If I could write a letter to my nine-year-old self what would it say? Maybe I would have skipped the year in private art school ($30,000 before interest) and opted for a year apprenticeship in Venice (which in theory would have made me money). More importantly where would I be? I am 27 and the executive director of a successful non-profit environmental consulting firm. After 5 years of blood, sweat, tears we have a functional board, and have worked with other non-profits throughout Oregon conducting watershed assessments and endangered species habitat restoration planning. I was fortunate to have an amazing partner but the drive I needed to keep doing it, day in day out was more than I was prepared for, financially and mentally. I wouldn’t change anything, even though I went into debt to start the business, because I am happy with what I am doing and so too are my partners and clients.
But for the sake of argument and for the sake of helping others faced with the same options I was, I would give my nine-year-old self the following advice:
Study at community college
Although the education I received at Otis and OSU was amazing, there are a lot of other things I could do for $60,000. I didn’t really even know what I wanted to do until I spent a few years doing it. Better to go through the same learning process for a fraction of the cost. After all, you can always go to a prestigious college later, after you have saved for it and after you have done it for a while and know that you are pursuing your real dream. For the really ambitious skip high school and get your GED at 14 or 16 depending on the state you live in. Go to community college and graduate with a degree while most of your friends are just starting college. Of course this is really going to screw with your social skills, which brings me to my second piece of advice…
Get a life!
I have spent so much time being a student, a CEO, a biologist, and a wife that I have lost a bit of myself. I was letting my titles define who I was. Although I wouldn’t go back, I traded my 20s for my business (absolutely worth it but it is a trade that a lot of young entrepreneurs might not be prepared to make). If you like going out with friends and family or any other normal activity it is likely that you will have to put that on hold for a decade or so. I would have accepted a lot more invitations to parties and declined a few more to meetings because you aren’t really going to regret going to a party. I realized that a lot of the things I wanted to do when I was a child that I expected would be possible when I was an adult really would have been easier to do as a kid. Getting a job and using the proceeds to go skydiving is realistic for someone living at home with no expenses.
Really engage in your community. I can’t emphasize how emotionally rewarding it is to do something that helps the cause you believe in. The only way you can help is by finding out what is meaningful to you and getting involved in the community that does that. No matter how much money you make it will never make you whole.
Read and write
Anything, read the comics, read advertisements, read blogs, the newspaper, put the captions on your television. I loved books and always read but I would have read a lot more if I had known how important books were. Write down how you felt about what you read. So many people that come in to environmental science out of college can’t write well. Writing skill is a prerequisite for advancement in almost every field. Get published. You can write a novel in junior high and be published by the time you are 15 so lack of education can’t be an excuse. The only way to become a decent writer is by writing every day. Even if you don’t think you are ever going to get paid to write, you can’t look professional without quality writing skills.
Make real connections
95% of my academic experience at OSU was through email correspondence or video lectures and assigned reading. Although I learned a lot this way, I don’t have a huge group of professors that know me well. This is a big detriment. On the other hand I had a very hands-on personal instruction at Otis and am still connected with several professors there (although I don’t have enough time to keep up with them as I would like). These are the people that can help you find work, leads, clients, etc. Let them help you. Make it easy for them to help you. Give them a good reason to want to help you.
Finally expect to have to do it forever and if that scares you don’t
I would emphasize this last point to nine-year-old self because most things I want to do only hold my interest for a few weeks. I would have saved a lot of money following this advice. Most start-up businesses aren’t going to have so much success that the owners will make a profit selling it 3 years after the doors open. When you start a venture, expect to be doing it for 10 years at least. If you don’t have that kind of dedication than consider something else. Although for those that enjoy risk, starting a business with the expectation of selling after the first year can have high rewards but can come with a financial burden that can take a toll on everything you own and at worst, your family. With my own business I knew I wanted to work in the environmental research field with my husband and business partner and I wanted to tele-commute. A self-made position was and remains the only option. The most important reason though is a dedication to the people you are working for. When a group that we have worked with has a question regarding our products, I want to be there in 10 years to answer them. I have dedication to my business and that is part of why it is successful.
A more interesting letter might be the one I would write to myself now when I am 40. I can’t imagine what it would say, probably something along the lines of ‘relax and enjoy life’… I hope.
Cara Mico is the Executive Director at Demeter Design, an environmental non-profit dedicated to providing environmental research services to land managers throughout the western United States.