9 Things I Would Tell My 17 Year-Old Self

You’ve probably seen one or two blog articles in the ether with a similar title. This one will be different.

It has been written based purely on my own experiences. It is unlike anything out there because only I have things I want to tell my 17 year-old self based on my own unique experiences.

When I was 17 (I’m 30 now), I was getting ready to graduate from a prestigious boarding school in England. This was a time when I was about to become fully independent with the decisions I’d make.

I was not self confident at that age. I was more confident at age 9 than at 17. School – at least the early years – were challenging and isolated times for me, even though I was surrounded by people morning and night.

At school, I felt like an outsider. I didn’t speak up, and I lacked respect, from myself and many of my school mates. You’d have thought that I’d made social awkwardness my number one mission in life.

Having ‘graduated’ from school, as well as a colourful and varied twenties, I’ve collected enough insight and life experiences for myself that I know will be very useful for others who read this.

I don’t claim to be a ‘life expert’ – no one is – but I have accrued enough to make a difference in someone else’s life.

Here are those thoughts, spoken to teenage Alex:

1) Prioritise increasing your self confidence over all else

Everything you do should be to maintain or actively expand your confidence. Don’t allow others to sap or eat into your store of personal self confidence.

Don’t believe what people say about ‘introverts’ (like I am) being less confident and ‘wallflowers’. The leaning towards ‘shyness’ is possibly stronger in introverts, but everyone has the capability to be outgoing, bold in action, and talkative (if that’s a good thing after a while!), in the same way that extroverts can be socially anxious.

Too often I have succumbed to the unfair criticisms and judgements of others, and let them affect me. I have taken them as fact, and have lost confidence as a result.

Nobody knows who you are and what you are capable of, not even you.

Why listen to what others have to say about you?

Crush those who berate you, publicly if possible. They need to know that you do not stand for it. Beyond this, always actively work on increasing your self confidence. Never let it level out and stagnate. It is a very tangible thing.

Confidence is only increased through taking bold, courageous actions. Helping others when the alternative is self-centredness, for the right reasons, is also a very important form of courage.

Push yourself to be bold consistently. Always be thinking about how you can be the owner, rather than the victim in all situations.

Whenever I did something that I was nervous about doing and came out of it alive, like giving a talk in front of ten – and over two thousand – people, the sense of joy and confidence that came from that was glorious. The more of this you do, the more rapidly you will gain in confidence.

Boosting confidence through courage is more manageable in smaller steps. Each step will be uncomfortable.

Confidence is not something that improves with time. It can worsen with time and many allow it to do so through laziness. You must actively dedicate your life to improving and strengthening your self-confidence. You can build it very quickly if you take a lot of courage in quick successions.

Self confidence enriches every part of your life, including your creative work.

It is the most important thing you have.


2) Work towards ‘autogenous leadership

When I wrote the first draft of this article, I said that you need to start working towards mastery in a skill. That’s a good thing, but there is something that eclipses even that.

Something that is already starting to define the early part of this new century goes beyond achieving mastery in individuals. That was something that could better describe those that were a success in previous centuries, like Mozart, Frida Kahlo, Muhammad Ali, Darwin, Picasso and J.K. Rowling.

What I’m talking about is what I’ve defined as ‘autogenous leadership.’ This does not describe a final point, whether that be classical piano, writing, or fine art, in the way that mastery implies it.

‘Autogenous leadership’ is the conscious movement towards – achievement of – and ongoing maintenance of – total dominance in some area of industry (or across all industries) as a direct reflection of your individual character.

‘Autogenous’ means literally ‘from within’. You must become a leader, and the product is not the skill. The product is not the label.

The product is you.


With rapid technological change and global competition creating things that can be shared instantly, this inevitably means that what you are doing is ever-evolving and probably some kind of a ‘mashup’ of several skills, even several forms of mastery.

There is no single way of doing this. Autogenous leadership is reached through many avenues.

Autogenous leadership is working towards a leading position in the industry through your careful construction, tweaking and honing of a tapestry of skills and approaches that are essentially an extension of you.

