How to Succeed in College and Beyond

When I started high school in the mid-90s, the Internet was just beginning to boom. It was as amazingly exciting as it was amazingly mysterious. It was hard to describe, and even harder to ignore. This curiosity led me to learn HTML on my own and endlessly explore ways in which I could be a part of this new virtual playground.

One day while browsing around, I came across Netflix, the world’s first and largest online DVD rental store. It seemed like a great idea at the time, so I looked for a similar online DVD rental service in Canada. Nothing.

I figured that we Canadians like a lot of the same things Americans do, including food, fashion, music and, of course, movies. Armed with my gut instinct and some seed money from my father, I launched Canada’s first online DVD rental store from home in my junior year of high school. From managing the website’s design and development, to identifying strategic partnerships online and offline, to individually responding to hundreds of customer service emails, I was truly in the thick of an entrepreneurial endeavor. The venture was indeed successful, and right before I started college, we sold the business – exactly 10 years ago. The lessons learned and insights gained from this experience were both timeless and priceless. Surely, a mastery of the digital world was my destiny, right? Not quite.

I switched majors twice in college, from computer science to business, and then from business to philosophy. Theories of software programming were extremely dense, and the difficulty I had with learning and understanding code led to my first moment of realization: perhaps the world of computer science was not for me. Switching to business because of my early entrepreneurial success, I thought I would enjoy learning the skills of accounting, marketing, strategy and operations. While interesting, I wasn’t very interested. In other words, I felt my online DVD rental experience was much more connected to the reality of how enterprises start, operate and grow.

During this time, I took an elective course titled “Moral and Political Philosophy.” It was a topic I wanted to explore further but not focus on. Soon after, this class changed my life.

It was an incredibly unique experience because in no other classroom setting had my own opinion been asked or required. There was no reason to take an intellectual stand on software programming, or on the protocol and processes of accounting. In other words, philosophy forced me to think, and it forced me to formulate a position – a rigor of mind too often underdeveloped.

When our classroom discussion turned to the ethics of war and conflict and, in particular, the morality underpinning the conduct of soldiers on the battlefield, Professor Julie Ponesse chalked this question on the board: “Is there a right way or a wrong way to kill someone?” The question sparked a never-ending series of mental gymnastics in the world of morality. Exploring issues of peace, justice, equality and tolerance followed – issues that have defined my personal and professional ambitions to date.

The lesson here is simple, especially for college-bound students: you never know where or in what setting your passions will be discovered, and so you must allow yourself the opportunity to explore and take the risk of learning something new. Your future may depend on it.

Most would advise our generation to find your passion. I would advise you to find your passions. It’s likely that you have more than one, as I do, and it’s important that you recognize when and in what setting you’re at your best.

Currently, I work at the intersection of technological innovation, international development and strategic advocacy at the World Bank, a unique marriage of interests developed since high school. Alongside this position, I regularly blog on international affairs and social change for The Huffington Post and Forbes,and frequently interview global leaders, such as the White House’s Valerie Jarrett on the advancement of women and girls, and Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, on higher education in the 21st century. And last but not least, along with a former colleague from Harvard’s Kennedy School, we’re moving at full speed to develop a global reality-TV show to highlight social entrepreneurs struggling to change the world.

The point is, do not be afraid to pursue multiple dreams and multiple passions.

Reflecting on the last five years since I graduated from the University of Western Ontario, I wanted to share a few secrets of my success to those of you heading off to college, or back to college, eager to begin anew.

Be curious. Read about the world in a way in which you are not accustomed to. For example, if you’re majoring in humanities, read Scientific Americanfrom time to time to learn about the intersection of language and music or the science of sleep loss. If you’re majoring in sciences, read Stanford Social Innovation Review to learn about philanthropy in the 21st century or social entrepreneurship in Brazil. The more curious you are in seeking new kinds of knowledge, the more creative you will be at synthesizing the complexities of our world.

Reach out. Do not be afraid to email people you’ve never met, whether professors, CEOs, scientists, technologists or otherwise – anywhere in the world – for advice. You will be amazed by how far a short note about yourself and a genuine interest in another person can take you. I cannot overstate this. Our generation is the first to have such unfettered and direct access to the hearts and minds of anyone on Earth. If you look hard enough, you will find their email.

Write better. The most valuable skill set I learned in college was to write clearly and coherently. Whether you pursue a career in business, science, technology or the arts, the ability to convey your ideas, as well as argue and persuade effectively, is simply invaluable. With this skill alone, you will be a treasured asset in any organization.

Seize opportunities for meaningful work. While in college, I put my Web-development skill set to use as an IT consultant for the university, producing and managing course websites for dozens of faculty over the years. As a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, I worked as a research associate in justice and human rights at the Center for Nonprofits at Harvard Kennedy School, a position I undertook full-time, and negotiated a part-time completion of my studies. Do not be afraid to bend the norms of regular course loads and timeframes, for I have found that such parallel work experiences have propelled my career, knowledge and networks far more effectively than living life in sequence.

Lastly, I urge you to embrace the study of philosophy, for it will help you define who and what you wish to become, and this is perhaps the most important of all.

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