I wrote this in response to someone who asked me 'how can I avoid wasting my life as a teenager?' For those who are still within the sweet grasp of adolescence, it might be of interest. For those who are older, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
The happiest memory from my teenage years was one summer's day when six friends and I lay on the grass in a field. I remember every detail in crystal clarity. We were all wearing flower crowns I had made. Someone had a fake ID so we got drunk on vodka and the vile concoction which is blue WKD. Or rather, everyone else got tipsy and I got drunk because I am a lightweight. It was a light-hearted, fun day. We chain smoked, ate popcorn, wandered, explored some thrift stores, talked a lot. But I remember being so damn happy. I was happy because the sun was shining. Happy to have a group of friends I loved at last. Happy because I got to kiss someone I had a crush on. Happy, happy, happy.
When I contemplate my teenage years, that memory always materializes first. It serves as a yardstick which I measure my happiness with. Nowadays when I worry I am frittering away a day, I recall it. That moment taught me fulfillment is not all about achievement. Yes, I wasted a lot of my teenage years. I wish I had created more, calmed down, had more fun. Still, I don't remember the nights spent working but I do remember those precious moments.
I am not very qualified to talk about how to not waste your teenage years. I am a teenager myself, 6 months off from my 20th birthday. Still, I can say something helpful. Being on the edge of adolescence, I see my own mistakes and misjudgment with a renewed clarity. I know what I regret and what I don't.
As a teenager, you get the luxury of emotional, physical, social, economic and intellectual resilience. What does that mean? It means you can screw up and not suffer too badly in most cases. You can loose all your money and be saved by parents or student loans. You can be ostracized by all your friends and make new ones. You can lose a job and find another with ease. You can break up with a partner and not worry about divorce proceedings. You can take off at any moment without the burden of children or bills to pay.
If I could send a letter to my 13ish-year-old self, here are the points I would make:
- Accumulate experiences, not stuff. Your tastes change so fast that there is very little point in spending a fortune on crap. However cool you think those £70 metallic jeans are, you will feel different in a few months. Spend money on trains, cinema tickets, concerts, save up for travel. I spent thousands of pounds on clothes during my teenage years and wore about 1% of it. One day you will be an adult, and £100 will no longer be a lot of money, it will be a few days' rent and everything will suck.
- In the words of Machiavelli, make mistakes of ambition, not mistakes of sloth. You are going to have regrets, so it's better to regret what you did, not what you didn't do. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean being an idiot. It means respecting your time. I don't regret the mistakes I made because I shot too high or wanted too much. I don't regret taking unorthodox A-levels. Or any of the festivals, parties or events I went to. Or kissing people I had crushes on. Or ending relationships which made me miserable. I do regret the times I made mistakes of sloth. I regret the hours wasted in pointless classes. The invitations I turned down. Remaining in an abusive relationship for months. All the times I was passive and let life pass me by. Time is wasted when it is not used to do something fulfilling.
- When I was a teenager, I remember writing in my notebook that there are 3 components to being cool. Looking cool, doing cool things and knowing cool people. Thankfully, I never attained my desired status. I was wrong. The actual route is: looking like yourself, doing what you want and being around people you care about.
- Find the thing you love and do it every day. Research it, take classes, find like-minded people to discuss it with. The way I see it, life is about learning and achieving mastery. It does not have to be the skill you use to earn your living, it can be your side project or hobby. What matters is having a purpose to see you through everything. In the words of Nietzsche, 'he who has a why can endure any how.' This is the time to find your why.
- Don't focus on following your passion, focus on being passionate about what you do. No one has a single thing they are born to do. The number one indication of job satisfaction is the length of time spent doing it. That's it. Whatever you do, do it well. In So Good They Can't Ignore You, Cal Newport wrote:
'Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.'
If you find yourself thinking you deserve better, it's a clear sign of entitlement. Sadly, you don't deserve to be the CEO at 17. Young, enthusiastic people with qualifications are not in short supply. Everyone has to start at the beginning and you are no exception. Smile at customers, make things easy for the other employees, make your boss look good. It's the only way to start working your way up the ladder.
- Remember, it's all material. As Robert Greene said in a speech at Yale:
'Everything that happens is material. Material for a book. Material for a novel, for a screenplay. I want to be the master observer of this world. '
You might think you are wasting your time but everything you do now is laying foundations for later in life. Spend a lot of time at crumby house parties? At least you'll have the social skills necessary for networking in the future. Working a crappy retail job? When you are the one in charge of a company, you will understand the power dynamics and be able to not be a jerk. Have no friends and spend every night in your room? You'll learn how to be independent and not rely on other people. Everything is fuel for your future art, work, relationships and learning. Also, amusing anecdotes to recount later in life. Most of my stories come from just a couple of years of my life.
- Document everything. Keep a diary each day and take pictures. Not just Snapchats- real pictures. I used to shoot with 35mm film and the cost of getting it developed was worthwhile for the raw, spontaneous nature of the results. Record the stuff which feels dull. You will not always walk the same route to school every day. You will not always see the same people every day. It is nice to have a lasting record of the details you are bound to forget.
-Oh and some practical advice: use a pseudonom on social media until you are at least 18, don't get pets which you will have to rehome when you leave home, don't tattoo yourself (I am covered in DIY ones and they are all terrible), get some damn sleep, do volunteer work and read a lot.
In short, try to enjoy stuff. Most people do nothing productive during their teenage years, so any time not wasted will put you ahead.
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