We’re seeing this more and more with multi-skilled designers like Kate Moross (art direction, film and illustration) or even musicians Daft Punk (electronic music, and film scores), and James Franco (writer, actor, director, painter, teacher) and Jessica Alba (actress, businesswoman).

It’s also seen with people who are carving a niche for themselves in areas that are putting a different take on – or even breaking completely new ground like YouTube filmmaker Casey Neistat, Internet cartoonist Matthew Inman, blogger Tim Ferriss, or electric car pioneer Elon Musk.

Everything about what these people create is rooted deeply to their own characters, their stories, their struggles.

It’s no longer viable to be a competitor. You will struggle if you try to compete. Competition will lead to mediocrity and your own unfortunate demise. It’s also near impossible to dominate in a field, like ‘fine art’, in which everyone else is working towards the same.

You need to stand out to succeed, and to do that means striving for dominance in something unique that reflects who you are. It means being known as an inventor; an innovator and a real person.

Dominance means doing something that no one else is doing, even if it is within a field that everyone knows, but all it needs to be is a small slice.

This is better attained through mixing up several skills and becoming known, not as a jack of all trades, but as a leader.

I must admit, this is an idea that is still in the early stages of development in my writing, and it’s something I want to discuss in more depth in other articles, but it’s nevertheless something to attribute great importance to as you move forward in life.

It’s also something that I’m seeing as a solution to a lot of the struggles experienced by my clients and Red Lemon Club followers.

Many are too quick to identify their craft under a particular, societally-imposed label, whether that be a ‘writer’, a ‘creative,’ an ‘illustrator’, or a ‘graphic designer’. All of these labels simply do not exist.

You need to innovate, and you need to invent your own craft. You need to be your own brand.

What can you become the best in the world at?

How can you be a leader?


3) You do not need ‘formal’ education

University is good for a few things:

– Making friends and connections
– Learning highly structured or technical fields of study
– Fitting in and doing what society tells you is right

These bonuses fail on the count that you can make friends anywhere, with some discipline (you’ve been working on your confidence, right?), you can learn anything you want to learn using the web, short courses, classes, YouTube, and libraries.

The third is not an option anyway if you want to get ahead.

Sure, some jobs like architecture or biochemical engineering might require qualifications in certain technical fields through ‘formal education’. That is the exception to this rule. It’s up to you if you want to pursue that kind of thing, but do know that you will inevitably find yourself in an old fashioned, and probably very restricted system where you lack personal control.

For me, I made some brilliant friends and had some fun, mostly drunken, experiences. Most of all, my degree, and my subsequent Real Estate masters, were a cataclysmic waste of my early twenties, not to mention a huge financial investment that never fully paid itself back.

Be logical. Do you need to go school again for such a long time?

You’ve been taking exams for at least the last ten years.

You can make something of yourself with the resources that are sitting all around you. Universities can be useful for the short courses they offer, but avoid the bigger commitment degrees.

Not doing a degree means you don’t put yourself into a lot of debt. For the most part, university debt is bad debt. Debt for the right reasons is ok, but I would avoid it in your early twenties. Become valuable first.

There’s a reason a lot of the world’s most successful people were ‘drop outs’ or avoided formal education. They started mastering a craft earlier in life and moving towards dominating in their field, were not castrated by the college system which has its own rules, and they avoided ludicrous levels of debt.

Be the cause, not the effect in your life. Learn what you need, talk to the right people, and build something that people want. Teach yourself informally.


4) Focus on what motivates you

Never stop visualising cool things that you want to be doing in the future.

You hear this a lot, but what I’m telling you is to stop talking about it, and actually obsessively visualise the future you want every single day. The rewards will come.

You can reach anything you commit to doing. Visualising and getting excited about your dreams leads to dedicating yourself to doing something. When that goal is exciting enough and keeps you focused in the long-run, you will get to what it is you want through clarified action.

The reason so many people fail is because they don’t commit to working towards things that really keep them excited.

What would excite you to keep going with something for years?

Success will require you to do many mundane things, frequently and relentlessly for years. These things become feasible, even enjoyable, when you are truly excited about what could become of such work.

