Five things I wish I knew the day I started University

At the beginning of the new academic year in 2018 I was given an opportunity to speak to incoming students at my alma mater.

This is (mostly) what I said.

0. Write

Yeah, I know. Surprising advice, level 3000.

Still, I wish someone told me to write.

For a multitude of reasons. Unless something fundamentally changes in the way most of us work, your professional communication will happen in writing. A ton of research shows that you will remember more if you write your own notes. Yes, especially if you do it in the old, analog style.

Being able to write down notes that will later refresh your long term memory is an invaluable skill. It will pay huge dividends in the future. Now is the best time to start perfecting it.

Still, I would like to push this idea one step further. Try to make a habit of making notes of everything that may be of some value in the future. It does a pretty good job of convincing us of the opposite, but the human brain is not good at remembering information for long time spans. Find a note taking system that works for you and stick to it.

Yes, you may not be able to pick out the really worthy pieces right away. But that is actually the real, albeit very well hidden point of this whole writing exercise: to develop a taste for what is and what is not worth recording.

Start writing and taste will come. Rather quickly.

And if you want a head start, try thinking about things that are obvious to you, but may be amazing to others. Those are definitely worth writing down.

1. A ton of free time for the first time

This one may not be so obvious, it certainly was not for me.

Up until now you had someone else organize your day. Starting in kindergarten until the final days of high school, there was always someone who would tell you what to do: parents, tutors, teachers... It was not very pleasant but still a fairly good deal: do what they say and you would be (mostly) all right.

That is all history now. If they mean it seriously, neither your parents nor your school will push you into doing anything. And as a consequence you will -- most probably for the first time in your life -- have a ton of time on your hands. And a ton of freedom.

Here is my suggestion: use it to explore something deeply.

Go try kayaking, it is one heck of a sport.

Do not be afraid to get your captain's or pilot's license, it really is not that difficult nor expensive.

See whether you could pick up harpsichord, trombone or ukulele [1].

Experiment with regular body building, running, swimming or cycling -- it may make you feel much better than you do now.

Figure out whether dancing opens you up to emotions you would not think you could experience.

Try learning Korean, Farsi or Swedish, but this time do it because you want to try it out, not because you are expected to. [2]

Go after your passion and desire, however distant they may seem from the subject you came here to study.

I can already hear those voices:

But they told us studying here will be difficult!?

But they told us nearly half of us won't be able to make it anyway!?

But they told us we have to have X credits after the first semester and k * X credits after the second semester!?

How are we supposed to find time for all this?!

Well, let me tell you how!

2. Focus

Derek Sivers said this very thing to incoming Berkelee students more than 10 years ago, so these are mostly his words. They seem to be even more important today than they used to be back then.

The half-life of a student at this faculty (and/or university) is what, three, possibly five or more years? I do not really know to be honest -- this data is pretty much impossible to come by. Nonetheless, figuring out how to fill that time is now your main priority.

Pretty much all student-becomes-master stories have a common theme. Whether it is Po in Kung Fu Panda or Luke in Star Wars, the student is taken to some remote location where their abilities are tested, improved and perfected during training that goes beyond limits. Only then are they ready to emerge in the "real world" and do their heroic deeds.

As crazy as it may sound, this place can become your training-optimized remote location for the next few years. If you focus.

I am not joking here. Even a densely populated city can become your own Jade Palace or Dagobah swamp. If, again, you decide to focus.

But that is way easier said than done.

All around you there will be cool people, tempting you to take it easy, to enjoy the student's life, to see how much can your liver handle. You came here on the Fun & Relax bus, so why not have some of that too? It is certainly a valid choice, but not an optimal one if you came here to study, so that one day you would emerge a master.

Even if you manage to be a contrarian and dodge the bullet above, the odds are against you. During the time you spend here

  • Presidents will change.
  • Governments will change.
  • The richest person in the world will change.
  • Technological landscape will almost certainly change.

And vasts swaths of people will try to convince you how important all of this is. And that you need to know about it in order to be a functioning member of the society. They'll even go out of their way to suggest that any change in your world is worth broadcasting out (on their platform of course).

Except none of that is anything more than a point of view. And a seriously biased one. Those who suggest you need to consume or even produce news usually greatly benefit from you doing so.

Do not be afraid to call their bluff. Recall the previous point: you are free! Do not be afraid to create a place where intense training happens, even at the expense of being blind to latest events. If they are important enough, they will find you anyway.

Shut off. Focus on what you came here to be a master at. Either you will be in control of your world or the world will be in control of you.

3. You will fail. Often. And that is how it should be.

It may be an artifact of the world we live in. One quick to celebrate success but fairly slow to recognize the path leading to it. Just a small sample of things that get a ton of coverage:

  • "Over-night" successes of startups where this "over-night" actually took 10 years.
  • "Breakthrough inventions and discoveries" which stand upon ideas several times older than the researchers who introduced them.
  • "Breathtaking bestsellers" which are often times preceded by books even the author is ashamed of.

In every single one of these examples the road is paved with failure. In fact, you may learn that no matter what deep pursuit you choose, failure is actually the status quo.

Sooner or later, failure will come. Even without you trying. Even if you do your best to avoid it.

