The Best Life Advice From a Man Who Researches Everything

The Best Life Advice From a Man Who Researches Everything
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What's the best advice you've ever been given? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Tim Urban, writer for Wait But Why - join their email list here to get new posts in your inbox, on Quora.

It's hard to say what the best advice I've been given is. I've gotten a lot of great advice. Often I find the best advice is simplest.

One of the best pieces of advice came in the form of my friend telling me a one-sentence piece of advice his father told him. It was something along the lines of:

"If you have the option to do something you really love for a living, you should do it."

I know that's super cliche, "do what you love!", but something about how it was worded stuck with me. It wasn't as simple as "figure out what you love and then make that your career," but a more grounded, practical thought that it's not a given that you can pull this off, but if you're at a decision point and doing something you love every weekday seems to be one of the possibilities, do whatever you can to make it happen."

Another that pops to mind also was advice someone else got from someone else and relayed to me. I was in college, trying to figure out what to do with my existence, and I remember a high school friend telling me that a mentor of his told him, "Don't pick what you want to do and then go to the place where you can best do that, decide where you want to be in the world and then go there and figure out how to do the things you want to do there." My jury's still slightly out on whether this is the right advice or not, but it's interesting advice and I think it's probably wise. I moved to LA after college to write music, and I spent five years not feeling at home in LA before moving to NY, a place I had always wanted to live, and at least my personal experience says that I should have listened to that advice when I heard it at 22 instead of figuring it out on my own five years later.

Another: In college, people told me, "take the classes with the best professors, not the best topic." This is good advice in itself, but when taken metaphorically, it's also good advice for life in general. Going on a trip with three friends you love to a gas station in New Jersey is a hundred times more fun than going on the adventure of a lifetime with people you don't like.

Another happened last year when I first met Chris Anderson, the head of TED Talks. My relationship with him started when he made a generous donation to WBW. I wrote him to thank him, and he wrote back that he really liked the blog and asked if I ever thought about doing a TED Talk. He suggested we get together one day to discuss.

When we did, we talked through possible topics I could talk about and there were some interesting ideas, but nothing concrete. He surprised me by offering me the opportunity to speak at TED2016, which was only six months away. Two strong emotions immediately exploded in my head:

  1. Holy CRAP, I could do a TED Talk! What an amazing opportunity. Obviously I'm saying yes.
  2. Nope! Not in six months. Later. Later. Later. Later. Some time much later.

TED Talks were for people saving sex slaves and curing Alzheimer's, not dudes who sit at the counter in pajama pants and a gray t-shirt spending nine minutes trying to draw a normal-looking head circle. Plus, I had almost no public speaking experience, and I knew that whatever quality TED Talk I could give in six months, I could do a better one in the future when I had more experience. TED was the biggest stage and I wanted to do it when I felt cockyabout speaking because I had done a ton of it, not when I was trying to figure out who Tim Urban The Speaker even was.

The first voice was strong but the second one was even stronger. I definitely didn't want to give up the opportunity, but I definitely didn't want to make that opportunity Present Tim's problem. My ideal situation was for him to tell me I could guarantee myself a spot on the 2018 or 2019 stage--then I could still do it, but not now, and I could be more experienced when I did it, and most importantly, I could put something super hard and stressful off into the far future when it was a totally different Tim's problem.

I thanked Chris and asked him, "Would it make more sense for me to do this a couple years down the road when I've done more speaking?"

He paused thoughtfully for a few seconds, and considered the question, and then said, "There's no time like the present."

It was so clear to me that those were words of wisdom, and I agreed to do it.

We all find ourselves in moments like this when we have a chance to do something cool but we're also tempted to run away from it, sometimes in the form of putting it off until later. But when we choose the run away option, it's not usually a black-and-white choice. It's conflicted. There are two voices screaming out, not just one, and it's just that the "run away" voice ended up being more powerful. Since this talk with Chris, every time I find myself in one of those moments, his voice pops back into my head and says "there's no time like the present" and that's usually enough to tip that balance of power the other way. A big opportunity of any kind usually feels like a TED Talk you're not ready for, and it's incredibly important to not let yourself get in the habit of running away.

This goes hand-in-hand with another great piece of advice I got from one of the wisest people I know, Seth Godin, in the form of a blog post of his that arrived in my inbox one day. He talked about this very feeling of having a big opportunity and feeling simultaneously terrified about fucking it up. He said that the key in those moments is to reframe the fear you're feeling and think of it as excitement:

Here's an alternative: It's okay to be nervous. Instead of fighting that anxiety, dance with it. Welcome it. Relish it. It's a sign you're on to something. "Oh good, here comes that itch!" This is important after all.

When we welcome a feeling like this, when we embrace it and actually look forward to it, the feeling doesn't get louder and more debilitating. It softens, softens to the point where we can work with it.

Use your fear like fuel.

I love this. The road towards awesome things often goes through a really scary forest, and this blog post stuck with me because it acknowledges that the road to getting the most out of your potential is by definition a scary road to travel down. And so the fear is a signal that you're doing something right, or as Seth says, that "you're on to something."

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