You can't give your past self advice

Me circa 1998.

Me circa 1998.

If you’ve ever, in a moment of creative despair, pulled up a list of blog post prompts, you’ve almost certainly received one particular suggestion: write a letter to your younger self telling them everything you wish they’d known.

It’s an almost ubiquitous suggestion. And thousands upon thousands of blog posts have been written on the topic. Read a few and the same suggestions come up again and again.

Just do it. Spend more time with family. Worry less. Life is going to change so much. You have it better than you think. Believe in yourself. Stay true to yourself. Take more risks. You can’t change other people. Take more time off. It gets better.Be kinder. You can only trust yourself. Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep. Take more pictures. Save money.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

I used to do this. Every birthday from the age of about 12 I would write a letter to myself a year prior, plus a letter to my self a year from then. Sometimes I’d post them on my blog (yes, I had a blog from 12/13 onwards) or publications I wrote for, sometimes I’d put them in an envelope and hide them away.

A friend and I would even write each other letters at the start of every school year, then tuck them away in a desktop file.

Only once I was out of my teens did I give up on the practice. To the best of my memory, I haven’t bothered thinking about doing it since. Mainly because it became apparent that it wasn’t at all productive.

You can’t give your past self advice. As obvious as that sounds and as much as I understand that isn’t the point of said posts, writing them can be a crutch, an ersatz means of attempting to assert control over the uncontrollable, and a misguided use of wisdom.

***

Advice only has meaning through experience.

Most of the pieces of advice people direct at their younger selves seem, on paper, trite and cliche. Most are incredibly simple. Most are the sort of thing we’ve all heard countless times. They’re the sort of platitudes your ex’s parents would have on little wooden placards in their kitchen. Or that your aunt would post on Facebook, in curly letters on pastel backgrounds.

What makes that kind of advice meaningful to you is that you’ve learned it through experience. It is not the words that matter, it is the events and lessons they spring from. They resonate because they were earned.

Even if you could hop in a time machine and give your past self that advice, it likely wouldn’t mean anything. Advice isn’t a pill you can just take.

The best advice is obvious. It’s what we already know. It’s simple. The problem is that we don’t follow it. And we’re only able to follow it once the consequences of not doing so become painfully apparent.

***

I smoked on and off from my 18th birthday until my 21st, when I accidentally stubbed a cigarette out on my hand and never craved nicotine again.

I knew it was idiotic.

The day I brought the first pack of sticky, date scented tobacco I knew I would regret it. Sure, I could wish I’d told myself never to take that step.

But no. Eighteen-year-old me adored stomping out of college between classes and leaning nonchalantly against the NO SMOKING sign, red lipstick staining the filter of roll-up after roll-up. Eighteen-year-old me luxuriated in the head rush that accompanied the first inhale in the morning, as I stumbled outside moments after waking. Nineteen-year-old me only really saw the sun during brief cigarette breaks outside my office. Twenty-year-old me recoiled slightly when the therapist I saw at the time, upon hearing that I was cutting back, said: “That reeks of self-preservation.”

Twenty-one-year-old me couldn’t even believe how much she loathed the smell when a flippant twelve-year-old, going through one of the pathetic social rites of passage our disorganised culture has to offer, lit a cigarette on a train a few weeks ago.

I wouldn’t start now and I won’t start again, mainly because I have an awareness of my own mortality and a genuine concern for my long-term health that I, like most of us, lacked at eighteen. Nor do I miss it.

The point remains: I already knew I shouldn’t smoke. I just didn’t yet have the experience to know I didn’t want to.

Some lessons just need to be learned through experience. Nothing could have helped me dodge those bullets.

***

We misunderstand advice.

When people give it to us, they’re just saying what they would do in the same situation. They’re coming from an altogether different perspective, with all their own values and priorities and preferences.

We make decisions based on whatever makes sense considering what we want at the time. Most of the time, we don’t even know why we really make them. We come to a conclusion in an instant, then we invent justifications for it. Those justifications include advice.

Life isn’t simple enough to be amendable. A small change in the way we approached things wouldn’t necessarily lead to a whole other outcome. We forget all the complexity and entrenchment in the past.

Even when we get good advice, we rarely follow it. It needs to mean something. It can’t come from a stranger. To our brains, our future selves might as well be strangers.

***

Dwelling on the past is rarely productive.

Reflection is one thing. Self-awareness is important.

And introspection is fashionable. Social media sites remind you of what you posted on this day a year, two years, or more ago. Throwback pictures are everywhere. Nostalgia is a bittersweet obsession. The world changes fast. As do our lives.

It’s easy to spend a lot of time measuring the gulf between then and now. It’s more useful to focus on the lessons you can take forward and the mistakes you can avoid repeating.

Focusing on the past tethers what you’ve learned to back then, instead of turning it into the raw material for future growth.

***

You don’t remember things as they truly were.

Memory is not a perfect record. It is a flawed sketch that you rewrite again and again, each time you revisit it.

It’s easy to simplify chunks of your life or to remember them as worse than they were. To think you used to be awful and incompetent and useless.

But back then you were doing your best. You were making decisions you thought were ideal and doing things you thought were right. You were responding to all the incentives and influences of the time.

No one purposefully screws up their lives. Even self-sabotage is rational.

Thinking that way is a good way to feel smug about your current self and how very sophisticated and smart you are.

***

Here’s a better idea: make decisions with your future self in mind.

Instead of thinking about what you what to do right now, think about what your eighty-year-old self might want you to do. If they got to relive this moment, what would they do? What decisions are most likely to prevent them feeling regret or shame

Ultimately, we are who we are because of what happened. We don’t get repeats or do-overs. Our only choice is to keep moving forward, carrying with us everything we’ve learned.