Five Phrases That Changed My Life

I’m 23 years old.

This is a fact I’ve considered hiding, avoiding, flat-out lying about, and sometimes been troubled by. It’s a fact that shocks the majority of people I meet, continually amazes most of the people I know, and most importantly, constantly reminds me that despite my (can I be a little indulgent for a minute?) admittedly impressive list of accomplishments, there’s still a lot that I don’t know.

In theory, I actually only know about 20% of all I will ever know. That’s a sobering thought.

Yet, in that time, I do think I’ve collected a good bit of interesting information. I’ve been feeling especially reflective lately given the political, economic and cultural climate around me, and I started to think about what some of the most grounding and directive ideas I’ve been presented with might be. So far, anyway. As I made my dinner last night, I came up with the following list, and I hope that, while in my youth I find them especially powerful, that they can serve as reminders and guidance at anyone, at any stage of life. (Also, you should try the stir fry sauce recipe I made. It was delicious.)

How To Stand Out

1. As you enter the workforce, you’re going to be surprised at how easy it is to stand out.

It was 2012 and I had just started my first “real” job at Bank of America. I had made an appointment to go talk to Ms. Martha Evans, Adjunct Professor of Economics at Florida State University, because I was overwhelmed, confused, and looking for direction. Or something. I don’t really remember why I went in, but I will never forget what she said.

It sounded crazy at the time. Not hard to stand out?! Maybe 30 years ago, I thought. There’s 300 applicants for every job opening out there. Robots are taking our jobs. Et cetera, et cetera. Fast forward to today, and I’ve realized how much this is actually true. I’ve also learned that there’s a name for this: the 80/20 rule. Or, in our nerdy economics world, the pareto principle. You’ve probably heard this applied to your sales – for example, 20% of your marketing efforts will bring about 80% of your customers. I’m talking about your life efforts. It’s a small fraction of the amount of going above and beyond that will produce most outstanding results, and the reason for that is because going above and beyond is rare.

Do What You Love

1.5. Why are you doing this?

This isn’t a phrase on my list, but it’s closely tied to Phrase 1. About a year into my short-lived banking career, I had developed an unhealthy obsession with the customers who walked through our doors without a clue as to how to use our products for their personal benefit. I started working through the thoughts that would eventually become FinBot Mobile, and part of that was asking my manager for guidance.

I’ll never forget the way he slightly tilted his head to the side in his office, and asked, “Why are you doing this? For a class?” and I was totally stumped. “No, not really?” I stammered out. “I don’t know, I just want to, I guess? I want to make a difference.” He didn’t answer. “I don’t know, my boyfriend just broke up with me and I have a lot of extra time.” He laughed and dismissed me.

Do what you love. You don’t need a reason, and you don’t need an explanation. All you need is the fact that you want to do it, and most people don’t.

Redefine Busy

2.  Are you really doing all of those things, or are you just barely staying above water?

I’m going back in time a little bit with this one. Go back about 2 years from Phrase 1. I was a junior in high school, and I was talking to Nancy Carter, high school guidance counselor.

Ms. Carter was a life-changing force in my story. I’m pretty sure I would be nowhere without her. Actually, I have objective proof: she was the person who called Florida State University and asked for a second review of my last semester grades in hopes that I would qualify for a scholarship that ultimately made the difference between affording college and not affording college.

Nancy Carter is a catalyst for the American Dream, and she is not compensated well enough for it. But that’s for another day.

My high school years weren’t a lot of fun. I was living in a single parent household, below the poverty line, and physical and mental health problems wrecked havoc on my family.

I found myself 17 years old, working 20 to 30 hours a week, running a school club – the Japan Club, if you’re interested – taking tough classes in hopes of impressing university admissions officers, competing on the swim team (and losing a lot, but that wasn’t the point, the point was impressing university admissions officers), and volunteering every weekend. And that day, I found myself in Nancy Carter’s office crying, hysterically, wanting to quit – demanding solutions. And for better or worse, Nancy Carter pointed out Phrase 2. She asked me to think, among all the things I was doing, was I doing well at any of them?

