4 min read
I recently received the following email from a reader:
I wanted to pop in and say thanks for doing what you do! I’ve been loving the daily blog posts. I wanted to reach out with a question. I’m 21, a junior in college at *************** and I’m considering going into data science but I also want to be an entrepreneur and start my own business. I just don’t know exactly what to start it in.
I’m definitely interested in math and statistics and was inspired by your side hustle post where you shared how you earned money from Craigslist with stats tutoring. I also have some experience programming with Java so I’m considering doing some type of consulting with that.
My net worth is pretty much $0 since I haven’t had a real job yet, but I love the idea of achieving financial independence by age 30. I’m wondering what you think the best path to pursue would be. Should I focus on getting a high paying job straight out of college or try to do freelancing where I have more time to start my own business? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and keep doing what you’re doing!
When I received this email, I couldn’t believe how similar this reader was to myself when I was 21. I also discovered the FIRE community around this same age and had the exact same thoughts as this reader. Should I try to save as much money as possible by age 30, should I start my own business, or perhaps a blend of both?
Over the past three years I’ve gained some clarity around these questions and I’m excited to share some of my insights with this reader who reminds me of a younger version of myself.
Pursue Learning, Discipline, Growth, and Connections
When you’re in college, the idea of graduating and immediately becoming your own boss and earning an income without anyone’s help is enticing. Unfortunately, graduating and entering the real world can present a real wake-up call.
Very few 20-somethings are successful entrepreneurs who earn their own income, not because the world hates 20-somethings and won’t pay them for their work, but because most young people fundamentally lack the skill set and experience needed to earn money working for themselves.
For example, this reader knows they’re interested in math and statistics, but this doesn’t automatically translate into a clear income path. Having a skill set and knowing how to monetize a skill set are two completely different things.
One quote about income and passion that I constantly think about comes from the CEO of 3D Robotics Chris Anderson:
“Many of us have bought into the cliché ‘pursue your passion.’ For many, that is terrible advice. In your 20s, you may not really know what your best skills and opportunities are. It’s much better to pursue learning, personal discipline, and growth. And to seek out connections with people across the planet. For a while, it’s just fine to follow and support someone else’s dream. In so doing, you will be building valuable relationships, valuable knowledge. And at some point your passion will come and whisper in your ear, ‘I’m ready.’”
As a young person straight out of college without experience, you may not know what your best skills even are. You might be good at math and stats but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to monetize those skills effectively.
In my opinion, one of the best positions to be in as a recent college grad is one where you can earn an income working for someone else while having the ability to grow your skill set on the job.
In my first job straight out of college, I earned $52k as a data analyst. This isn’t an insane amount of money, but I had the freedom and flexibility to learn as much as I wanted during my hours in the office. This is helped me grow my skill set, which I later leveraged to land my current job with a salary of $80k.
As Anderson said, it’s better to pursue learning, discipline, growth, and connections. These are the areas that will buy your future freedom.
Another piece of advice I’d give this reader is to start creating. Grab a domain name, start a website, and start building shit.
If you want to get into data science, download a public data set and summarize it, visualize it, or build a model with it and show it to the world. Share your code. Share your results. Do this over and over. Your work doesn’t even have to be good at first. You just need to keep creating and building. Over time, your skill set and knowledge will grow.
Money is Only Part of the Equation
This reader sounds like someone who has drive. As I’ve written in previous posts, complete F.I. isn’t necessary for most people who have the ability to achieve F.I. It’s the great paradox. The people most capable of achieving F.I. are the ones who are most likely to be lifelong learners, creators, and doers who don’t have the personality of someone who wants to fully retire and live on a beach.
As I wrote in my FinCon recap post, most people I met at FinCon who had achieved F.I. were still working in some capacity. They were people who enjoyed working as long as they found their work meaningful.
It’s important to keep in mind that money is only part of the equation. The whole point of stacking savings is to give yourself options in your working life. Focus on finding work you enjoy doing, not just saving a boatload of money.
Resist the Urge to Participate in the Trophy Game
In your early 20s especially there will be a huge variance among people you know who are landing $80k+ jobs and those who are still working entry-level jobs while living with their parents.
If you’re on any type of social media, you’ll come across subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) flexing from people buying new cars, houses, and other trinkets to show they “made” it. I call this the “trophy game.” People love to show off their trophies that don’t actually mean anything in the long run. Just remember that the shine eventually wears off on these trophies but the monthly bills remain.
The more you can focus on creating things, building your skill set, gaining experience, and saving money, the more freedom you’ll have at 30 than anyone you know.
Enjoy the Ride
With all that said, don’t be too hard on yourself or so focused that you miss out on your 20s. Enjoy the ride. Give yourself permission to travel, go to music festivals, take road trips, go to parties, and make memories. Life isn’t just one big self-improvement game, it’s meant to be enjoyed as well. As long as the core of your life is built on discipline, you can get everything you want without sacrificing your health and relationships.
Zach is the author behind Four Pillar Freedom, a blog that teaches you how to build wealth and gain freedom in life.
Zach's favorite free financial tool he's been using since 2015 to manage his net worth is Personal Capital. Each month he uses their free Investment Checkup tool and Retirement Planner to track his investments and ensure that he's on the fast track to financial freedom.
Although the bulk of his net worth is invested in index funds, his favorite place to invest in individual stocks is M1 Finance, a site that allows you to build a custom portfolio of stocks for free.
His favorite way to save money each month on his recurring bills is by using Trim, a free financial app that negotiates lower cable, internet, and phone bills with any provider on your behalf.
His favorite place to find new personal finance articles to read is Collecting Wisdom, a site that collects the best personal finance articles floating around the web on a daily basis.
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