Evan Pham took the reigns in this post to tell the Take Your Success community about his most important college lesson.
The room was dark. I sat at my kitchen table staring at cold leftovers. The pressure was too much. I broke down and cried.
“What the hell am I doing with my life?”
My parents worked hard to get me to this point. And here I was burning their dollars.
I came here wanting to succeed, maybe get some awards like my high school days. Instead, I was failing classes. That meant more (thousands of) dollars burned. I had enough units to get a major in beer, minor in blacking out. I was on my way to becoming the most unemployable kid in town.
It’s never a good idea to be alone with your negative thoughts, but I had no one to turn to for help. When I asked for a helping hand, my friends’ best advice were…
“Quit bitching.” “Have another drink.” “Chill out, man.”
Great advice, man. Not what I needed. And so, my downward spiral continued.
Who am I? Who have I become? Can anyone help? These questions ran through my head on my way down.
“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, surrounded by assholes.”― William Gibson
I remember that kid. He was sharp. That’s what happens when you study seven days a week. It was all they did, him and his high school friends that is.
They were geeky, but driven. They couldn’t carry a conversation with the ladies, but for everyone else their GPA and college acceptance letters did all the talking, which spoke volumes.
On average, most friendships last only six years. Come end of high school, they separated and lost touch. That’s when he began losing his habits, too. That kid was me.
As a blank slate stepping onto college campus, I had child-like naiveté. Ambitious goals of conquering the classrooms were still top of mind at this time, but right below them was my curiosity for the social side of college.
That curiosity led me to stumble upon several new groups of students. They had something I desired—a life.
They introduced me to a social life I never had. House parties, liquor, fake IDs, nights filled with mistakes, and mornings occupied recovery became the norm.
My high school success ratio reversed. I played seven days a week and studied zero.
When everyone had the same cadence and (it seemed they were) scraping by just fine, I didn’t question the lifestyle. Everything happened fast. I changed fast. I forgot who I was.
It didn’t matter at the time. I was lost in Wonderland and wasn’t looking to be found.
And goals? They fell off my radar completely. No one in my circle of friends talked about them, so why should I?
Eventually, reality caught up. After accumulating major debt, dropping out of many classes, and decreasing my life span through reckless activities by 10 years, reality hit me hard. My face ended up on a pile of cold leftovers.
Who knew it would taste this bad. Had I known, I would have ordered something else.
“Show me your friends and I will show you your future.”- Unknown
Those annoying kids with their flyers flagged me down after my late afternoon class. They invited me to an event hosted by a professional organization, which seemed like a waste of time to me and my negative state of mind. I was hesitant, but reluctant.
Free food will get a college guy to go anywhere, especially for a broke guy like me.
Upon arrival, I judged them immediately. “What a bunch of losers.” This wasn’t my natural habitat. I made my way for the exit, but my plan was foiled.
Someone approached me. However, I wasn’t too bothered. After all, a cute girl will get a college guy to do anything, especially for suckers like me.
Small talk ensued, and then I met her friends. And another, plus a few more after. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of the biggest crowd at the event.
Everyone was sincere. Not only that, they spoke with passion, drive, and clarity. I had forgotten how to talk like that. Camaraderie radiated from them, which was apparent to an outsider like myself through their casual conversation laced with adventurous stories.
I wished I had those stories. Maybe what I really wanted was someone to help and listen to my troubles—school, and how to not get kicked out. Maybe I could.
“Was this life’s answer to my question?” I didn’t let the opportunity slip me. No more face plants in food ever again.
“If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.”― Nora Roberts
I scheduled meetings with everyone I met that evening. They were upper classmates, so they’ve been in my shoes. Been there and done that. I had questions. They had answers.
My coffee and eating out budget tripled over the following weeks. It was a small price to pay for knowledge. I stopped eating alone because there was always an opportunity to learn from someone. When they spoke, I listened.
“What advice would you give to your younger self to make the most of your college education?” “How do you see biotech affecting the future of medicine?”
“What’s your most effective study strategy to minimize study time and maximize results?”
“How do you build effective relationships with TA and Professors? Who is more critical in determining the outcome of your classes?”