Being excited all the time will not happen, but you need to tip things in your favour as much as you can.

Steve Jobs said it was passion that will get you through the hardest parts of building something. I believe he was right, but I believe you need to also aim high, to cement your commitment to doing the hard stuff.


5) Money should be the main focus

Talking about money is taboo. Being interested in making money and keeping it in your life is taboo. The world is organised in such a way that those that take action to make money will get money.

This is why most twenty-somethings and beyond are broke. And we’re increasingly seeing how dire a situation that is proving for many.

I’ve had several phases in my recent life where I’ve been really badly in the red financially, usually after paying large tax bills. It’s not something I plan on repeating.

Each time I was put in this situation was a lesson learned having not taken revenue generation seriously enough. Now I do. Creating consistent income streams are hugely important to me.

Developing your skills, being an ‘autogenous leader’ and your value to the world is absolutely vital. But so is generating revenue.

You must strive for autogenous leadership and becoming valuable whilst making money. Money will allow you to do this.

Doing things that are in line with your passion are vital. But you will not be able to sustain this if you are not making enough money.

Having fun in your twenties is important, but it should not be at the expense of making leaps forward in generating revenue as early as you can, and scaling up.

Because you cannot progress towards your dreams without money, you must prioritise making money. But do not let your dreams slip from view. Focus on making money whilst keeping your long term goals and dreams in daily view.

Earn money and invest it in yourself and your dreams.

Make more money than you need. Be energised to make money, not because you want money and want the next iPad, but because you need to support and motivate yourself to achieve your dreams and change the world for the better.

I’m driven to make a lot of money because I want to fund my dream of creating animated films and supporting creative work and the people that create it. I also want to master the making of money so that it becomes effortless. This is what you need to be focused on.

Those who say that money isn’t everything are missing the point. What use are you to the world if you don’t have any money? If you don’t have a means to generate income consistently, you are effectively handicapped.

It should be your ethical duty to achieve success and make money, for yourself and your family.

Being broke should never be an option.

6) Do some language learning every day

Learning a language is one of the best things you can do to exercise your brain, and add more value to yourself as a person.

Dedicate 20 minutes or more each day, as a habit, to learning a single language you want to learn.

What country and people might you commit to getting to know in more depth?

Rather than backpacking the globe, which is ok for a time if you want, how about mastering the language of one place in particular. Get obsessed with one language and it’s literature, film-making and its history, for example.

This concentrated effort is something that few do, but that bring huge rewards. Your experience of a country will be exponentially deeper when you know even a basic level of the language.

One of the things I regret about my twenties were that I did not dedicate enough time to progressively learning a language, but I am starting now.

Today, I have a basic ability in Japanese, and I’m spending 20 minutes each day learning, and it’s already becoming one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.

Even though English is becoming increasingly more global, don’t let this be an excuse to slack on learning language. The value that you offer through knowing other languages will raise your value like nothing else in future.

Suddenly a whole new section of the world and its people open up to you.


6 bonus)

As with learning a language, writing every day is also something I’d encourage you get into the habit of doing.

I’ve been writing most days since my early twenties. The benefits I’ve gained from writing, getting my ideas on paper, and sharing that writing have been huge for me.

The skill of writing is one of the most important skills you can develop. Firstly, it actively engages the mind. Secondly it will clear your thoughts and keep you focused. It is a kind of meditation and it will help you process ideas with greater effectiveness. Many studies have demonstrated this.

Thirdly, once you’ve reached a certain level of skill in writing, it will provide for you a tool that you can use to make an impact on the world and let your ideas be transferred into the consciousness of others.

Writing will always present ideas more powerfully and timelessly than video or audio ever can do.

7) Start saving money today

You will find it extremely tempting to continually extract all the money you ever make to cover expenses that come up.

You must contribute to your savings fund before anything else. Before the taxman, before your birthday drinks, before your business.

If you want to progress as a creative professional, working for yourself, you are very vulnerable without a financial contingency in place, and will suffer when you need to use one that you don’t have.

