5 min read

My TEDx Talk on ‘The 4 Mistakes You’ll Make in College’

On June 3rd, I gave a talk at Mission San Jose’s TEDx event. Because I was speaking to juniors and seniors in high school, I decided to write my speech on some of the mistakes they should try to avoid in college. Here they are.
My TEDx Talk on ‘The 4 Mistakes You’ll Make in College’
Photo by Thomas Park / Unsplash

On June 3rd, I gave a talk at Mission San Jose’s TEDx event. Because I was speaking to juniors and seniors in high school, I decided to write my speech on some of the mistakes they should try to avoid in college.

Here’s my 18-minute talk:

And here’s my slide deck:

I decided early on to leave out some of the more topical and “obvious” mistakes, like taking on colossal debt, or going to college in the first place. That type of advice isn’t very helpful because our choices about higher education are not strictly rational…

Students take out massive loans in hopes of a better future, while dismissing the greater likelihood of a compromised one. And people go to college because it’s still very strongly enforced as the best possible career move by our society, our parents, and our peers.

I didn’t want to give a talk that pointed out flaws in a decision they’d already made. Instead, I opted to give them advice I would have wanted to hear before starting college.

The four mistakes you’ll make in college are:

  1. The evidence. Most students graduate with very little to show from their four years. If you ask for proof that they attended college, they’ll either point to their degree or their Facebook profile. What all students should create while they’re in school is a blog or portfolio (yourname.com) where they can highlight their interests, knowledge, skills, and work. Your personal website can become a magnet for interesting opportunities, opening doors that you didn’t know existed, and it will give you enough leverage to create your own occupation/title. In other words, if you build the right evidence while you’re in college, you’ll have much greater control over your career path.
  2. Being a student. There’s a big difference between a student and a “seeker.” A student is a prisoner. They are forced into an institution they don’t want to be in, and try to figure out the most painless way to serve their time. A seeker remains curious and interested, and pursues learning for the sake of attaining wisdom/enlightenment. They don’t need permission to learn, nor are they learning solely to get out of the institution. They show up because the process of learning enriches their life; it’s not a forced activity. Unfortunately, formal schooling makes it very difficult to instill and retain this mindset, because we are conditioned — for more than a decade — to wait for permission to learn someone else’s agenda. Your job in college is to cultivate and protect your love for self-directed learning.
  3. The lifestyle. A few weeks before the TEDx event, my roommate told me a great story about a friend of ours who’d partied the night before one of his finals. It had me in tears laughing and coincidentally illustrated one of the points I’d wanted to make, so I decided to use it in my speech.
  4. “I’m gonna live forever!” I talk about the random moment I recognized my mortality during my sophomore year, and tie up the speech with one of my favorite videos, “Music and Life” (narration by Alan Watts, animation by Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

There were several “mistakes you’ll make in college” I considered including, but I ended up combining them with other points or removing them entirely. Here are a few more “mistakes” that didn’t make the final cut:

  • Going for the degree. A college degree isn’t a magical golden ticket that grants you responsibilities and a quality life; it’s a $19 booklet and a fancy piece of paper which signifies your solid performances on tests (somewhat ironically, I lost my degree a few years ago). Focus on forming quality relationships with people you respect, work on things that are meaningful to you, and don’t sweat the credentials so much.
  • Beating the system. There were a few courses I didn’t set foot in for months. In one of my business classes, I would walk in, sign the participation clipboard, then immediately walk out. For two weeks, I didn’t attend any classes while I took a cross-country road trip. My grades never slipped, and I took pride in thinking I’d “beat the system.” But even though I delighted in successfully breaking other people’s rules, I failed to recognize that I was still always playing by them. Instead of constantly trying to figure out ways to break THEIR rules and avoid THEIR work, I should have spent more time creating MY rules and doing MY work. Your education shouldn’t be about scheming and avoiding stuff; it should be about finding the few things you’ll actually want to show up for.
  • Thinking you’ll retire from your “one big idea.” I heard a lot of people say something to this effect while I was in school. The notion is still fairly pervasive: to sell whatever it is you’ve built, then spend the rest of your life enjoying the fruits of your short-lived labor. Again, your career should not be founded on the goal of a quick escape; it should be about creating a life that you can proudly embrace.

I filmed and reviewed footage of each practice rehearsal for this speech, fine-tuning my body language, inflection, volume, pacing, pauses, emotional range, gestures, etc. It was far from perfect (I stumbled quite a bit at the beginning), but I didn’t pace around like a caged animal this time, nor did the adrenaline make my voice shake.

The easiest parts of the speech were the stories; I barely had to rehearse them because they were memorable and allowed me to improvise. The trickiest parts were the random thoughts and statistics I clumsily wove into the narrative (e.g. “This was the first year that unemployed people with college degrees outnumbered unemployed people with high school degrees or less”). Those details hurt the message because I had to work harder to remember the wording, which resulted in a few ‘deer in the headlights’ moments. But overall, I’m happy with the end result.

I initially turned down the offer to give this talk, after convincing myself that my words would be quickly forgotten. I truthfully couldn’t remember any of the guest speakers I’d heard while I was in high school. The only one who stood out was a girl who had gone into excruciating detail about the time she was raped in college (yikes), but that was memorable because I had really low blood sugar. My body was drenched with sweat and I was trying not to faint while she described the assault. My friends sitting nearby thought I was wildly uncomfortable with the content of her speech; the sad reality was that I’d skipped breakfast.

After giving it some thought, I decided to commit to doing this speech. I’m glad I did. It’s always exhilarating and rewarding to deliver your ideas to a receptive audience. All the students seemed energetic and happy to be at the event, in spite of it being the end of a hot summer day.

Many thanks to Mission San Jose for inviting me to speak (especially Brian Hou and Andrew Han), and big up to my buddy Gagan Biyani (founder of Udemy), who did his talk on hacking high school.