That is my home-take point here. Do not just use the freedom you now have to focus, be willing to take calculated risk. Failure will come anyway -- the worst thing you could try would be to actively avoid it. Yes, the trivial solution of doing nothing is a failure in and of itself.

Three quick illustrative examples.

First, just for the fun of it, try to ask your professors, mentors, friends or favourite professionals how much of their success would they attribute to hard grind and how much to talent.

You will get different answers. Some will probably quote Einstein and give you 99%/1%, others may be even more conservative. But you may be surprised to find that for some this is the wrong question to ask. Without going through the grind you cannot reliably find out what your talents are. Hard grind then uncovers and amplifies raw talent. Attributing your success to a portion of one or the other is the wrong way of looking at it.

So go explore something deeply, do it to uncover your talent, be ready for the grind that comes with it and do not be afraid of failure. It will come, but it will be part of a learning experience, uniquely tailored just for you.

Second, last week I was at the very beautiful South Moravian town of Lednice which hosts a faculty of the Mendel University. And the story of Gregor Mendel is one very relevant for our discussion.

After working as a substitute high school teacher for a while, Mendel was sent to University of Vienna to complete his studies and get certified as a high school teacher. He failed the qualifying exams, but managed to stay at the University for another year. During this year he attended lectures on combinatorics, which later turned out to be pivotal in his research. After some time he tried to pass the exams one more time, but failed again. He never managed to become a certified high school teacher.

Let that sink in. The guy we call the "father of Genetics" never managed to become a certified high school teacher, let alone a university professor. If he did, we would probably only get to his name while blowing off dust from historical records at some high school in Brno, Czechia. He did not, and we can now go to Lednice, South Moravia and see a university that bears his name.

Finally, none of this is a new thing. Probably the best summarization I ever saw can be found in the commencement speech Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. Stay hungry, stay foolish. It is one big story of failure after failure. Go watch it, it is totally worth it.

There is nothing wrong with make a mistake. It would be wrong to repeat it, though. To avoid that, you need to learn from your mistake first.

So do not be afraid to make it in the first place -- this school will gladly help you with that.

4. This is the last time you have a lot of time

Yes, not only is this the first time you have free time, this is also the last time you have a lot of free time.

And so my advice is obvious again: use it wisely.

Look, no one is going to forbid you from watching people shooting each other whilst collecting weapons right after they jumped off a plane. There is nothing wrong with that per se. It is just that without trying too much you managed to kill your afternoon. Just by watching others trying to kill each other.

Many of you know how to program. And that is awesome! And for many of you that will be a great way of supporting yourself while studying. And I certainly do not want to discourage you from doing that.

Just understand that you are exchanging time, which you for the first and the last time have in great quantities, for someone else's relatively small amount of money [3]. It may be still worth it if you are trying to learn how to navigate the workforce, or to finally get some practical experience on an interesting project. But if you really do not have to or need to, I would not encourage you to do it.

Mostly because I would like you to explore other, possibly better options.

Instead of working on someone else's problem, you now have the time to invest into solving a difficult problem of your own design and liking. This does not have to be programming-related, it does not even need to be technical. I am absolutely certain you will easily find NGOs, student groups and other organizations which deal with stuff you deeply care about who would be delighted to have you help them.

Let us get back to my programming example. Instead of working on someone else's problems, many times so miserable you are glad you at least got paid for the experience, see if you can help your favourite Open Source project. Yes, it probably will not be easy, and yes, you almost certainly will not get paid. But you will learn a ton about how software is built, get to know and work with a ton of very interesting people and walk away with a contribution the whole world can see.

If you are optimizing for the long run, I dare you to figure out which path is more valuable.

Time is the ultimate commodity we have. If you want to give someone something meaningful, do not give them anything else. In all other cases make sure you use it wisely.

5. Woe onto you, should you act on (good) advice!

During the past few hours and in the next few days [4] you will almost certainly get a ton of advice. On how to study, how much to study, what not to study, how to best use your time and so on and so forth. To which I say: woe onto you, should you act on (good) advice!

Yes, this applies specifically to any advice that comes from me.

What is most difficult? To know one's self.

What is most easy? To give advice.

—Thales of Miletus

The biggest problem with advice is what this essay tries to illustrate. At best, it is a generalization of various experiences of its author. Despite their good will, they cannot know the intricate details of your life. You could try to consult as many advisers as possible, but that has a host of its own problems and usually results in more harm than good.

No, this does not mean you should ignore advice en bloc. That would indeed be unwise. Do listen to any advice you can get but at the end of the day the decision you make needs to be yours, and yours only.

Life is not long enough for any other option.

Good luck!

Thanks to Katarina Benesova, Ondrej Jariabka, Peter Komorik and Tomas Vinar for reading drafts of this.


Previous edits of this essay said piano instead of harpsichord, so that is also a very good choice.

Also, I have seen ukulele make marvelous sounds in the hands of people who I never thought may enjoy producing music. If you are not sure where to start, getting a uke is a safe bet.

[2]If you would like to try language learning but seem to lack the passion and dedication necessary for it, I strongly suggest you try Esperanto. You may be surprised how far can you get with very little time, especially if you already speak an "european" language.
[3]From their perspective, that is.
[4]Well, next few months and years to be honest.