value a length of time over productivity and creativity. And unfortunately, that’s exactly how the school system is set up with class and break periods.
Everyone at some point in their life has experienced flow without restraint from time, as those are the experiences when you lose track of time.
Getting into flow looks different for each person and looks different for each activity, but their are a couple of common attributes to every flow state.
- People in a flow state aren’t easily distracted – When a person gives their undivided attention to something, nothing can easily distract them from what they are doing. Thus, finding an environment without distraction is generally helpful to maintain flow, but is not necessary if flow is strong enough.
- People in a flow state generally do things faster – People who are highly focused in on learning something new generally learn a lot faster and a lot better. If information is coming in faster, it generally requires a much higher state of focus in order to comprehend and process all of it as it comes in. Driving a car at 120 mph definitely requires more focus than driving a car at 20 mph.
- People in a flow state care about the activity they are doing and understand why they are doing it – Also known as driven by an internal passion or bigger picture, flow states are usually accompanied by a somewhat deep desire to accomplish something. Therefore, a good place to start to get into a high level of focus is to figure out why you are doing something, and then dig even deeper.
Here are also some interesting stories on flow if you’re interested – Steven Kotler – Hacking Flow & Ultimate Human Potential at SuperheroYou.
But of course, understanding how flow works is only a piece to productivity, and learning how to implement flow into a healthy physical and emotional lifestyle is a whole other topic.
Doing a backflip will draw attention from everyone around you. People will watch your feat, wishing they were able to perform such a stunt.
The main obstacle for performing a backflip is not physical. Anyone with an average amount of athletic ability is physically able of performing a backflip. Fear is the only obstacle.
People are mentally unprepared and unable to take the risk and attempt such a feat. To learn how to do backflips, a person must be prepared to fail. Once the risk is taken, a backflip can be learned in a relatively short period of time.
Like backflips, people are physically capable of achieving great things, the only thing holding them back is a mindset of fear.