Advice to My 16-year-old Self


We should probably start with this, because I just want you to see what we’re dealing with:

Oh boy

Yeah, I was very pouty back in high school.

When I was 16 years old I wanted so badly to be a punk rock star. I could just see my 20-something self as a neon-haired drummer in a crazy-loud punk band. With time the dream faded and I regretfully moved on to other pursuits.

It recently occurred to me that if I had enjoyed practicing the drums as much as I now enjoy training to fight, I would have been so much better at it. And if I had stayed with it, by now I would’ve been an excellent musician.

Of course, I might never have found what I now consider to be my true passion if I hadn’t quit the drums… or if I had persisted and actually put in the time to practice, music might have become my “true passion.” This got me thinking: what would I do differently with the knowledge of hindsight and the personal growth achieved in the preceding 10 years?

I considered what advice I would give to a younger me, and it was very tempting to condescend to myself. I thought:

Brush your teeth more.

Being “goth” is just a phase.

Be nicer to your parents.

Show respect for everyone.

Pick a more useful college major. The list goes on and on.

Ultimately, there were only two categories of advice to consider, both resulting from what I’ve observed in the intervening years since my 16th birthday. The first is the advice based on the changes I have already made. And the second set of prescriptions stems from the habits my present incarnation is still working to overcome.

I want to present just one key piece from each.

Advice to my 16-year-old-self: Learn to let go of mistakes, failures, and upsets.

Get good at this one, because you’re going to have to do it a lot.

Lots of things in life aren’t going to work out for you, 16-year-old Emily. Jobs, friends, relationships, assignments, hobbies, performances, trips… many of these things will fail in some way.

You will quit jobs. You will end relationships. You’re going to move. You’re going to stay. You’re going to try really hard and still not always get what you want or think you deserve.

Some colleges you apply to will wait list you. At times, people you care about will treat you badly. You will miss deadlines. You will misspeak, and sorely regret it.

…You will quit playing the drums.

Things that seem like the be-all-end-all purpose of your life right now will end forever and you may not even notice.

Get over it. When a door closes, a window opens, right? Holding on to the past does not protect you in the future, it only robs you of enjoying the present. Holding grudges does nothing to the person who harmed you, but it will indisputably steal your joy.

Failure is utterly inevitable, so you’d better get used to moving on from it. This is especially important because failure is an opportunity to grow. So while you’re practicing letting go of mistakes, you might as well get good at learning from them too.

Advice to my 26-year-old self: Start earlier.

I cannot stress this one enough. Start now.

This applies to tasks (and timelines) both large and small. Don’t hit snooze 3+ times before waking—there is no cognitive value in sleeping an extra 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Even worse, this fails to help “train” your willpower for more important situations.

Starting nearly every paper assigned in college on the night before it was due heavily undercut your potential for success—and now finishing speeches the night before they’re due does the  same.

Don’t wait months to see a doctor, to deal with your taxes, to throw out that junk mail pile.

Don’t spend too much time procrastinating the start of your “real life.” Even if you seem to be flubbing and flailing for ages while trying to get a handle on things, you won’t regret the experience gained by at least starting that process immediately.

In the words of author Karen Lamb: “A year from now you will wish you had started today.” So take the advice I’m offering you and don’t put things off. It’s a mistake we’ve made in the past, so learn from those unpleasant outcomes, and don’t repeat it in the future.

After all, how much better would you be at MMA if you had begun training even just a bit before you started at Reed? What nuance would that skill have now if you have started earlier down the road of failing at– and perfecting– it?

It’s easy to delay beginning projects because change feels slow and tomorrow’s progress might not seem to be an obvious benefit of today’s discipline. But over time, what felt so painfully slow turns out to have flown by so maddeningly fast. Adulthood is a quiet apocalypse. It’s not an atom bomb that detonates on your 18th birthday. Rather, the changes can be ever so subtly catastrophic, like the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers those around you will morph ever so delicately, imperceptibly, until some day no one is as you once knew them.

I’m not who I used to be and someday I’ll become someone else too. Identity isn’t static, and that’s okay.

Sure, there are more mistakes to be made, and learned from. But let’s not spend the next ten years on the same tired blunders when we could be trying out new ones! Let’s not give my 36-year-old self any reason to look back and say, “I told you so.”

Let’s start today.


(This piece was inspired by the book Advice to My 18-Year-Old Self, recently put out by Asymmetrical Press. Get yourself a copy!)