Making the Most of the Hungry Years

May 01, 2003 |Steve Watters

Dreaming up your future while you snack on ramen noodles.

"Add water to reconstitute" read the instructions on the package of military rations — my last resort while I waited for a check to come in. I had only been off the college meal plan a couple of weeks, but I was quickly finding out why some people call their 20s "the hungry years."

Worse than any physical hunger I felt at that time, however, was a powerful craving to be established. I longed to be finished with the learning and growing season that seemed like it would never end. I wanted to get to the point where I could know, say and do the right things instead of constantly feeling like a kid with training wheels.

More than just fitting in, I wanted my life to count for something. I didn't just want to grow up and settle quietly into the landscape of the adult world; I wanted to fulfill that perpetual high school commencement charge to "make a difference."

And that's where the hungry years get interesting. The process of growing independent from our parents is exciting and difficult in itself. But for those who want to change the world, the hungry years can be an absolute roller coaster. Just pick up the biographies of great leaders and look at the first few chapters. Often the exciting accounts of bold risks propelling the future leader forward come quickly beside stories of having to deal with painful setbacks.

Of course what future leaders don't see in the moment is how both kinds of experiences are forging the character they need for the roles they'll eventually assume. Shakespeare offers another way of seeing such life experiences in Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

This passage is not just for the decisions we make down the road as bona fide adults. Tomorrow's leaders will be those men and women who recognize and ride those tides much earlier in life. So how would a biographer describe this pivotal chapter in your life? Here are a few suggestions to make your hungry years worth reading about.

Appreciate the hunger.

The Israelites didn't like to hear their stomachs growl. In places, the record of their journey away from Egypt sounds like a family vacation. "We're hungry, when's dinner?" "Can I have something to drink?" "We're hungry again." "All the fun food is back home — we should have never gone on vacation." Finally, Moses found a "teaching moment" as the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land and he tried to explain what God had been up to:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these 40 years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord (Deuteronomy 8:2-3, emphasis added).

God wanted the Israelites to see Him as their source, for their actual food, but also for their spiritual nourishment. His words through Moses are the very ones Jesus repeated to Satan when he was tempted after a 40-day fast in the wilderness. Shortly after that encounter Jesus reaffirmed the principle of craving spiritual nourishment by telling His followers, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they will be filled." Whenever you feel hunger pangs of any type, thank God for the reminder to look beyond your own strength and understanding. Those pangs can lead you to discover Him in a way that feeling well fed never can.

Don't skip meals.

I remember this one kid having the boldness to ask the question many others wanted to at a Q&A with the president of our college. "Why do we have attendance policies? I'm paying for these classes, shouldn't it be up to me whether I want to go or not?" Dr. Paul Conn was the coolest president you could imagine; young, charismatic and the owner of a mean sports car. Many hoped he would agree with this progressive student and abolish attendance requirements on the spot. Instead he left us with one of those laughs that teach a lesson: "You know," he said, "going to college, paying for courses and then skipping class is a lot like going to a restaurant, paying for a meal and then skipping out without eating it."

The great temptation of the hungry years is to take on as few responsibilities as possible while you still have the opportunity to party and enjoy life. After all, the pressures of adult life are inevitable, why rush them?

Looking back now with the responsibilities of a career, a marriage, two young children, a mortgage and lots of school debt, I miss many freedoms I enjoyed during college. But I also see how something I took for granted then is a true luxury now — time to learn: to read, to sit under good teachers and to spend time with mentors. You may dread the reading, writing and lectures now, but the time will come when you'll crave those "meals" you skipped.

Don't fill up on empty calories.

We've all seen the food pyramid and know our bodies need whole grains, fruits, vegetables and other good fuel, but we often feel drawn instead to the empty calories of things like Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Empty calories also abound during the hungry years. They come in the form of tips and techniques, shortcuts and other "secrets of success" that stress style over substance and promise achievement without effort.

While these approaches may generate some measure of success, they seldom produce more than a sugar high that harms more than it hurts. Though they are not as fun as the first three letters of the word imply, the "fundamentals" are where the real nourishment is.

H. Jackson Brown says it best in his Life's Little Instruction Book: "Don't learn the tricks of the trade, learn the trade." Instead of looking for shortcuts, this is the best time to work at becoming an expert at something — to really grasp a field of knowledge and to learn how to apply it to people's needs. Regardless of the trade you pursue, you'll also need to learn another set of fundamental skills: communicating clearly, working well with others, managing your time and setting and meeting goals. There are plenty of ways to fake these skills, but doing so only takes away precious time from learning how to do them right.

Dine with the best.

In the early '90s, the offer of free food attracted me to a dinner that proved to be worth much more than what I ate. A film critic I'd barely heard of named Michael Medved was in town and I joined him and a small group for dinner before his lecture. I barely noticed my food as I ate up all the wise things he shared about entertainment and culture, as well as Jewish traditions and customs. As his books and radio show drew a larger audience I came to see how fortunate I was to dine with one of the best.

Those kinds of learning moments come so rarely in life, but I've come to see how the intimate experience of reading great books is the next best thing. In a day when anything we need to know is only a Google search away, we have less incentive to deeply absorb information. We tend to overlook how the ageless process of moving our eyeballs back and forth across text can imprint information in a way that takes us beyond simple recall and into real knowledge and wisdom.

The mentors in your life may have additional suggestions, but I consider the following as indispensable reading on the topics of life management, communication and people skills: Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First, Strunk and White's Elements of Style, William Zinser's On Writing Well and, in the same vein, Peggy Noonan's On Speaking Well.

Learn your table manners before the dinner party.

I read a story recently about a saleswoman who wanted to celebrate the signing of a large construction contract by having dinner with her new client, a sophisticated businessman and his wife. Unfortunately, the saleswoman's boss insisted on going to dinner with them. After finishing his fish, the boss began picking his teeth with the bones. Instead of using his dinner napkin to wipe his mouth, he used it to blow his nose. Needless to say, he blew the deal as well. The disgusted couple tore up the contract the next day. Books like Etiquette for Dummies offer checklists for avoiding such disasters. But you can't wait to brush up on your manners just before a dinner party starts. Learning to be both polite and comfortable in formal settings requires a lot of practice. You'll notice James Bond never has to peek at a cheat sheet to see which fork to use.

Character is another finely tuned trait that you can't learn by cramming. Traits like integrity, honesty, selflessness, empathy and courage are what distinguish leaders in key moments. But you can't just muster up those kinds of traits on the spot; they have to be pre-formed. You have to start living and breathing them long before your moment of challenge comes.

One way to start seasoning your character is to view college organizations, intramural sports, school publications and other outlets around you as learning labs — places where you can start experimenting with the lessons you learn from biographies and classic self-improvement books. Such settings give you opportunities to work on the fundamentals and to make your mistakes while the stakes are lower than those in the workplace awaiting you.

I know this is a lot to take in over a bowl of ramen noodles, but you don't have to digest it all in one reading. I'll be back next month with more details on how to make the most of the hungry years.

Copyright 2003 Steve Watters. All rights reserved.  

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