The first savings fund you must create today, once you have cleared your debts, is an emergency fund. This is money that you set aside to cover any financial emergencies. I’ve had too many monetary emergencies to know that not doing this is not an option.

The emergency fund must be a certain amount, like £2000 or more. Whenever you dip into it, make sure that your priority is to fill it back to £2000+ as soon as you can.

When you have an emergency fund in place, start an actual savings fund for investment. Start by setting aside 5% of what you earn and putting it here. Add as much as you can to this fund over time, increasing the amounts you add to it each month in line with your growing income.

When it becomes big enough, you can start investing it and earning interest from it. With compounding, you can earn very large sums over the years.

I’m not there yet with a substantial savings fund, because I’ve only recently started prioritising revenue generation beyond covering expenses, and I wish I’d started earlier.

The Money Book is a good place to start.


8) Set up a goal system right now

We lose track when we don’t have direction.

When we have not made a conscious decision to move towards something specific, we have given ourselves an excuse not to do anything.

Setting goals are absolutely crucial if you want to achieve successes in life, and you need to get into the habit of writing them down and checking that you are on track.

Writing them down is one thing, but you must set up an effective system that will allow you to see how your long term goals relate directly to your daily to do tasks. Jake Jorgovan, a friend of mine, has built an excellent goal system that I use each day to great effect.

I’m now able to see, all on one page, everything I’m targeting and how it all relates to my longer term visions (all of which keep me motivated of course).

Writing down my goals, looking at them every day and tracking progress, has been one of the most useful things I’ve done in the last several years.

9) Lift weights and treat your body well

Develop yourself into a lean, healthy machine. Exercise is your first port of call for ensuring a positive and healthy outlook. Your mind and your attitude is intrinsically linked to the state of your body.

Be always aware of what you are putting into your body and how you are treating yourself.

Everything you do, including the confidence your feel, is rooted to how well you treat yourself.

Lifting weights, especially for men, is massively underrated as a vital element of living a vibrant and masculine life. Lift heavy weights and strengthen your body. It will make you feel great and it will have dramatic effects on your productivity, alertness and creativity in all areas.

Just because you are an ‘artist’ does not give you an excuse to stay away from barbells. I can guarantee you will be better at what you do when you strengthen your body regularly.

I now do 20 minutes or more of weight-lifting at least four days a week to keep me pumped and motivated through the week. I always feel charged and motivated after I lift weights, not to mention looking fit and healthy.

It’s like I’m using a cheat sheet in life because so few others make use of it.

My next step is to bring in more cardio, like running, so that I’m exercising every day, but weights is the core, bread and butter work.

You’ll sleep better each night, and you’ll actually be more productive and calm in the long-term when you exercise.

If you get depressed at all and you don’t run or lift weights, you seriously need to prioritise doing that before anything else.

Your brain will reward you when you train and develop your body every day.


Bonus) Develop a Morning Routine

Years of never doing this mean that as I write this, I’m only just now starting to get into the habit of having a routine each morning.

Start getting up earlier and going to bed earlier. Yes, many of your friends will be up extremely late and you can too. This is fine here and there, but make normality getting up early.

Getting up earlier after sleeping well means that more of the day is spent awake and alert. By setting up some set actions that you do every morning, whether that be exercise, meditating or reading, you set the day on a positive, motivated note and you start accruing some huge lifelong benefits.

My Morning Routine

I get up no later than 6am. Sometimes it’s 5am. I try and get straight out of bed before dwelling on negative thoughts. I find in the mornings that negative thoughts arise, and so I cut them out by getting out of bed.

I then drink water with spirulina (powerful antioxidant) with omega 3 and some B vits. I’ll shower then meditate for 15 minutes before reading over my goals and visualising them as clearly as I can.

The next thing is to write at least 750 words, whether it’s for a new blog post or it can be complete junk. If I’m feeling particularly moody, I’ll make sure I write something and get all my worries down on paper. It’s a brilliant way to clear the mind and start the day.

I’ll then either head to the gym or go to a cafe here in Saigon and do some reading before getting into the day.

Building this habit means that all the benefits you gain from doing this, especially starting your day in a great way, becomes easier and more built-in over time.

