Each year, esteemed commencement speakers offer new college graduates advice that ranges from building resilience to learning how to break rules. This the kind of wisdom that people accumulate over many years of trial and error. I’m here to offer the other kind of advice: small, practical things you can put into action right away. Here are just a few of the things I wish I’d known when I was 21.
Get a good tailor
Whenever my wife looks at old pictures of my friends and me, she jokes about how “boxy” all of our clothes looked. As new grads, we didn’t have much money to spend on fancy duds. But I would eventually learn that you don’t have to spend a lot of money for your clothes to fit well—all you need is a good tailor.
For a fraction of the cost, a tailor can make your clothes lay the way they’re supposed to, giving your wardrobe an instant professional boost. Not only will you look sharp, you’ll get a newly versatile range of clothing. If you lose weight thanks to a new workout regime, a tailor can easily tighten the waist; if you move to a trendy neighborhood, they’ll gladly convert straight-leg jeans into a skinny taper.
Create positive rituals with the people you care about
How frustrating are the never-ending group texts required to organize a dinner with your close friends? A lot of the time, the event in question doesn’t even happen, thanks to planning fatigue. And as we get older, it can be even harder to schedule time with friends, as work, spouses, and kids enter into the equation.
One way to avoid this friction is to set up rituals, allowing you to bypass scheduling hell while making sure that you spend time with the people you care about. You might make a plan to FaceTime with your sister every Saturday morning, or watch Monday Night Football with your college roommates at the same bar every week. The back-and-forth texts are virtually eliminated—and it gets a lot harder to fall out of touch.
A second approach that I’ve only recently adopted with my parents: Whenever you meet up with important people in your life, take out your phones and plan the next time you’re going to hang out before you part ways. It’s a lot easier and faster to work out a good time when you’re doing it in person. And this way, you plant a flag in the sand to ensure that all future events will have to be planned around the most important people in your life—instead of letting them get squeezed out.
Learn the power of storytelling
I’m not a sales-y person, so it took me a while to realize that we spend a lot our lives selling ourselves to other people. In a job interview, you’re selling your experience; when you ask someone on a date, you’re selling your charm; as an entrepreneur, you’re selling potential customers and investors on your idea and your vision for the future.
Yet a lot of us go about selling ourselves the wrong way, relying on facts instead of using stories to form emotional connections. If the conversation on a first date is mostly about data points—he’s 38 years old writer who grew up in New Jersey and loves traveling—it’s hard to get anyone to get invested. But if he says, “I spent last summer on my own personal version of Eat, Pray, Love, and while I was cruising Bali, I crashed my moped into a rice paddy,” there’s a real opening for conversation—and sparks may fly as a result.
Stories move people; that’s why I find myself bawling at the end of Pixar’s Up. So the key is to teach yourself how to be a better storyteller. There are common frameworks like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or you can even learn Pixar’s approach through their class on Khan Academy.
I’ve also learned a lot about storytelling from reading short stories; a few of my favorite sources of inspiration are John Cheever, George Saunders, and the New Yorker Fiction podcast. The brevity of these stories forces both action and character development to happen extremely quickly, techniques that I can model in my own delivery when I’m talking to colleagues.
Explain things in three’s
As you’re honing your storytelling skills, here’s a little-discussed pearl of wisdom from the late Steve Jobs. He spoke in three-part arguments in nearly every presentation and product launch. I do the same in my own presentations; I’ve found that making just two points makes listeners feel as if I’m presenting a binary choice, and four is overwhelming.
This finding can be supported by short-term memory research that argues that our capacity limits are “between three to five chunks” of information at a time. Once you realize this, you see it everywhere—in The Declaration of Independence (“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”); children’s stories (Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs), and marketing mantras (Blood, Sweat, and Tears or Mind, Body, and Soul). Even McKinsey consultants are taught the rule of three.
Use birthdays as an excuse to cultivate weak ties
If you’re looking for a new job, do you think it’s more likely to come from your college BFF, who also works in your industry—or a random acquaintance from college?
In 1973, the sociologist Mark Granovetter found (pdf) that 82% of participants in his study found a new job through acquaintances, or as he describes them, “weak ties.” The college BFF is a “strong tie,” which means that you’re likely to know a lot of the same people, and therefore that you’ll be aware of the same opportunities. More distant acquaintances, meanwhile, will have “unique network intelligence” about possible job openings and other useful connections.
Thankfully, in our hyperconnected world, it’s pretty easy to cultivate relationships with weak ties—for example, by sending birthday greetings once a year. But two caveats: first, make sure you’re reaching out to someone you genuinely like. Second, don’t just write a throwaway greeting on Facebook. Take the effort to craft a short, friendly email; send a postcard to a far-flung pal; or even better, add an element of creative spontaneity with a well-produced Snapchat face filter.