Life Lessons I Wish I Knew at 17: A Letter to My Niece

Don’t want to read? Then listen

Dear Z, 

You’re growing up quickly, and there are many important decisions ahead in the next few years. I realize I haven’t been around much for us to have in-depth discussions where I could offer guidance or advice. So, I want to share with you a list of unsolicited advice—things I wish someone had told me at your age, 16 going on 17.

I’ll try my best not to sound preachy. To show that I’m coming from a place of love and authenticity, I’ll begin with a somewhat contradictory piece of advice: Most advice is incorrect and often irrelevant. This is because the advice given is usually based on the giver’s own life experiences and the era they lived in. The ‘board game’ of life has changed, and so should the advice. Approach all advice with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Hopefully, you believe me now, but if not, that’s okay. In the future, you might revisit this advice and find more of it relevant. 😉

Before we dive in, a quick shout-out to my nephew, C. Don’t worry, C! I’ll send you different unsolicited advice when it’s your turn.

Let’s start… 

  • Career paths: You don’t need to know exactly what you want to do. It’s an unrealistic expectation for adults to think that 18-year-olds should have their entire careers figured out. Instead, consider your life in ‘seasons’ of 5 to 10 years. In each season, your interests, goals, and pursuits will change. For your current season, it’s wise to choose a path that’s not only monetizable but also interesting to you.
  • Practical degrees: Aim for a practical degree, rather than one in the liberal arts, like history or literature. By ‘practical’, I mean a degree that can be quickly converted into a career after college. Examples include engineering, medicine, finance, etc. If you’re drawn to liberal arts, you can still explore these subjects as side interests, but not as your main focus.
  • College is NOT about education: College is about gathering credentials (i.e. diplomas). These credentials might be important for certain career paths or companies. The actual learning in college will largely be up to you, not the system you’re in. Ultimately, college is about the experience. Enjoy it, meet new people, try various hobbies, explore different subjects, and value this unique time of exploration.
  • Critical meta-life skills: Certain skills will not only distinguish you from others but also foster self-reliance, which is invaluable. I highly recommend taking these skills seriously. Here are a few that come to mind:
    • Learning How to Learn: This is perhaps the most crucial skill.
    • Self-Discipline
    • Accepting Rejection.
    • Networking: It’s a sad reality, but who you know is more important than what you know.
    • Enjoying Silence and Boredom: Few people embrace silence and boredom. Those who do tend to make more meaningful progress in life.
    • Love: Marriage is not a fairy tale. It’s a skill that can be developed. There are practical tips, habits, and mindsets behind couples who have spent 50 years together. Continuously seek to learn and improve in this area.
    • Personal Finances: Understanding how to save and invest is crucial. I suggest starting with these two introductory books – here and here.
    • Health: Know how to eat well and exercise.
    • Communication: Both verbal and written skills are critical. Being able to articulate your thoughts clearly often leads to faster success compared to peers with similar skills. Here’s a starter resource for you.
  • One-way vs. two-way doors: In life, you’ll encounter both one-way and two-way door decisions. One-way door decisions are hard to reverse, while two-way door decisions can be reversed easily. Don’t make one-way door decisions lightly. 
    • One-way doors: Getting pregnant, taking highly addictive drugs, and hardcore illegal activity (something that’ll land you in jail for a while). 
    • Two-way doors: picking the “wrong” degree, dating the “wrong” person, or choosing the “wrong” company.
  • Unknown future: Your future career, relationships, and leisure experiences will likely be radically different from mine. Therefore, take my advice, and anyone else’s, with a significant degree of skepticism. We’re likely wrong. One key player in these changes with be AI. What you think you might be doing in 10 years could be completely different, either augmented by AI or entirely replaced. So focus on the meta-skills I mentioned previously. 
  • Take the third door: Imagine trying to get into a popular club. There’s a long line at the front door, and a back door for the famous and wealthy. But there’s always a third door for the creative and resourceful. This is a metaphor for finding unconventional ways to access opportunities in life, such as entering institutions or corporations. Avoid the crowded front door; look for the less obvious, more creative entry points.
  • Creation > Consumption: The1% rule or “90-9-1 principle” in online communities suggests that 1% of users create content, 9% participate occasionally, and 90% are lurkers. Spend as much, if not more time creating vs. consuming. There are thousands of highly paid and well-trained psychologists on the other end of the apps you’re endlessly consuming (TikTok, Snapchat) and their sole purpose is to keep you in the app. It’s a slot machine for your emotions. If you want to stand out and derive more meaning from life, create more. 
