What I Wish I’d Known

“What am I supposed to do?!” is the main undercurrent thought in my life–and that probably will not change until I make up some relatively satisfactory answer.

Ergo, I spend much of my time looking for this answer. One of my methods is to browse random sites on StumbleUpon. I wasn’t expecting to find anything that useful, but I did: Paul Graham’s would-have-been high school commencement speech, “What You’ll Wish You’d Known”. On one hand, the material was a little too apt not to sting, since I did indeed wish I had known this in high school. On the other, it isn’t too late for me to utilize this (she said unconvincingly).

I’ve distilled the main points that I found to be useful to a college student, and encourage you to read the short speech for yourself.

“The best protection is alway to be working on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn’t. Hard means worry: if you’re not worrying that something you’re making will come out badly, or that you won’t be able to understand something you’re studying, then it isn’t hard enough. there has to be suspense. 

Well, this seems a grim view of the world, you may think. What I’m telling you is that you should worry? Yes, but it’s not as bad as it sounds.It’s exhilarating to overcome worries. You don’t see faces much happier than people winning gold medals. And you know why they’re so happy? Relief.

I’m not saying this is the only way to be happy. Just that some kinds of worry are not as bad as they sound.” 

George Sheehan wrote something similar in his book, Running and Being. That we find pleasure in stretching ourselves over and over again no matter the strain–or because of the strain. I read a lot, but what do I create? I consume without offering my gains back to the world–and that is the problem. We will not be able to consume and learn more if we are not going to offer something back and complete the cycle. One may think that I would be satisfied with contemplating life and just traveling around the world my whole life. But I doubt this. I would like to do that, but will I not miss the pleasure of the chase, of the risk of putting yourself into something and possibly failing? I can’t say that I fully understand the reason for the necessity of this cycle, but I do sense that it is there. I don’t like to fail–that’s for sure–but I would rather fail than have my soul withering away inside of my seemingly young body from the disuse of my potential. It is in the overcoming that I may remain alive in this life.

“When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. that’s what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that’s compellingly mysterious…

If it takes years to articulate great questions, what do you do now, at sixteen? Work toward finding one. Great questions don’t appear suddenly. They gradually congeal in your head. And what makes them congeal is experience. So the way to find great questions is not to search for them–not to wander about thinking, what great discovery shall I make? You can’t answer that; if you could, you’d have made it.

The way to get a big idea to appear in your head is not to hunt for big ideas, but to put in a lot of time on work that interests you, and in the process keep your mind open enough that a big idea can take roost…

Put in time how and on what? Just pick a project that seems interesting: to master some chunk of material, or to make something, or to answer some question… Do something hard enough to stretch you, but only just, especially at first. If you’re deciding between two projects, choose whichever seems most fun. If one blows up in your face, start another. Repeat till, like an internal combustion engine, the process becomes self-sustaining, and each project generates the next one. (This could take years.)”

Sometimes we try to put the cart before the horse and think of what we want, and do what we think is necessary to get there. However, in my experience and studies, this is rarely to case. We need to do what we want, and this will lead us to the things that we want–whether we knew it or not. That is the only sustainable model. If you like running a business, it will lead you run more of that business and you will be happy and wealthy. If you want to be wealthy and think that running a business is the only way to get there, then you will do that, but perhaps you don’t like running a business. You will not be able to sustain this action for long and the wealth will have been short-term.

So before you start plotting and scheming ways to get what you think you want, why don’t you take a look at what interests you? Before giving up on the world, try to remember when you were young and interested in everything. This curiosity is the reason people get up in the morning and have any sense of meaning in life.

Experience as much as you can each day–something new–if you can’t find or remember an area of interest. It is effort, but not in vain. This question and thirst is what will sustain you throughout this life and lead you to your greatness.

I find that university wants me to already have this question when I have not even had experience yet. I know absolutely nothing of the world and my interaction with it is limited–how am I to know which questions I would like to ask? Sometimes we might have to break away from the system even if it pains us so that we may reenter later with the sense and conviction necessary to make that system grow our potential.

“Your life doesn’t have to be shaped by admissions officers. It could be shaped by your own curiosity. It is for all ambitious adults. And you don’t have to wait to start. In fact, you don’t have to wait to be an adult. There’s no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age.” 

You can do it at any age, or never at all. I do wish that I had realized the full immensity of these words while in high school, yet it is better late than never. Some people live their lives already dead, with self-imposed restrictions or restrictions that they could easily cast off. Being an adult is not just the actions that you take, but the internal conversation that you have with your life. Are you making decisions for yourself? Are you doing what is necessary to live the life that you want to live? We have control of our lives, but it takes some effort and breaking away from the normalcy of the rut of despair that we have put ourselves in. Be conscious of whatever situation you are in, and take responsibility for the actions that you need to take to live this adult life. Do this, or forever live with the shackles of your own making.

I implore you to read his would-have-been-speech (the link to which I have provided below) no matter your age. There is something about the unpleasantness of life being put into words that makes our fears a little less pressing and change a little less daunting.


Paul Graham’s “What You’ll Wish You’d Known”: http://www.paulgraham.com/hs.html