I'm sitting on the Auto Train getting ready to depart from Florida to begin my trip home to Pennsylvania. I've spent the past twelve weeks in Florida interning at the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company within the IT department. During the past twelve weeks, I've learned a lot, and I have even more to learn.

Here are some of the things I've learned that I believe are key to building foundations for achieving and being successful in my internship, sports, and life:

Balance breeds mediocrity: I have yet to meet someone who is "balanced" and also great at what he does or at the top of his game in his selected sport or field. In hockey, the people I play with and against who are great have one thing in common—their number one priority is always hockey and training. During my internship, I was amazed at the knowledge and skills possessed by the people I worked alongside. For them, IT (information technology) is their passion. When they aren't working, they're learning. This passion makes the fifty- to sixty-hour work week fly by. Those who only want a nine to five, refuse to work overtime, don’t put in the effort, and want balance will never be great.

Read: Almost every smart person I know has one thing in common—they read a lot. I was able to participate in a panel discussion with the operating committee where I did my internship. I specifically remember the vice president of North America answering multiple questions and, within his answers, were references to different books that he has read. My boss and my boss’s boss had one thing in common in their offices—bookcases full of books. Some of these books I had previously read, allowing us to talk about them in depth, which is a great way to connect with your coworkers.

My goal at the start of the year was to read twelve books not required by classes or work. That's one book every month. As of late August, I've already read ten books. Some of the good ones you should probably read are The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Under the Bar and Raising the Bar by Dave Tate, Good to Great by Jim Collins, and The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz. Next year, I want to read twenty-four books or two a month.

Execute: With the need to execute, taking action is the most important part! It doesn’t matter what you know or what you learn if you don’t do anything with it. Reading by itself isn't enough; you have to do something with what you read. Question it, act upon it, and better yourself or your business by executing upon what you learn from the books you read and the situations you find yourself in that allow you to better yourself. Gaining knowledge and not executing upon it makes it useless knowledge.

Show respect and effort: I think respect and effort go hand in hand. Do you want the respect of others, your co-workers, your peers, your teammates? Demand it through the effort you put forth. You must also show respect. Respect those above you, and respect those on your level and those below you. The people currently below you on the organization chart might be above you in three years. Keep that in mind! Not everyone moves up the corporate ladder at the same speed.

Start with the end goal: More specifically, set, achieve, and surpass goals/expectations and then repeat. How will you know when you get where you want to be if you've never outlined where you want to be? I've found that it's key to set goals and expectations with those around you. When you have your end goal decided from the start, you can put all your efforts in working toward it. Once you meet and surpass your goals, it's time for some new ones. Having long-term goals in all parts of my life have allowed me to stay on point and know where I'm going and how close I am to getting there. Laying out goals helps you develop a turn-by-turn road map to where you plan to get. What use is Google maps point A without point B when getting directions?

Others won't understand: When talking with others who are my age about my goals and what I want out of life, the fact that I woke up every day over the summer at 4:00 a.m. to train before going to work got a lot of confused looks. Most people want to be good—the enemy of great. I don't want to be “good” in my life. I don’t want to have a good life. I want a great one. I want to positively impact people in some way with whatever I do. This pursuit of greatness isn't in everyone, and when you talk to people who are OK with mediocrity and OK with not chasing the best “me,” it will be hard to understand each other sometimes.

Get uncomfortable: Frequently do things that make you uncomfortable. I've found that it makes me better at those awkward things or things I get uncomfortable about because I'm not good at them. One thing I get uncomfortable about is public speaking. I don't like presenting on stage with a significant distance between me and my audience.

My whole internship was uncomfortable, but it definitely made me a better person. I moved away from home (eighteen and a half hours away) to work and learn from total strangers, all while honing in on some serious grown-up skills like ironing my dress shirts.

Love what you do: I know this is key, but I'm still working on figuring out what is right for me. Hopefully, when I find it I will recognize it immediately. Thankfully, through internships, I have somewhat of an idea of what I want to do with my life, but more importantly, I know what I don’t want to do. If you’re a college student, I can't stress enough the importance of internships. Regardless of your field of interest or whether or not they're required for your degree, you should do multiple internships at different companies. This allows you to see how your industry of choice works and how different companies conduct business. Most importantly, it allows you to test run that area and see if you really like it. Learning about something in the world of academia and actually doing it in the real world are very different things.

I think this is one of the most important things to achieve in life—doing something you love. Surprisingly, many don't. They stay in a job they dislike and complain about it instead of doing something to change it. If all you do is look forward to Friday, get pumped about paycheck Friday, and look forward to your mid-week highlight on cookie Wednesday, do something else with your life.

Leave a legacy: For the longest time, I thought legacies were just for famous people. After reading Dave Tate’s books, I got a new perspective on this. Everyone has a legacy and the ability to impact others. Even if you don’t want to, what you do with your life will impact and affect others either positively or negatively. Armed with this new shift in thinking over the summer, I think I asked almost all my co-workers, bosses, and upper level management what they want their legacy to be.

I want to impact others positively and help them become better in some aspect of life. The key is to work toward your legacy daily because you never know when you may see someone for the last time.

Bringing it all together

As a 21-year-old college student with one year left, I'm pursing a degree in information technology, but I'm still not sure exactly what I want to do. I need to make sure I do something I love whether it's working in IT or in one of my other areas of interest such as strength and conditioning. I've always had an interest in working with young athletes and giving back to athletics, an area that has made me who I am today and has taught me so many life skills.

Regardless, both areas of interest allow me to work toward my legacy—helping better others. Through IT, I can help people be better at their jobs, complete things more quickly, and improve their efficiency. Through strength and conditioning, I can help others improve athletically, physically, and mentally.

In May 2013, I graduate from college. This means it will be time to set some new goals. My current goals are to graduate while making the Dean’s list every semester and to get a certain number of job offers by a certain day. So I want to achieve and exceed these goals and then set new ones once I enter the work force.

For the fellow college students reading this or those who will be entering college soon, here's some advice that I've learned from the three internships I've completed:

  • Use coupons. The store brand is good enough. Drink lots of water, and drink coffee over energy drinks. Eat spinach, and pack your lunch.
  • Understand and ask questions about the dress code. Business causal is a vague, all encompassing statement. I interned at one place where business casual meant Polo shirts or dress shirts and another place where business casual meant button-down dress shirts only with Polo shirts maybe on Fridays. Mimic the dress of your boss and coworkers. Wearing a Ralph Lauren dress shirt worth more than your entire fellow interns or co-workers' clothing combined doesn’t make you better or smarter than them. Wear dress shoes; boat shoes are for boats, not the office. Polish your shoes. Wear a suit to your interview regardless of the position. There isn't anything wrong with overdressing. There is with under dressing.
  • In some fields, it's common for internships to be paid like in IT. In others, internships are frequently unpaid. These thoughts refer more to those paid internships where you will be relocating. If you are getting paid $15.00 dollars an hour or more, be ready to work, provide results, and own assignments. No one is paying you that much to get coffee. Don’t compare offers just on pay rate. But also ask yourself things like, does it really interest you, will it help you grow, is housing included, or does a stipend/signing bonus help pay for it? What is the cost of living in the area? How long is the internship? My internship this summer was twelve weeks, so finding a person willing to rent to me for that short period of time was tough. I can't imagine renting for just an eight-week internship.

I want to leave you with one last thought—a piece of paper, regardless of how expensive (college diploma) or how many you have, doesn't ensure greatness or guarantee anything, not even a job. Only effort, hard work, and passion will get you there.