A number of celebrities were asked this question on a radio programme I heard recently and it got me thinking about what my advice would be. I’d only thought about it fleetingly before and not given it much consideration. In any case, I’d have assumed that I’d have loads to say and that it’d be impossible to shut me up – but now I’ve thought a bit more about it, I’m surprisingly stumped for a response. It’s not because I think I knew it all back then, or that I’ve not learnt anything since, it’s because it feels like taking bricks out the bottom of a game of Jenga. If we’re really the sum of our experiences, we can’t selectively remove bits of our past without the whole lot tumbling down.
The question itself is from the same stable as regret and fatalism – neither of which are my bag. It implies that if we had our time again, we’d do different things, things differently or that it didn’t matter either way, as all would come good in the end. They don’t take into account that we’re who we are today because of the experiences we’ve had. Those trials and tribulations are what made us.
But nit-picking aside, what would you say if someone asked you this? I reckon ‘worry less’ would be the most universal answer, but even that’s contentious. No doubt our worry fueled the contentiousness that got us where we are today. However, I’m also sure there’ll be other occasions when worrying has been counter-productive, perhaps preventing us from trying something new; or when it has caused us to sabotage ourselves rather than risk facing failure. There’s also the energy we may have wasted by worrying about stuff which is out of our control – either stuff which kept us up at night, or when we sweated the small stuff. The antidote is to take a leaf out of Niebuhr’s book and have the “serenity to accept the things [we] cannot change, courage to change the things [we] can and the wisdom to know the difference”. Sounds pretty reasonable in theory, but sometimes it’s easier said than done. The other issue with it is that there aren’t any short-cuts, we only gain that wisdom with age.
Even if we gave ourselves whatever nuggets we can think of, it may not have made a blind bit of difference in any case. Experiments have found that young people are more prone to peer-influence and risk-taking – a recipe to live life on the wild side. So, what works for us now may not have worked for us then (I wanted to do parachute jump back in the day, these days even mild turbulence gives me the heebie-jeebies).
At first I also thought this question was a proxy for the advice we’d give our kids, but I don’t think it works like that either. Bearing this in mind, I’d probably just tell my younger self to “learn to cook and try running” (given that family mealtimes now resemble an episode of ‘Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook’ and that I only discovered I loved running when I was twenty five).
Kids have to make their own mistakes and as parents, we can only hope that their bumps in the road will be minor – just enough for lessons to be learnt without collateral damage. The accumulation of inevitable knocks and set-backs will smooth their edges and mellow them over time. If we snipped-out the negative bits here and there, the positives wouldn’t feel so great either. You can’t have the highs without the lows – as studies comparing lottery winners and accident victims attest – happiness is relative.