When I graduated from high school I already had regrets.
When I graduated from university I had more regrets.
When I graduated from university again I made sure I didn't have any regrets.
Twice I went to school and left feeling I should have worked harder. I should have studied more. I should have left no stone unturned.
Finishing high school is a great achievement. But I never finished it the way I needed to, to be successful.
I always looked at school as a race to get to the finish line. I never saw it as a time to learn for the sake of learning. Learning because I wanted to learn. Learning because of curiosity. Learning to gain useful skills.
I saw school as a test. Study. Take the test. Forget what I studied. Study again. Take the test. Forget what I studied. It was an endless cycle. It took me a long time to figure out I was doing it wrong.
With my raw studying, I graduated with decent grades, but not good enough to get into the university program I "wanted" to study. So I enrolled in the only program in the university that would take me. I was studying to be a nutritionist/dietitian.
I convinced myself that this was what I wanted, that this was the career I was choosing for myself, despite no previous indication that I had any passion or desire for this career.
Nutritionist/Dietitian is a great career path, but it just wasn't right for me. It took me two years to realize I choose the wrong career path for me.
I still hadn't learned my lesson though.
I changed universities. I changed my career path. I was now studying economics. I loved studying economics. The logic and theory of economics just made sense to me. It was natural.
I took the easy path. I saw good grades as an indication that I was passionate. But that was a red herring. Having a natural affinity to economics meant that I didn't have to work as hard and I would still get the "results". The A's and A+'s came with little effort.
When it came time to get a job. I was lost. I hadn't done any extracurricular activities. I didn't join any clubs. I didn't fight hard enough to get internships. I didn't get to know professors. I didn't really understand the practical usage of economics in the real world. But I could take a test.
So I graduated.
I had my high school diploma. I had my bachelor degree in economics. I was totally on the path to success, right?
In the real world, it's not what you know, or how well you did on a test. It's how you can apply that knowledge in a real-world scenario that can create value for other people and make a business money.
Being able to take a test means very little when it comes to adding value to the world. Adding value to the world is what you need to do to have any career that will pay you.
It took me 12 years of mandatory education, 5 years in university, 1 year of unemployment, and 1 year in a regular office job to find the secret. I never had anyone to tell me the secret. And the reality is, even if someone told me I don't know if I would have listened. Kids are stubborn you know.
What it really means to invest in yourself.
1. Know "exactly what you want to learn". Figure out the exact career you want, and the career path to get there. Ask people already doing that career what they do on a daily basis. That is what you need to learn.
My motto is "take no shortcuts".
2. Actively seek opportunities to learn "exactly what you want to learn". If you are in a school setting, ask your professors/career counsellors for extracurricular activities and projects. If you are self-studying, you can approach businesses that hire people in your career path and ask for paid or even unpaid internships. Don't be afraid to work for free at the beginning. Ideally, you want to be paid, but real life experience is more valuable at the beginning, especially when you have zero. Just make sure the place you are working for is a legitimate business. And don't work for free for more than 6 months.
3. Focus your time only on "exactly what you want to learn". When you are taking a certification or university program or any form of study, ask yourself if what you are learning is "exactly what you want to learn", if it is not but you still need it to graduate, do the minimum necessary and focus your time on more important things that will get you the skills you really need.
My mottos are "say no to everything unrelated" and "say yes to exactly what you want to learn, EVERY TIME"
EVERY TIME is the key. Don't worry about spreading yourself out too thin as long as you are saying yes to "exactly what you want to learn". The reality of it is that you will not have enough "exact" things to fully occupy your time. Leave no stone unturned.
When I was in university for the second time. These are the things I repeated to myself everytime I had to make a decision on what I was doing.
Should I apply to be on the CFA Equity Research Challenge team? Yes, because I wanted to be a portfolio manager and equity research is the step to get there. I made sure it was very clear to the judges that this is what I wanted. I was named team leader.
Should I apply for the student-run investment fund? Yes, it's exactly the skill set I want to learn. But I was offered to be a group leader, which involved managing people. Despite being capable and willing to be a group leader, I chose to say no to this opportunity and just be a regular analyst on the team. I realized that in my career I would be starting as an analyst and I didn't think the people management skill would be useful in getting my first job. I rather spend my time doing the real work than managing people doing the work.
Should I take the CFA level I exam? Yes. The knowledge is relevant and employers value it on your resume.
Should I create templates and step by step guides for other students to learn how to write equity research? Yes. My professor asked for me to do this extra work. There was no benefit to me except to solidify my own understanding of the process. This resulted in gaining the good favour of my professor. I wasn't afraid to work for free to gain experience and to help others.
Should I take a low paying internship? Yes. That same professor I "helped" recommended me to an internship which became my first job in my finance career. It didn't pay a living wage but was the exact experience I needed. This recommendation was as good as experience in showing my new boss I could do the work.
I used this internship as a platform for my next job as well. I left no stone unturned at the internship. I took no shortcuts. I said yes to everything that was "exactly what I wanted to learn".
I changed my life within 18 months. I went from a $35,000 career to a $125,000 career. But it started with a change in my mindset. I wasn't focused on how much money I was going to make. I was focused on the skills I was learning and how those skills and knowledge could be used to help people. Because helping people is the definition of adding value and adding value is what makes money.
I continued to use these mottos to drive my career forward.
"know exactly what you want to learn"
"Say no to everything unrelated"
"Say yes to exactly what you want to learn, EVERY TIME"
The success you want is just over the fence. You can either stay on the side you are on or climb over to the other side. Your life can change very quickly or it can continue the way it is. A life-changing mindset is the first step.
Save Money Retire Early is written by Jon Lo, a barely 30 something change optimist, and personal finance guy. I believe anyone can be rich or poor, it's what you save that makes the difference.