10 lessons I’ve learned in 2020 as a 20-year-old
Lesson #1: stay childish forever. Never grow up.
2020 is the end of the beginning of my journey in life. I turned 20 earlier this year. It’s been hell of a ride from studying abroad, in university, exploring my interests, meeting new people, making mistakes, and COVID.
As it’s time to reflect upon the past 20 years of my life, here are the 10 lessons I’ve learnt for the past 20 years.
1. Stay childish
As a kid, life was much simpler and happier.
I was first acquainted with the “proper” smart gadget world when my parents’ got the first iPad.
Back then, desktops were the mainstream and laptops were still too thick as remote workstations.
So the iPad blew my mind away. I watched YouTube, played GTA, and browse the Internet on this thin slate of electronic. Forget about desktops that take 5 minutes to turn on.
Every time I used the iPad, I felt excited. Pure excitement and amazement.
Now, I’m so desensitized to new and exciting stuff that I’ve taken things for granted. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Being childish is not just about being excited by new things. Being childish also means that you view the world afresh. And a child is always hungry and foolish.
To be hungry is to be driven and unsatisfied. To be foolish is to be intellectual humble. To be childish is to see the world in a new light, free from the burden of learnt prejudice.
The remaining 9 lessons can all collapse into merely one rule:
Be a kid and stay a kid.
2. Show your appreciation
Most of us live a physically abundant life. And we take very simple things for granted every morning.
I’ve lived in the Middle East over a summer. Over there, regular access to clean and drinkable water is a difficulty, not a necessity. Access to reliable and fast internet either via Wi-Fi or mobile data is almost unheard of.
Have you heard of “broadband traffic jam”? That’s what happened during peak hours. I felt like I went back to age of 56K dial-internet (aka 2000s).
This was a cultural shock for me as I grew up in one of the most cyber-connected cities in the world that also happen to be coastal — Hong Kong.
But most importantly, it taught me that I need to appreciate what I have got.
Only appreciation is not enough. Show your appreciation.
Say thank you to your family, your friends and your loved ones.
Thank them before it’s too late.
3. Open up to vulnerability
I do believe in the crisis of modern masculinity. Boys are taught to be strong, righteous and morally upright all the time. This is simply too demanding.
In times of crises, men are ashamed to open up.
In times of mistakes, men hesitate to admit that they are wrong.
In times of regrets, men scramble to maintain self-righteousness.
I don’t believe in “modern saints”.
Be comfortable with vulnerability.
In fact, seek to be vulnerable. Step out of your comfort zone.
To be a man is no to be correct 100% of the times.
To be a man is to be correct in the times that matter, and wrong in times that don’t.
To err is human; forgive divine.
4. Be inquisitive
I wonder where the expectation of “intellectual specialisation” as we grow up comes from.
Children naturally find everything around them interesting. And they are willing to spend time into figuring out why things are that way but not in other ways.
University is the culmination of the “intellectual specialisation” phenomenon. Perhaps this might only be my own experience studying in the United Kingdom, but the zeitgeist I’ve observed is to despise on the polymaths and to idolise experts with niched interests.
This reminds me of a story I read came across before:
At a dinner party, the Americans talk about different topics comfortably thanks to their “Liberal Arts” curriculum. The Brits talk about what they personally want to talk about and bore each other to death.
I believe that in the next decade, innovation will come from the adjacent possible.
Specialists are important. However, experts/innovators/founders who can bring insights from one field to another will become more important in the decade to come.
And this is my goal: I strive to be a polymath.
5. Be socially curious
Being interesting is not enough. I’ve realised that being interested is an even more rare skill to possess.
Have an interest in what others are doing. Have an interest in others’ backstory. But of course, don’t probe unnecessarily into others’ privacy.
Unpinning social curiosity is humility. Social humility is to improve your weaknesses by learning others’ strengths.
