The most frequent question podcast hosts ask me is, “If you could back and offer your twenty-something-year-old self some advice, what would you tell him?” I used to try to answer this question, but I was never satisfied with my answers. Mostly I was trying to be polite and say something that might help someone else, which is the purpose of the exercise.
Here is why you should not want to go back and offer advice to your twenty-something-year-old self.
Being Grateful for Your Path
All the good and bad decisions you made brought you to this point. All the good things and bad things that happened to you were all part of that path. Whoever you are now is the result of all of your experiences. If you are truly grateful, you have to be thankful for the path that brought you here.
As much as you might have liked to avoid some of the negative experiences and having spent too much time figuring things out, going back and changing something would mean a different path. Not only would you not be who you are now, but your path wouldn’t likely have been any better than the one you traveled to get this point.
My 23 year old self might have listened to whatever advice I would have given him, but he wasn’t likely to act on at that time. He knew too much at that time and only decided it was better not to know anything and to pay attention and learn many years later. But the advice wouldn’t have helped him much anyway, and it wouldn’t have helped you either.
A Different Path
A different path would have meant that you avoided some mistakes only to make new and different mistakes, mistakes that you wouldn’t have liked any better than the ones you made. You would have made different choices, and you would have a different set of regrets. The perfect life you might believe you would have lived would be made of mistakes, missteps, and missed opportunities, even if they were different than the ones you experienced. That perfect life would still have been full of joy and happiness and loss and suffering because these are the things that make up every life.
- You have to be grateful for the adversity you faced because it is what made you stronger.
- All the many mistakes you made are what eventually made you wiser.
- The many losses you have suffered are what finally made you appreciate what you have.
- All of your fears are what allowed you to find the courage hidden inside you.
- Your critics proved you were creating something that required a reaction.
- The things that were inadequate provided you with your drive to make things better.
- Your anger proved you cared about something enough to fight for it.
Even though it is challenging to accept, you have to be grateful for the whole path, not just the good parts, the easy parts.
No Time Machine
The thought experiment that is looking backward to decide what you wished you would have known or to identify what you might have done differently isn’t nearly as useful as a different exercise. You have already paid for mistakes of the past and acquired the wisdom you would share with your younger self. Instead of asking yourself what you might have done differently in the long distant past, you should ask yourself what advice should be giving yourself now.
While you can’t do anything about your past, you right now possess the power to do something about your future. You can choose to take action to prevent your future regrets. A better thought experiment means asking yourself what Future You is going to wish you had done now. Instead of talking to the twenty-year-old version of yourself, you should speak to the person you are now and convince them to stop making the mistake that is going to impact the future version of yourself.
Why would you spend time contemplating a different past, something you can never change, when you have the power to change your future now?