“I’m an ambitious young person who wants to always be moving forward in my education and career. What should I be doing?”
The best thing that an ambitious young person can do at age 18, 19, or 20 is to be building something. They should be spending as much of their free time as possible actively contributing to a tangible, real project that is completely outside of the school setting.
Actively building something is the best thing an ambitious young person can do for their personal and professional development. It makes them better people, sets them up for better career opportunities, and sets in process the long and worthwhile goal of becoming a creator who is motivated by their own desire to control their lives, not simply one who creates to pad a resume or get offered a job at a major corporation.
“But I just spent the past couple of years building up my personal accomplishments and resume so that I could get more opportunities…how is your advice any different?”
If you were like me when I was in high school, a good chunk of your time “building” was devoted towards activities and extracurriculars you were hoping would bolster your resume for applying to elite colleges or programs. Sure, you may have really liked some of them, but your time was likely split between a half-dozen or more of these. Even if you were president of your FBLA chapter, a debater on your student congress team, and a member of your Science Olympiad team, you spent so much of your time curating a diverse resume that it was hard to really become an expert at building in any given area.
Or maybe you participate in a few hackathons a year where you build apps and programs within 24 hours in the hopes of beating out other teams and the recognition brought with that. Developing the skill set necessary is itself an astonishing tool and one you can use to build even better and more diverse projects at the end of the day. But why are you building? Are you building for the satisfaction of engaging in meaningful work? Or are you building for the approval of some outside authority?
An app, a book, a blog, a podcast, a building, a program — whatever it is, starting (or joining) a project that allows you to actively build is the best thing you can do for yourself and your future. If even as a side-project during school, in the summer, or outside of your full-time job, starting to build can be the best action you can start to make yourself a better person, student, and creator.
Personal Development: Building is Hard
Engaging in the active pursuit of building is not something easy. Waking up and committing to making some headway on a project that you started in a fit of inspiration is easy in the days immediately following the genesis, but becomes increasingly difficult a week, month, or quarter after you started.
Even more, we must develop the standards for success (and failure!) of the building ourselves. Each major decision can be taken dozens of ways, each one bringing with it a set of different outcomes (seen and unseen) and other decisions to be made down the road. It is unlikely there will be obvious “right” and “wrong” options. Some provide more favorable predicted outcomes than others, but how we determine which outcomes are more favorable and likely than others is a decision to be made by our own judgment.
When we are in school or a hierarchical workplace, we have people to check our progress and provide a rubric for success. Multiple choice tests provide keys to tell which answers are clearly correct and incorrect. Even open ended answers have rubrics to assist in grading. Answers with certain clear elements are more right than those without these elements.
Building your own project doesn’t bring with it these same checks. You have to build them yourself. You have set the standard for success and failure and be prepared to adjust accordingly in light of new information that you determine is worth paying attention to.
Even if your project is a flop, your undertaking the project will not be a failure if you actively follow the self-guidance of creation — setting goals, checking those goals against self-set standards, and actively working towards building every day.
Professional Development: The Age of the Credential is in its Twilight
Most of the building that ambitious young people do in their youth is in pursuit of some kind of credential. The credential, it is believed, will show that they know their stuff and ought to be trusted to create and build — either by joining a company or by joining the next tier of higher education.
This mythos is growing weaker by the day. The importance and weight of actually building a project is stronger than ever with the advent of the Internet and the ability to see for yourself what people have built and the quality of their work with a simple Google search.
Career pages at company websites echo this assertion. Portfolio and experience requirements are posted in lieu of BA requirements. “BA or equivalent work experience” is found when just years ago “BA” would be all that is listed.
Employers and potential colleagues are looking for your ability to identify a valuable pursuit, cut your losses when necessary, launch a project in line with that pursuit, carry through, and develop the skills and responsibility necessary to finish that pursuit. An actual track-record of creating speaks more than a simple credential ever could.
Motivational Development: Creation Begets Creation
“Okay, but where can I start? What if I don’t have a great idea for a project I want to build?”
Just start building.
Author Steven Pressfield writes of the morning routines of the best writers in his book The War of Art, noting that the “professionals” don’t wait for inspiration to strike and then start working. They just start working. Creation begets creation. Building begets building.
Start building by blogging every day. Start building by learning a new skill set. Start building by devoting yourself an hour to sit down and write no matter what — even if you don’t have a topic. You’ll find in time that a topic will come to you.
If you devote yourself to launching a new company and actually put in motion the pieces necessary to bring it into reality, you’ll find new motivation to learn the skills you need.
Engaging in meaningful work motivates the individual. It creates a feedback loop by which we become more motivated to better ourselves in the pursuit of our work. If we find creating an app to be fulfilling and meaningful but require a new coding skill set to get to the next phase of the project, it is astonishingly easier. to pick up this skill set than if we just decided to learn it in a vacuum.
If you find yourself agreeing with the advice to just be building but have no idea what to build, then just start on the path of building something. You’ll be amazed at the motivation and creativity you unlock in the pursuit of building.