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A Letter From The Past
(Advice to my 18 year-old self)

I've traveled here from the year 1988 with some advice. [1] Unfortunately, I can only time travel in one direction: forward. I can't go back and tell myself: "Invest in Google when they were still running on servers made out of Lego blocks". [2]

But perhaps some of my advice will be useful to people who were where I was then: 18 years old.

Save More

I've always had good jobs, but I haven't always spent what I got wisely. I'm not saying that I should have been a penny pincher, exactly. But there's a big difference between buying everything on a whim, and buying nothing.

I wish I had been a little more conscious of that balance. Catching up later in life is much harder than starting early. Even starting a few years later can have a big impact. $1,000 at an interest rate of 6% for 50 years is $20,000. Starting 10 years later it's only $10,000.

I almost wrote a $10,000 check on my line of credit when I was 19 to invest in my retirement -- as a kind of forced savings plan. I was very successful at paying off loans quickly, but not so good at just saving money. I've regretted not doing that.

Buy Less Stuff

In the movie Fight Club, Tyler says "The stuff you own ends up owning you". [3] That statement has really resonated with me. On the one hand, everything is saying "buy more": TV, magazines, the Internet, buses and bus stops even. Everyone wants you to buy their stuff.

Getting stuff is often much easier than getting rid of it. "Just throw it away" I hear you saying... I've found it's not as easy as it sounds to throw away a perfectly good -- whatever -- even if you aren't using it.

These days I think hard (and probably still not as hard as I should) before I buy something new. I admire the people who are trying to live with less stuff, even though I'll probably never be one of them. [4]

The more stuff you have, the more stuff you have to keep organized. The more toys you have, the more toys you have to keep put away.

Follow Your Bliss [5]

This has really made my life enjoyable. I get paid for doing what I'd be doing anyway. For me, it's working with computers. I really, truly, love the work I'm doing.

I'm convinced that everyone can make a living at doing something they really want to do. Who is going to pick up the garbage though? Funny you should ask. I had a friend back in high school, his father was a professor at the University. In the summer, the father would take a job as a garbage man because it "kept him in touch with reality".

Figure out what you really like to do, and spend some effort trying to come up with a way to make money at it. A job you love is worth much more than a job that pays well which you hate.

Follow Through

I love starting new things. It's easy and exciting to start something. Buying a remote control airplane kit is fun! Then you realize there are 100 little pieces, all similar, that you have to, sand, glue, realize you did it wrong, and fix...

That thing that was so great when looked at from a distance can really become tedious when you're in the trenches doing the work to make it a reality.

After a string of half completed projects, it starts to get pretty oppressive...

I've had to start being very careful about starting new projects. If I'm going to start something new, I have to decide what existing project I'll give up on. Or can this new, exciting project wait until an existing project is done?

I really enjoy the satisfaction of having something done, and being able to make use of -- whatever I was working on.

It's All In How You Look At It

I have a friend that looks at a project and can only see the boring things that stand between him and the completion. I tend to look at the same project and think about how good it will feel to be done with it. This has been instrumental in improving my follow-through.

And this all comes from (and trust me, I hate this cliche) looking on the bright side. So, don't concentrate on having to get up early, deal with airport security, spend 3 hours stuck in an aluminum tube uncomfortably close to several strangers/friends... You're about to experience the miracle of flight! Do you like to go fast? How about 550MPH?!?

It's a cheap trick, I know, but like placebos it's shockingly effective. [6]

Decide That You Can Do Anything

This is almost my superpower. It's not so much that I know I can do anything, it's more the converse; I don't know that there's anything I can't do.

That attitude has made it so that I pretty much can do anything... From replacing the engine in my car, to doing large-scale wireless Internet at a conference, to being self-educated, to building my own computers, to repairing plumbing and heating.

This is another cheap trick like the above, but it's one that's served me very well. If you decide you can't do something, you're probably going to end up being right.

Give Away Your Frustration

When I was in Junior High I used to get extremely frustrated. Not annoyed, but red-faced, kicking and screaming, death to the world, blood boiling, pissed-off. Then one day my mom threatened to take away the computers that I so loved. I pretty much had to, over night, stop this bad habit.

The band The Weakerthans have this song where they say "Throw away my misery; It never meant that much to me; It never sent a get-well card." [7]

Just let go of what makes you mad or sad. If you focus on it, you're just giving it power. Let your frustrations go and give power to the successes.

In Conclusion

That's the news that's fit to print from the year of nineteen hundred and eighty eight. Now go forth and study the good word of Bill and Ted who said "Be excellent to one-another." [8]

And party on, dudes!

Sean Reifschneider, March 11, 2010

Footnotes

For those of you who haven't studied your ancient history, here are some of the inspiration for this:

[1]Time Travel: http://www.xkcd.com/630/
[2]Google's Lego Computers: http://infolab.stanford.edu/pub/voy/museum/pictures/display/0-4-Google.htm
[3]Fight Club, the Movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0137523/
[4]How to Live With 100 Things: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1812048,00.html
[5]The Father of "Follow Your Bliss": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell
[6]The Placebo Effect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placebo
[7]Reconstruction Site by The Weakerthans: http://www.theweakerthans.org/discography/reconstructionsite_content.html
[8]Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the Movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096928/
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