LinkedIn is currently having a great college graduation-oriented series written by successful and influential people titled “If I Were 22.” I’ve read a few of them so far including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s, and it got me thinking about what I would write. I am not highly successful and do not have years of experience to reflect upon yet. But I know where I am now and how I got here, and when I look back on these past few years it is clear that there were three best decisions that I made when I was 22.
1. Pursue a lifetime of inspiration.
I had the honor of introducing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the UN General Assembly Hall in front of 2,400 people for a Model United Nations conference where I volunteered. That was one of the highlights of my college career, and I still tell stories about it. But I also remember telling myself afterward that I want to make a difference in the world so that I can one day earn the honor to speak again at the General Assembly Hall to the real United Nations.
The decision and tradeoff at the time was that I would have to miss over a week of class in order to volunteer for the event, and I ended up falling behind in one class and dropping it when I returned. College students cared meticulously about their GPAs and a “drop” looked bad on the transcript for graduate schools. But I would trade it again in a heartbeat for the lifetime of inspiration that I received from the experience of speaking at the UN — inspiration that would one day fuel my desire to leave my job so that I could give back to others by starting my own company, Best Delegate. Finding meaning and passion was much more valuable than being defined by a mark or number on a piece of paper.
2. Travel after graduation.
I traveled for fifty days across thirteen countries on an around-the-world trip immediately after college graduation. I built my trip around a relatively cheap LAX-London-Dubai-Singapore-Hong Kong-LAX flight itinerary I had found at a student travel company so that I could visit my Model UN friends in places like Sarajevo and Singapore. The entire trip cost $6500, and I paid for it all with the money I had saved up from four years of working part-time and summer jobs throughout college.
It was the best decision for reasons beyond the stories and memories. It showed that it’s possible to independently explore the world, and I have taken many more trips since. It broadened my worldview as I learned about people, places, cultures as well as other lifestyles, values, and dreams. And the trip was full of creative brainstorming — in fact, the idea of Best Delegate was first tossed around as a fun side project while my friends and I were wandering around the canals of Amsterdam. Little did I know at the time that this trip would help reshape my career and lifestyle in my mid-to-late twenties.
3. Pick a job that teaches hard skills.
I was part of the AT&T Leadership Development Program for three years after college graduation where I served as a manager in sales, operations, and marketing in their San Francisco and Atlanta offices. For my first job, I was given a team of six sales reps — all older and more experienced than I was — and real sales targets to hit. It was hard work selling telecom-related products to small businesses in the post-Wall Street crash recession, but my team was successful and I learned a lot of hard skills from that experience and from my other two rotations.
In college, everyone lined up at career fairs for the investment banks and consulting firms. I went over to AT&T’s table because I didn’t want to wait in a long line for a prestigious consulting firm’s table next to it. In retrospect, speaking with AT&T and accepting their offer was the best first-career decision I made because the job taught me real skills and held me accountable to real numbers-driven results in the foundations of running a business: how to create a product (marketing), sell a product (sales), and support a product (operations). I use these skills every day at Best Delegate. And as an added bonus, the company had good work-life balance that was a luxury elsewhere and wonderful co-worker friends. I was able to fully enjoy living in San Francisco and Atlanta, and later on I spent some of those free evenings and weekends on setting up Best Delegate before leaving my job to work on it full-time.