If you have anything to add, especially to the idea of ‘autogenous leadership’ and how it might apply to your own progression, I’d love to hear from you.


[image credits: Shutterstock – referencing a few cities I’ve spent a good deal of time in!]



  1. Great post. Is “autogenous leadership” your own terminology? I’ve never heard of it like that. Cartoonist Scott Adams (Dilbert) has also written about the power of mixing multiple talents though he disagrees on the value of goals.


    Love the shots of Japan. Nihongo no benkyou wa ganbatte kudasai. Are you doing the digital nomad thing in Saigon? I need to visit there again.

    • Thanks TJ. Yes, I came up with that one. Hopefully it will stick! Interesting RE Mr Adams – will take a read when I can.

      Arigatou gozaimasu! I wouldn’t call it nomading so much as living for an extended period, but yes, I’m in Saigon. Come over!

      • If you are willing, I’d appreciate hearing more about living in Saigon. How does an introvert deal with all the street noise?

        • There are some quiet ‘sanctuaries’ for relaxing and working all over Saigon, though yes, sometimes you just need to head home away from blaring music

  2. “Crush those who berate you, publicly if possible. They need to know that you do not stand for it.”
    I only learned this a year ago. Not doing this was a trigger for a deep depression.

  3. Great wide-ranging and thoughtful post. The only thing I’d add would be “do what you said you’d do” – both what you promise yourself and what you promise others. I think being reliable, trustworthy and our personal integrity go a long way to building the life we aspire to. Thanks Alex.

  4. Well done, Alex, on all points! Your personal commitment to writing and committing problems to paper seems to have paid off. I congratulate you on introducing autogenous leadership as a powerful concept in an internet filled with personal and professional advice. For me personal character means my daily habits, I was interested to read yours and mine are much similar, rising early, reading, I have neglected writing lately and so on. I would add that it often strengthens and deepens character to build a hinterland behind the shoreline. I would encourage feeding the soul and challenging the spirit, and being gentle to oneself at times. These ideas excite me and I look forward to as always being in the loop to hear how they develop and grow. They ring with the truth of someone who not only has had brilliant ideas, but tested them. Now the challenge to reconnect with my high school German!

    • Excellent to hear that Sam! I agree with you on the need to develop your inner calm as you push forward with a certain amount of aggression! Good luck with the German, I definitely encourage you to start on it again.

  5. This is overall an excellent article but the one point that stuck with me the most was striving for autogenous leadership. In the design industry people are too quick to box themselves in cookie cutter labels because everybody else is doing the same thing then they end up doing commodity work. In my first design internship my boss asked me exactly what kind of a designer I wanted to become and I couldn’t really answer him because I was not only coming from a different career field (architecture) but I also wasn’t sure if I just wanted to become just one type of designer e.g. “interaction designer” because this doesn’t %100 reflect who I am. It is what I enjoy doing but it is not an extension of who I am. My life is spent battling with struggles, moving to between continents, seeing new places, changing careers, learning new things, trying to remain sane living under oppressive governments and trying to survive as a minority. These all shaped my personality and my outlook on life. Can I carve out a unique niche for myself? I don’t know but I’ll work on it because I’m not satisfied with where I am right now. I hope you write more about autogenous leadership in your future articles.

    • Thanks so much Paris. It’s an idea that has been lying dormant for a while, but only recently has it appeared as an extremely viable way of thinking about our own businesses and careers as creatives, but for business in general.

      Societal pressure to label is the root of many struggles in trying to define our craft. Creating an intricate patchwork lead from within is the way forward.

      More on that topic to come.

  6. Do more to discover your true passions, like hobbies or anything you can get better at while not hating yourself:), later it will be the only thing keeping you afloat.

  7. I don’t normally comment on things. But this site and yourself are inspiring, so I just wanted you to know you are doing exactly what it is this site was made for. Thanks for your time and effort. p.s What is the goal system you described?

    • Thanks Tom! There should be a link to Jake Jorgovan’s book: ‘The Focused Creator’ in the article. Recommend it. Free read, and he’s on point with his system. I use it to great effect.

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