We talked over drinks too, only this time we weren’t jeering each other on to consume massive volumes of alcohol. Nor were we gossiping on other people, which was my usual conversational focal points. With my new circle of friends, I talked about ideas.
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”― Eleanor Roosevelt
My life’s trajectory took a radical upswing since that one night. The food didn’t do it. The girl didn’t do it (though we still talk). The newfound connections did it.
When I began to be deliberate with who I spent my time with, my life changed for the better. If there was one thing I would advise anyone, including my younger self, friends, and family, then it would be to surround yourself with excellence. Here’s a few reasons why my life changed:
I studied more.
My old group of friends rarely studied. They would do the bare minimum just to get by. In turn, I never studied.
Our friends and the people we spend time with significantly influence what we perceive to be normal. In this case, the norm was to not study and play all the time.
When I began investing my time with my new group of friends, I realized that they studied excessively. Their habits redefined the benchmarks in my life.
The norm of this group was to excel in school and help each other do the same. With everyone moving in the same direction with momentum, I couldn’t help but follow along for the ride.
I became happier.
Prior to meeting my new social network, I was spiraling downward. Complaining is draining, and that’s all my old friends would do. I would feel drained rather than uplifted when in their presence.
When I became surrounded by my much happier friends, my outlook on life changed. I saw opportunities rather than challenges. I focused more on bringing people up rather than pushing them down. My character improved, and it became extremely difficult to defect from that upward trend.
Not only did my internal world change, but the external as well. The good times became higher, and the lows became much easier to handle. Having the outlet to share with friends the terrible professors, difficult exams, and crazy case study interviews made the world just a bit brighter.
School itself never became easier, but when I gained committed friends alongside me, the journey became significantly better. I was actually having fun again.
I became more purpose driven.
Money, women, and owning a nice car were top-of-mind desires for my old friends and me. Community service and philanthropy were laughed at rather than embraced. During this time, what drove me to win was selfish, personal success. Any job with a fancy title and a salary with several commas would suffice.
The new friends were focused on significance–helping the community, adding value to each other, and making a difference.
It was a foreign idea to me because I’ve been used to thinking only about myself. Over time, I bought into it this philosophy that emphasized significance over success. It became a more effective source of energy for me.
School, like anything worthwhile in life, is very difficult. It’s so difficult that to the rational and sane person, she may say that it’s too difficult and just quit.
Most people are very logical, so after analyzing the cost and benefits, they will conclude that working hard in school is simply not worthwhile.
That’s why passion and intrinsic motivation is necessary to succeed. Passion isn’t logical. When you’re extremely passionate about a cause, you’re going figure out how to achieve it. You’ll be more creative, be more productive, and have more drive to outlast the competition.
It was easy for me. All I had to do was spend time with my new friends and I became inspired to serve others, which in turn served my life.
I succeeded in school and in life.
By surrounding myself with excellence–individuals who were more studious, happy, and purpose driven–success in school and post-grade became inevitable.
Aside from having all the personal developmental benefits from surrounding myself with excellence I mentioned above, I had many academic, career, and life benefits as well.
Following my mid-college crises, I rebounded my grades to become a competitive candidate for several job opportunities. Every job offer I’ve received from then on until this day was due to my high quality, carefully curated network and inner circle.
When I left the traditional business career track, I went on to co-found three companies from scratch, taking them from $0 to multi-million dollar companies.
Every one of my company’s success was made possible because of my connections, which brought me partnerships, advisors, mentors, or investors.
I am fortunate to be in a position in my life now where I am confident that my next job is only a phone call away.
“Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same.”― Franz Schubert
Success is never accidental, it is always intentional. My life changed when I became intentional with the relationships I kept close to me.
When anyone asks me, “What’s the single most important thing I should do to be successful?,” I would tell them to do this one thing…
Surround Yourself With Excellence.
When you do this, your performance will improve, your goals will heighten, your tolerance for risk will be higher, your way of thinking will change.
Regardless of where you’re in your life now, surround yourself with excellence immediately. You may not have all the answers you need right now (I don’t either) and that’s fine. I guarantee you when you position yourself in the center of excellent individuals, the right answers, ideas, and people will come to you.
Decide what kind of person you want to become, what your goals are, and where you want to go. Then, choose who you want to surround yourself with.
Take your success into your own hands by doing this one thing.