July 8, 2020

Adam Robinson and his advice for college graduates

I recently had the chance to listen to an interview that Tim Ferriss conducted with Adam Robinson. A bit of background on Adam, he is an American educator, freelance author and a US Chess Federation life master. He co-founded The Princeton Review, wrote a best selling exam prep book Cracking the SAT and currently works as a global macro advisor to the heads of some of the world’s largest hedge funds through his company Robinson Global Strategies. In short, he has a wealth of life experience, skills and knowledge in a variety of industries and sectors that makes him worldly.

In the interview, Tim asks Adam what advice he would give to a recent college graduate and I wanted to share some of those highlights with you and reflect on my experience with his recommendations:

The real world is a completely new game with no rule book; therefore, experimentation is key

Adam says that unlike the real world, school is in a way, a ‘game’ that you play where you have either implicitly learned the rules or internalized them to the point where you understand how the game is played (i.e., study hard, do well on exams, get good grades). The real world is not like this at all. I completely agree with this – and I thought it was really crazy to see how different school was to the real world. Even the courses that I took and the exams that I went through had very little to do with how the real world worked and how I should operate. When I graduated and started my first ‘real’ job, I had to try many different things (experimentation) in order to figure out what the best way to do things is (and even now, I still experiment because I still don’t think I know what the best way to do anything is).

You have major decisions that an impact on what will happen in your life

When I first moved out to Edmonton, I was renting for the first two years and my parents who had bought into the real estate philosophy, thought that I should try to buy a place so I went ahead and bought a condo downtown. It was crazy looking back at it – I was a few years into a job and was already being an adult. Things were scary. Things were getting real now that I had a mortgage and had to buy furniture. I remember going back home just after buying my condo and I must have had a worried look on my face because my Mom put a hand on my shoulder and said “don’t worry, everything is going to be okay [with your condo and payments]”. How do you choose a realtor? How do you choose where you want to live for the next 5 – 10 years? School didn’t teach me how to make these decisions or even how to make good decisions.

Timetables are not dictated by the school or course catalog

The best things about moving out and living on your own – you get to decide what you want to do, when you want to do it. You certainly do not have to worry about waking people up in the middle of the night if you decide to go to a late house party and you can wake up as early as you want to head to the gym without waking others. I had a ton of freedom but in many ways, having that much freedom was not as freeing as I thought – many times, having a schedule of things to do gave me more structure and more productivity.

You have to decide between ‘what do you want to do’ vs. ‘what do you want to be’

I struggled with this early on in my career and I would argue that I’m still struggling with this right now – I don’t know what I want to do but I certainly know what I want to be: healthier, richer and wiser. Knowing the answers to these two questions (and the difference between the two) will help you get to where you want.

If there is a single quality that will most ensure career success, it is enthusiasm

All things being equal (i.e., having intelligence, insane work ethic, patience, etc.), enthusiasm is key. Looking back on some of the projects that I have worked on, everybody has been smart, good with others, a team player, patient, have an insane work ethic but the single quality that helps differentiate some coworkers from others: enthusiasm (or more so in the form of passion for the work).

Life happens much slower than you want it to or even expect

Being fortunate enough to have asian genes, I don’t age like others do but I am still quite old compared to the other management consultants in the office. It feels like everyone these days want to get promoted right away, move up right away, do more and more things with their lives right away. My advice to some of my counsellees: success will happen, just give it time. You may move quickly now but you will have to slow down for your experience, skills and knowledge to catch up.

Success depends on your ability to paint a vision for others to follow

Do you know what you want to be? Where you want to be? What you want to do (not just a job but a mission in life)? Of all the leaders that I worked with, the most successful ones have been the leaders that have had a vision to follow that is so compelling that others have no choice but to follow.

Find out what you love best and then find a job where your strengths or passions are used to their potential

Yes! But for college graduates that don’t know what they love best, what do they do? Do work. Any kind of work and find out what you don’t like. Approach the problem in an opposite manner – to find out what you love best, find out what you hate doing and avoid those things like the plague until you do find something you enjoy. Cal’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You argues that “do what you are passionate about” is bad advice because 1) most people do not know what they are passionate about and 2) most people are not passionate about things until they work in that job / field / sector for many years and develop the necessary skills and experience to be good at it. Think about any sport that you may be really good at or enjoy playing – you probably did not enjoy the sport at the very beginning while learning or practicing it but as you got better and better at playing the sport, you enjoyed it a lot more. Work and your career is very much like this.

Love, success and happiness is never achieved by pursuing them directly

When you focus on finding love, you arguably do not focus on being the loving, passionate person that a person can love. Love, success and happiness often catch you by surprise when you are not expecting it. Don’t focus on being successful. Don’t focus on getting love. Don’t focus on being happy. Focus on improving yourself every single day in mind, body and spirit and you will be surprised at what awaits you as you improve every day.


I wish I had heard some of this advice from Adam when I was younger – I am sure I would have done a few things differently in my life but I’m still young! This advice applies to not just college graduates but anyone lacking direction in their lives.

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