  • Following your passion is bullsh**: The advice to “follow your passion” is often unrealistic. Very few people discover a true passion that can also be monetized. Instead, focus on activities that interest you, even slightlythings that feel like play to you but look like work to others. Over time, as you become skilled in these areas, you’ll likely develop a passion for them. This approach is more practical and often leads to success and fulfillment.
  • Reacting vs. Responding: There’s a crucial gap between an external stimulus and your response. In this gap lies freedom. By creating more space between these two, you gain more freedom. Often, people “react” impulsively, driven by emotions, which can lead to poor outcomes. When faced with provocation, whether it’s an insult or a challenge, resist the urge to react emotionally. Instead, create a moment of pause, think it over, and then “respond” in a thoughtful manner.
  • Money CAN buy happiness:You’ll hear people say that money can’t buy happiness. Don’t believe them. Once you’ve passed a certain threshold of income (changing constantly) you’re noticeably happier for two reasons. 
    • Experiences: With more financial resources, you can afford experiences that improve your mood over time, such as fitness classes, vacations, and dining out.
    • Security: The more you save and invest, the more financial security you achieve. If you stash away a hefty sum of money that safety net will provide you with more confidence throughout your life. It allows you to be more authentic in your professional life, as you’re not entirely dependent on your paycheck.
  • The power of compounding: Compounding is a magical idea and will work wonders for you if you’re intentional about how you spend your resources – money and time. However, it’s essential to remember that compounding can work both ways. It can amplify poor habits (like not exercising, smoking, drinking, etc.), or it can enhance positive habits (like investing wisely, dedicating time daily to reading or writing, focusing on a few meaningful relationships, etc.). Albert Einstein famously called compounding “the eighth wonder of the world.” 
  • You are your habits: Habits shape who we are, yet many people default to harmful habits without realizing it. Be intentional about the habits you establish, maintain, and discard. When setting goals, attach them to manageable habits.
  • The cool aren’t “cool”: Most of the cool kids from high school are almost always losers later in life. They’ve peaked too early and are constantly reminiscing about the good old days. They’re stuck in the past. Don’t peak early and don’t look backward. Life is always getting better, as long as you allow it. 
  • Be ambitious: The world will do its best to squish your ambitious ideas, don’t let it! It’s easy for people to criticize ideas in their infancy. Keep those ideas/visions to yourself, ensuring they’re not squished too early. That includes keeping them away from close family and friends. Early ideas are fragile and can easily be crushed.
    • Note: If your ambitions involve financial success (they don’t have to), you might find yourself moving frequently, often to larger cities. In these situations, prioritize social events and friendships. Relationships become increasingly important, especially as you move into your later 20s and beyond. Investing time and effort in these relationships is key to sustaining this lifestyle.
  • Detach from labels: Understand that when others label you, or when you label yourself, you’re either accepting or continuing a false narrative. Ambitious people are constantly evolving, so the person you were two years ago should be different from who you are today. Humans tend to categorize each other because it’s cognitively efficient, but it’s important to detach from any kind of labeling, even if it seems positive. Labels like “I’m an angry person,” “I’m a failure,” “I’m unhealthy,” “I’m not smart,” “I’m not a risk-taker,” “I’m emotional,” “I’m rational,” etc., can be limiting and not reflective of your true, evolving self.
  • Radical accountability: The only things you can truly control are your actions and perceptions. Embrace this concept. The more responsibility you take for yourself, the freer you’ll become. Avoid blaming others for negative experiences in your life. Doing so only gives them more power. Instead, roll with the punches, accept what happens (good or bad), and keep moving forward.
    • Here are two mantras that I find helpful in dealing with life’s “unfair” challenges:
      • “Life is not fair”
      • “It’s not my fault, but it is my problem (solve it)”
  • Adults are confused too: Remember, we’re all trying to navigate this journey called “life.” All adults, regardless of how confident they may appear, are figuring things out as they go. Don’t simply accept what your elders say just because they’re “more experienced.” Age doesn’t automatically equate to wisdom or experience. It’s important to question their ideologies, opinions, and advice (mine included). Think for yourself, ideally from first principles.

I have a lot more unsolicited advice to offer, so if you’re interested in hearing more, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m always happy to answer questions or dive into specific areas you’re interested in chatting about. 😉


Your uncle