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More ways to live whilst you are young

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Previously I wrote a post in which I imagined offering advice to my 22-year-old self. To my surprise, but fittingly given the post’s observation that time flies, I now realise that this was over two years ago!

I feel that it is time for an update, especially now that summer has come and gone and we are in the closing days of October, a month that – in the UK at least – traditionally marks the beginning of the new academic year, when university campuses are bustling with new students, ready to embark upon the next exciting chapter of their lives.

My three suggestions from 2014 still stand. Indeed, if anything, global developments since I wrote the earlier piece have reinforced the importance to today’s young adults of a career-oriented education, diverse language skills and a willingness to try one’s hand at anything. Global shifts, including the rise of China and the continuing sense of economic and political crisis in Europe and the US (now arguably worse than it was even two years ago), mean that flexibility, an inquisitive mind and an insatiable appetite for learning remain the paramount qualities of the day.

China’s headline growth figures may have slowed slightly but the country’s economy is still expanding at an enviable rate. Via its new Silk Road strategies and associations like the SCO and BRICS (on which I have written here), this repositioning of global priorities is certainly not going away any time soon. So who would not be wise to embark on the world as a young Chinese-speaking graduate with a good degree and an open mind?

Recently I was inspired by a Russian-language motivational article, published late last year, which has been doing the rounds on social media ever since. The article covers fifteen recommendations for professional success and personal wellbeing – points that should probably resonate with most of us. These include recommendations on the need to steer clear of drugs and excessive alcohol consumption, complemented by a desire to learn and stay active, both physically and mentally.

I would like here to supplement the career-based recommendations I made in my earlier post with some additional suggestions relating to character and behaviour. These are as follows:

  1. ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ (Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet)

Even at the very earliest stages of one’s career, the importance of financial prudence and organisation can never be overstated. One would do well to subscribe to the conservative principle that lending and borrowing money for personal reasons, except in extreme circumstances, is rarely worth it; it can often lead to a cycle of debt from which it is difficult to extricate oneself. On the subject of debt, it is also true that you should treat life and work as though no-one owes you anything – neither your parents, nor society, nor the state. Instead of buying on credit, or expecting hand-outs from others, you will set yourself up much better in life by accepting when you cannot afford something and avoiding frivolous and unnecessary purchases. Try to organise yourself in such a way that you can achieve your goals by way of the means that you yourself have earned.

  1. ‘If you want to be respected by others, the great thing is to respect yourself’ (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

 The ability to treat those around you with politeness and respect – even if they seem not to deserve it – is an invaluable hallmark of character. It may feel momentarily satisfying to scorn people you consider unworthy of your time, but your place in society at large will be greatly enhanced if you behave as a magnanimous and generous individual. Moreover, you can never be completely sure of fully knowing another person’s true nature, so do not be too quick to judge. This does not have to mean that you are easily taken advantage of; generosity of spirit by no means implies a weakness of resolve, particularly if you follow point number 1 and organise your affairs prudently.

The other side to the question of respect is of course self-respect. ‘Only by self-respect will you compel others to respect you’, as Dostoyevsky wrote in 1861, following nearly a decade of Siberian exile. If you can make respect the guiding principle of your attitude towards both yourself and your interactions with others, even life’s harshest challenges might become just that little bit more manageable.

  1. ‘True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity, before it is entitled to the appellation’ (George Washington)

 Building significant long-lasting relationships is a project best started early, for it requires a considerable investment of your personal time and energy. Whilst linked to the previous point regarding respect, this is a separate issue which I feel is not given enough attention among the fifteen recommendations in the Russian article. ‘No man is an island’, as John Dunne famously wrote. Whilst respect is an essential quality, simply having a detached positive attitude towards everyone around you will not in itself create a stable emotional foundation for life. So whether it is with your parents, your friends, colleagues or future children, remember always to forge meaningful ties with those closest to you.

John D. Rockefeller once said that ‘a friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship’. It is a thought-provoking meditation about the amorphous grey area that can exist between the realms of personal and professional relationships, and the pitfalls one must guard against when entering this twilight zone. Indeed, few could disagree with the aforementioned sentiment, espoused by Shakespeare’s Polonius; the problem with debt, for example, is that ‘a loan oft loses both itself and friend’. Later in life you learn that losing friends feels like a much greater blow than any quickly-forgotten financial hit can ever be. So it is important to bear in mind that, apart from providing a potential base for your professional development, your intimate relationships should last you long beyond the period in your life when earning money, owning the newest phone or driving a fast car are your main priorities.

  1. ‘Don’t just ‘like’ life, live it!’ (Andrey Yakunin)

 We live in an increasingly interconnected world, in which the farthest corners of the earth seem to be moving inexorably closer. Modern technology connects us to one another at a moment’s notice, binding us together in the ethereal virtual sphere, 24 hours a day. Cyberspace has provided us with a limitless realm, in which everyone who has access to a smartphone is a budding photographer, an aspiring poet, a philosopher in the making. Entire identities are constructed online. The World Wide Web can be a comforting echo chamber – a unique yet ubiquitous platform, from which we pithily dispense the keys to the universe in 140 characters. Social media is both a source of self-validation and a cause for self-deprecation; we fill our Instagram feeds with hi-res snaps of exotic destinations, then become disheartened when a school friend’s “Bhutan ‘16” album leaves our own summer adventure narrative in the dust.

There is, of course, a certain irony in the fact that I am addressing this phenomenon in – of all places – an online blog post. It is, after all, difficult to doubt that the internet is a remarkable thing. Younger generations have grown up with an infinite treasure trove of knowledge, forever at their fingertips. But for all the great benefits technology brings, we should remember that no virtual experience can ever substitute the real thing. While the demands of modernity constantly lead us back to the computer screen, it is important that we find time to ‘unplug’ and experience life, free from background noise. If you find that recently your default evening’s entertainment has become ‘Netflix ‘n’ chill’, perhaps it’s time to reassess and ask yourself – ‘Wouldn’t a game of squash, or a gym session with a friend be a better use of my time?’ When you are next killing time on a train or at an airport, instead of trawling endlessly through somebody’s Facebook feed on your iPhone, why not pick up a book? Or even better, strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you – who knows, you might even learn something. Because even though we constantly find ways of relegating it to the two-dimensional cyber sphere, real-life social interaction still remains the cornerstone of human existence.

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