Back to Then: What would you tell yourself (if you could)?

Every so often, I like to go back and reflect on what’s happened and what’s changed. The best way to learn and grow is to know where you came from. Every virtual yardstick we have – the successes, goals, failures, challenges – helps us by teaching us how we did – if we’re willing to take the time to learn from them. Earlier this year, I wrote an essay in response to a question David Damron of Life Excursion asked me: What would you tell yourself, if you could go back in time to the 18-year-old you? This is my response. 

If you could teach the 18-year-old you three things, what would they be?

When I was 18, I left California and my family to move across the country to college – a small school, a small town. It was terrifying, intimidating, and daunting.

No friends, no plan (other than “go to college”) and I was rife with worries about what I was going to major in, whether or not people were going to like me, and how on earth I was going to survive all of these life changes.

Eighteen was hard. Freshman year of college was filled with a lot of tears – a lot of missing home, my family, my foundation, and my friends. I lived in snow for the first time. I changed my major at least six times. I worked so hard in the pool trying to make the varsity swim team that some days I showed up to practice and stood in the corner, trying my best not to fall apart out of sheer exhaustion. The ten-workout weeks left me, quite literally, lying on the side of the pool deck with bags of ice on my shoulders, trying not to move for fear of how much discomfort simply moving would create.

At 18, we face some of the most exciting opportunities in our lives and some of the hardest challenges: College. Work. Independence. Travel. Decisions. Money. Happiness. Living. People. Relationships. Growth.  These are all Categories with a capital C that instill fear, anxiety, and trepidation in each of us.  What will we do?, We all think. Who will we become, and how will we be useful? How will we know what’s right and what’s wrong, or how to even begin making decisions?

It’s been nearly 10 years since I was 18. Ten years.  If I could take a shiny magic time machine and go back to my college dorm room, I’d want to tell myself great advice.  I’d sit in the room with myself and try to unload all of the information I’ve accumulated.

There are the basics that I would want to cover, of course:  Fund your Roth, Sarah, I’d say – and don’t spend so much money on things that are meaningless. By all means, set up an emergency fund, and don’t spend so much time worrying about what other people think.

But I’m not sure she would listen to me. The bright-eyed, terrified, 18-year old me would have no conceptualization of how $1000 can transform into $100,000 over time in small increments, even if logically I understand what compound interest is. I wouldn’t “get it” yet. The lessons I wish I could transfer to myself won’t have meaning without actually having lived through them.

The big fears then – about relationships, about being single, about having a good job, about knowing what I’m supposed to do (Don’t worry so much about those, I can say now – there’s so much life in front of you) – don’t seem as important now.

Looking back at the last 10 years, and all of the hard parts that came along with it – having a bone taken out of my body, breaking off a dead-end relationship instead of getting married, moving across the country twice, leaving my family, experiencing dysentery for the first time, and taking on $90,000 in debt – I nostalgically wish I could go back and protect myself from the hard parts.

But the hard parts make you who you are. And I wouldn’t change them for the world. So, if I could go back and tell me – and you – the advice I’ve accumulated over the past few years, here’s what I would go back and tell myself:

1: You are doing a good job.

You will do more than you can ever dream of, and you will have experiences that you can’t plan ahead for.  Today, you are right where you need to be. Leo Babauta says it well: You are already perfect.

Be prepared for things to change in completely unexpected ways. Take the time to figure yourself out so you can follow your heart – there’s nothing worse than getting on a path where you feel like you don’t belong. Explore. Change directions. Listen to your gut.

You will fail and fall and stumble and worry, but keep going. You are doing a good job. Don’t be so hard on yourself all of the time. Life is for living.

2: Explore.  Experience is the only thing (never stop learning).

Stop looking at the finish line.  The definition of stupid is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Try new things. Explore everything as often as you can.  Do it while you can.

Pay attention to smart people and good advice. If you can’t learn it yourself, learn from closely observing others. Watch great people and learn everything you can from them.

