Tips from a young and successful entrepreneur - how to balance school fun and your career
Youth is a tricky thing. On the one hand, one’s adolescence is a time to enjoy many of life’s pleasures that will be unavailable when life kicks down the door and responsibilities begin piling up. On the other hand, the decisions made in the first twenty years of a person’s life have serious consequences down the line. Striking the balance between these two realities is key for young and motivated entrepreneurs; working too hard may cause one to burn out and lose out on fully experiencing those beautiful early years. Yet, not working enough may lead to a situation difficult to escape from.
As a 19 year old college student, I live this conflict on a day to day basis. I am the founder and CEO of a startup called NextGen and I too must find the tricky balance of my academic responsibilities, social desires, and obligations as the CEO of the company. My advice for people my age dealing with similar issues is threefold.
The first advice and most fundamental advice I can give is taking seriously the importance of time management. At the end of the day, we’re all humans who has infinite needs and desires with only finite resources to do so. However, the most important of those resources is your time. Many of you have probably heard of the Pareto principle in some form or another. The Pareto principle (more generally as the 80/20 rule) is a phenomenon that manifests itself everywhere in the world and it basically goes as follows; 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. This concept has many important implications, but I will be focusing on just one. To tie in another idea, known as the law of diminishing returns, the major takeaway should be that 80% of results in a given area of your life are tied back to 20% of the time you put in doing it. Spending a brief amount of time on a variety of tasks while putting in your maximum effort will reap serious dividends. Furthermore, being well diversified in the things you do - working out, going out, reading, meditating - and doing those things thoroughly will give you a greater sense of accomplishment - something that creates a positive feedback loop making you better at those tasks.
The second piece of advise that I can offer is that you should continually challenge yourself. Being comfortable means that you’re no longer moving forward, you’re staying constant, staying constant while everyone else moves forward means you’re moving backwards. A different side of this same coin is the idea of risk. Challenging oneself essentially amounts to taking risks - moving out of your comfort zone. NextGen is a startup that offers students summer bootcamps that teach the equivalent of two-three levels of university level computer science in eight weeks. Additionally, we’re working on opening a one year university that would equate to a four year college computer science education. This goal basically translates to a direct attack on the broken and archaic education system - a multi-billion dollar industry. However, no great things have come out of complacency and nearly all of humanity's greatest accomplishments have come about from a few brave individuals taking on massive risks. More importantly, let’s consider how we have collectively rewarded these individuals for taking on these risks and succeeding. For the sake of familiarity, let’s consider Elon Musk - a man who has been ousted of his position as CEO of his company and has had his two most famous companies (SpaceX and Tesla) nearly fall into bankruptcy. At that point, most of us would resign in misery and live with regret for the rest of our lives. Yet, Musk stood right back up, shook off the dust, and ventured back out again, fully aware that he was equally likely to get knocked down again. For this persistence, he is now one of most successful men on planet earth. Long story short, take risks, challenge yourself, and those decisions will pay off down the road.
Lastly, and related to point A, prioritize. As important as being able to manage your time is, it’s worthless if you aren’t spending your time on worthwhile endeavors. Think of time as money, and imagine your life as a balance sheet with your time being “spent” on the things you do. The terms “work”, “fun”, and “career” have yet to have been defined here and that’s because it is on you to figure out what those things mean and what the most useful things to slot into each of those categories are. Does “fun” mean sitting on the couch scrolling through Facebook or does it mean learning computer science? The most important difference between these two activities is their respective after-effects. Scrolling through Facebook is an activity that entails zero intellectual stimulation, provides you with no useful information, and has been scientifically proven to cause depression. On the other hand, learning computer science is an activity that provides one with a useful technical skill widely applicable in various industries. Additionally, coding is a logical and methodical process that refines one’s thought process. On a deeper level, the difference between these two activities is that one works in tandem with your other activities (work and school) and the other doesn’t. It’s important to take a macro view on this for one moment. You work, have fun, and go to school because you’re trying to achieve some end goal, and these various aspects of your life are there to help you in achieving that end goal. Therefore, would you rather devote your time when doing one of those activities to something that will enhance all of those other parts of your life, or do something that is entirely counterproductive to your macro goal?
Zach Cohen, the Founder and CEO of NextGen, a disruptive NYC start-up looking to change how computer science education is approached. In addition to launching NextGen, Zach is a freshman at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study where he is interested in studying entrepreneurial finance and computer science. Prior to founding NextGen, Zach has interned at numerous startups, and financial firms.