The answer was absolutely not. This redefined the value I placed on being busy. The following year, I had quit the club, scaled back on the swim team and scaled back on work hours. Not only did my life improve, but also, the world didn’t implode. Universities still wanted me, my friends still wanted to spend time with me, and I was back at a neutral place from where I could plan my next move.

There’s some people that aren’t going to figure out until much later than senior year of high school. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve truly taken this lesson to heart yet. But experiencing it for the first time so early on means that it stuck – and when I find myself ever-so-stressed out, I look at it with a questioning eye.

Putting Yourself First Isn’t Selfish, It’s Essential

3. Do you know how, in the airline safety instructions, they tell you to put your oxygen mask on before you put it on your dependents? Why is that?

It was 2014 and I was close to graduation. Farhood Basiri, local challenger of norms and modern Renaissance man, had become one of my mentors, friends, and all-around favorite people (hey Farhood). And I don’t remember how it came up, but I remember the intense guilt that was surfacing – that I still battle at this very moment – that maybe, by not pursuing a “secure career,” I was letting my family down.

Family relationships are hard. Mine aren’t the world’s most challenging by any means, but they still aren’t great. And one of the aspects of my family interactions is that I’ve found myself responsible for members of my family much before most people ever come to grapple that reality.

That dynamic tends to be incompatible with a volatile career of entrepreneurship, e-commerce and activism / art. People in that predicament often choose security – they get business degrees and go work in banking. As I started out, I dealt with a lot of guilt. In fact, I’m still at the beginning, so I still am managing a lot of guilt. This is when I return to the answer to Farhood’s rhetorical question:

It’s because if you put yours on first, you can rescue your dependent. If you put your dependent’s mask on first, you could both perish.

It is not selfish to care after you first, in fact, it is often essential to survival of you and the people you love.

I’m still struggling with this, but when I do, I remind myself that I can’t help anyone without my oxygen mask on.

Put Down Your Phone

4. You control push notifications. Push notifications do not control you.

OK, this one is kind of funny. But seriously, this one changed my life. I was probably just getting used to my iPhone, or something. Actually, here’s what it was – I was just getting used to be being an Always On High-Tech Worker™. And I made some complaint I can no longer remember to my then-new friend, now-business partner Josh Pollock, and that was his flat, shrugged response.

Game changer. I went home and turned off every single notification on my phone. Yes, all of them. You’re gasping. And then, as I remembered I needed to know what was going on in a certain app, I turned them back on. Notifications became activated on a need-to-know basis. That simple shift revolutionized how I work.

Struggling Means You Need Experience, Not To Struggle Harder

5. You have passion. You need experience. You need to work on another project, something that you aren’t burning with fury about, and you need to learn how to be a manager and an innovator by working on that for a while.”

This is paraphrased. The real come-to-Jesus talk was a little longer. This gem, also from Farhood Basiri, came to me around 2015, near the end of my term in Tallahassee, Florida.

Hey Farhood – did you know that the past two years of my life have been driven by your advice? Now you know.

Farhood said this to me as I saw my financial education organization fizzling out (or crashing and burning, depending on your perspective). I took these words to heart, and I pushed a hard pause button on my work as a reformer of America’s financial system.

These words are what led me to Josh, into WordPress, towards Ingot, and eventually, into Caldera Labs. This was also the intention that led me into my non-WordPress work as a volunteer at a co-working space for nonprofit organizations, an employee of a national non-profit organization, and a now currently to a fellowship at a Y-Combinator-style incubator for non-profit organizations.

Here’s the thing: knowing what you need to learn is nice. Knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know is nicer. But the real juice came from going three whys deep, in this case, accepting so intimately and deeply that I didn’t know anything. I ventured into a space with the mindset that I don’t even know how to find out what I don’t know I don’t know, and an openness for discovery. It has brought me into a place of humility and turned me into a muscle ready to be worked. Is it trying my patience? Yes. Is it jarring to discover that the “child prodigy” thing doesn’t extend past schooling years? Absolutely. But I couldn’t be happier with the road thus far.

So Long, So Long, And Thanks…

And just imagine: that’s 23 years. What will the next 60 bring?

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