Take the plunge as often as possible. Try something new every day. Get good at the things you’re scared of. Stretch yourself beyond what you think is possible. You don’t have to do them perfectly. In fact, you don’t need to be the best at them – you’ll slowly carve out a niche of talents specific to you that you are great at and eliminate the other things – but don’t shy away from trying something new. Scared of meeting new people? Terrible at interviews? Tackle it. Take action, even small steps. Get as many practice sessions as you can in. I promise it gets easier the more that you do it. Fear is just inexperience. Look fear in the eye and do it anyways.

Never stop learning. Never. If you aren’t learning, you are obsolete.

Leave nothing behind.  Give it everything you possibly have, and leave nothing behind. My coach always said ‘Don’t leave anything in the pool.’ There are no could-haves, should-haves, or wants. There is only DO and DID (or didn’t).

3: Feel.

Worry less about what other people think. Worry more about figuring out what YOU think. Pay attention to your heart and your thoughts and your wishes. Do not dwell in negativity or fear. Don’t diminish your dreams and your wishes and your desires. Cultivate the lost are of listening to yourself and giving yourself space.

Have fun.  Play and be silly. Don’t lose your inner kid at heart, and do handstands, swing on swings, and laugh often.

Be prepared to be happier than you ever expected. You will also have moments of terrifying sadness, of grief, and of overwhelming joy.  You will be frustrated, angry, excited, scared, terrified, lonely, thrilled, amazed, and continually surprised by everything – more than you can ever possibly dream or imagine.

When you feel like you won’t be able to make it through the other side of the hard stuff, keep going anyways. You’ll be glad that you did. Emotions are the color of life, giving it depth, dimension, and feeling. Let yourself feel, dream, and be. Enjoy everything, it goes by quickly.


Oh Sarah,
I’d say, sitting on the quilted corner of the twin-bed in the freshman dorm room, Don’t worry so much. You’re doing a good job. Just keep learning and feeling, and it will be okay. 

She wouldn’t have any idea what’s coming.  Explosions of happiness in unreasonable proportions, challenges and goals that are smashed early and often, failures that teach invaluable lessons – these are all part of what’s coming.

I wish I could tell her that it’s all going to be okay. Better than okay: it’s going to be GREAT.

That there are times that will be really hard. But that the hard parts get better. The hard parts are, in fact, what MAKES it better. Nothing is a better teacher than experience, and each time you do something hard, challenging, or different – or just go through life experience – you learn. You grow. You expand. You develop. You will come out the other side, better.

Enjoy it.

Love, Me.

 

 


Also published on Medium.

9 Responses to Back to Then: What would you tell yourself (if you could)?

  1. Emily says:

    I think I would probably say similar things, albeit not quite as eloquently. I would tell my 18 year old self that every struggle and heartache is a lesson and a happy ending, but only if you seek to find the happiness in it.

    • Sarah says:

      I heart you. You’re doing everything exactly right – just watching you learn and grow and explore and reach out — man, Emily, you’re an inspiration to me!!

  2. Jenny Blake says:

    LOVE this, Sarah! And that picture of you is just…CLASSIC :) Thank you for continuing to share your wisdom and writing with the world — you’re amazing!

    • Sarah says:

      Let’s just say I was not that cool in high school … I blame the glasses. :) LOL there’s always room for improvement.

  3. Lauren Nham says:

    It’s so true! Reflecting on my own life, I oftentimes struggled with the blame of my mistakes and never forgiving myself. Learn to love, and embrace the unexpected. Planning is great, but without versatility to changes (and resiliency), we sometimes become our worst allies.

    • Sarah says:

      You’re absolutely right. Sometimes we are the hardest on ourselves, and so much easier and forgiving of others. Such a treat to meet you unexpectedly through the virtual worlds! We *will* have coffee one of these days!

  4. Dharmesh says:

    I’d certainly tell myself “You are doing good”, but also advise to tell my friends and family the same. Awesome post.

    • Sarah says:

      You are doing great! :D – seriously, we don’t hear that enough in our days, and for the most part, people are working really hard to accomplish great things. Good luck with all of your projects!!

  5. […] where you’ve come from, how will you know where you’re going? Look backwards regularly. In back to then, I stopped to write my past self a letter, and I like the advice I have to give. Who knows if I […]