6. Choose what fucks you give wisely
Too many things in life. Too few fucks to give. Enough said here:
7. You can only have 150 meaningful friendships, so befriend wisely
How many Facebook friends do you have? I have 2000+
That number means absolutely nothing to me. I don’t know most of my “friends” well-enough to actually call them friends in real life.
An Oxford anthropologist and psychologist, Robin Dunbar, studied why primates devote so much time and effort to grooming. He discovered that primates have large brains because they live in socially complex societies. The larger the group, the larger the brain. Thus, from the size of an animal’s neocortex, the frontal lobe in particular, you could theoretically predict the group size for that animal.
Dunbar made the mental leap to humans and concluded that an average human can have 150 “meaningful relationships”. Anything beyond that would be too complicated to handle.
The Dunbar’s Number is actually a series of them. The best known, 150, is the number of people we call casual friends — the people, say, you’d invite to a large party. The next step down, 50, is the number of people we call close friends — perhaps the people you’d invite to a group dinner. You see them often, but not so much that you consider them to be true intimates. Then there’s the circle of 15: the friends that you can turn to for sympathy when you need it, the ones you can confide in about most things. The most intimate Dunbar number, 5, is your close support group. These are your best friends (and often family members)
Studying abroad at a boarding school and an university has taught me that the quantity of friendships don’t matter. The quality does. It’s better to have a few good friends than a lot of acquaintances.
The dream goal is to have a group of friends as tight, powerful and intelligent as the Paypal Mafia
I’m already half-way in my university career. Nonetheless, now that I know I can only maintain 150 meaningful relationships in my life, I am not in a rush to meet new people.
Spend more time with the friends you enjoy hanging out with.
Perhaps I should write another piece on how to find like-minded people (something that I’m working towards as well).
8. Go get lost
Youth is a scary stage in life. It is scarily powerful.
You get to explore different options early with close-to-zero opportunity costs.
Over the past few years, I’ve deliberately dabbled in many fields and getting myself “lost”.
I’ve sung on stage. I’ve competed in triathlons. Now I’m working on a bio-tech startup as a non-STEM student.
This philosophy of “getting lost” extends beyond academics/career. I think it’s applicable in travelling too.
The conventional notion of tourism is to visit a destination, take a few photos and post them on Instagram.
The emerging notion of a tourism-in-depth is to AirBnB, wander around a local neighbourhood and make friends with locals whom you would never have met otherwise.
When everything you do in life becomes purposeful, functional and pre-determined, you only have your eyes set on the destination. You miss out the sights on your way to destination.
In Chinese, there’s a saying called 走馬看花, similar to English’s “a cook’s tour”. Both of them mean a rapid superficial survey/review i.e. modern “tourism”.
Forget about the destination. Get lost. Appreciate the journey.
It is the experience that matters. Things are secondary.
9. Think from First Principles
First Principles is a mental model to think from facts free of normative judgments. Start with “what is”. Don’t start with “what should be”
For me, First Principles thinking is about independent and critical thinking.
The consensus is wrong most of the time. How can we be a right contrarian then?
Break down the problem/phenomenon you are studying. Think from the facts up. Abandon prejudices and ripe opinions.
University campuses are bubbles. It’s taken me a while to realise that I had been guilty of herd mindset and group-thinking.
Break out of that bubble!
10. Compute the Algebra of Happiness
Scott Galloway, a popular podcast host, author, and professor at NYU wrote a book on the “Algebra of Happiness”.
This not a book promotion. Hell, I wish I get paid by Galloway.
He encapsulates healthy relationships, stable wealth-building and respectful metrics of success into a few formulas.
Many of his “teachings” in the book reverberate strongly with my values, especially “serendipity is a function of courage”.
And perhaps the strongest message I’ve gotten out of the book is this:
If you prepare well when you’re young, recognizing the tradeoffs between work and relationships, you will be happier throughout your life
The next decade (starting with 2021) will mark the beginning of the 20s. Another stage of my life — although I will try to stay childish, foolish and hungry :)