By all rights, I’m happy with how my life is right now. I’m 24 years old, I’ve got no debt except for my mortgage, a solid engineering job, an amazing wife, and two dogs to play with. I’ve got good balance between faith, health, lifestyle, career, and finances, and I feel like my best days are yet to come.
Even so, it could have been better. Here are two pieces of advice I wish I’d heard in my high school days that could have been applied to great effect before and during my college days and in my early adult life.
Don’t Stop at Enough
I learned this lesson when thinking back on my scholarship opportunities before college. When you hit “good enough,” that’s not when you should let up — it’s when you should hammer the pedal to the floor, because once you get past “good enough,” every step is a step towards excellence. If that sounds cheesy, let me give you a personal illustration to bring it back down to earth.
When I applied for college scholarships, I mostly relied on two large scholarship contests at the state university in my hometown. One of the scholarships was $15,000 awarded to around 10 out of 100 qualified students that entered, the other had a grand prize of $48,000 with significant awards for anyone getting in the top 25 (there were around 200 participants from all over the region the year that I competed). I was a full recipient of the first and placed in the top 25 of the second. Between those two major scholarships, a few more small ones for living in the same city as the school, and living cheaply at home instead of moving out, I actually got paid to go to college. The total value of my scholarships exceeded tuition, books, and fees through my 4 years of undergraduate, so my university actually cut me a check each semester.
Sound pretty great? It was, and I’m so thankful for the head start it gave me. But to be honest, I put all my eggs in the big scholarship basket, and once I got “enough,” I stopped. If, instead of working as a lifeguard at the YMCA the summer before college for near minimum wage, I had made it my full-time job to apply for additional scholarships, I expect I could have doubled the amount I received. In effect, that would have put $30,000 cash in my pockets over the course of my undergraduate schooling. Had I invested that money, as I probably would have given that I started my Roth IRA when I was a college freshman in January 2009, I probably would have had enough to pay off my house by now. If not fully, it would be darn close.
The lesson? If you can keep going even after you’ve hit your goal, you’ll unlock levels of success that you hadn’t even dreamed of before.
Don’t Follow the Straight Line
Although the standard “linear” path of high school, college, job has worked pretty well for me, I would say my best learning has happened off the job and outside the classroom. The things you teach yourself and the things you do because you’re motivated, not because you’re obliged, are the things that will stick with you. Those things are your passion. Learn about them and do something with them.
Again, while I consider myself very blessed in my life and career, I think I’d be in a better place right now if I had been gutsier and more willing to break from convention to do something spectacular instead of coming in at the top ranks of regular. All the linear path will do is make you like people that followed the same path before you. That’s what education is for — making carbon copies of the same template. It has it’s uses. But that should just serve as a basic foundation. The real learning comes from the stuff you do that no one else is doing.
These are the things that I feel have kept me from being “great” and have relegated me to a pretty conventional path which is merely “good.” The best part though? I’ve learned the lessons, and I’m still young enough to apply them to my life and create a better future for myself. And you know what? You probably are too! My wise pastor once said, “If you’re not dead, you’re not done.” There are many stories of people starting late and finishing ahead. Don’t be afraid to apply those tough life lessons — you might as well have learned them for a reason!
So go out, push past the finish line, break from tradition, and be excellent.
Travis writes a blog on self-improvement, personal development, and college preparation at www.travisalane.com. Visit his site for more inspiring thoughts and insights!