Ten years ago I was a Cardiff university undergraduate student, loving (most) of the experiences that era afforded me. Like other young adults, I was keen to get out of academia and start living life! At the time I didn’t fully grasp the important role that education continues to play in your life after university (even if it comes in non-structured forms), or that the ‘self’ I viewed as concretely me constantly changes and evolves. What would I tell my younger self, if I could? I recently turned thirty, so it’s as good as time as any to reflect on what I wish I knew at 20:
Leaving full-time education is NOT the end of learning
Graduation day is in many ways a symbolic goodbye to a life dominated by structured education. Education beyond academia should be given more weight to university graduates of today —the subjects I spent years studying and sitting exams for have had very little bearing on my adult life. I might not regularly use the knowledge I learned in Geography A-Level, but the ability to structure an opinion and research relevant facts is something I use every day.
And yet, it’s these more process-driven skills that fuel true growth. During a panel discussion at Stanford University (listen to the podcast here), the head of Google X, Astro Teller, told a room of students just that:
“The bad news is that the stuff you’re learning now is going to be fairly irrelevant in ten years. The good news is that the skill of learning things quickly, figuring how to understand first principles and being able to reconstruct your knowledge after you forget 99% of it later, those skills are critical for the rest of your life.”
True education is the attainment of a greater understanding of why the world is as it is, and what it could be. The primary way to attain this understanding is to read, read, read. Even though I smashed my Goodreads challenge of reading thirty books in 2016, it unsettles me that there’s so many novels, theories and scientific research I’ll never get time for.
I used to have an aversion to non-fiction, but some of the most powerful prose I’ve read recently is from the genre; I wholeheartedly recommend Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind or Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity. Our smartphone is now a portal to information ripe for devouring, whether it’s via a language-learning app like Memrise or Maria Popova’s blog Brain Pickings. Popova talks about the constant evolution of the intellectual self in this episode of the Tim Feriss podcast, reflecting on her younger self as a “spiritual embryo” or an “intellectual baby.”
Mine the Trivia of Today
Even if a situation or event seems trivial to you, write about it. It will be endlessly fascinating to your future self! The iOS/Macbook Day One app makes it simpler than ever to sift through years of detritus, and by doing so you’re immortalising snippets of lived experience that would otherwise be long forgotten. I wrote a review of the app a while back, detailing the best ways to use it.
The Morning Pages technique is also a great way to continually flex your writing muscle, although it’s habit that’s eluded me.
More Later, Less Now
When I was twenty I didn’t think twice about occasionally sleeping with my make-up on or eating junk food, always happy to choose instant gratification over any benefits my future self might appreciate!
Valuing short-term wins more than long-term gains is what’s known as temporal discounting. While it’s immediately gratifying to sink your teeth into a burger rather than a tofu salad, it’s one of the hardest life lessons to take on board that resisting temptation will make things easier on your future self. I’m by no means a saint, but when I’m in my element my evening routine is like a ceremony for that future self:
- Choose & arrange tomorrow’s outfit
- Pre-pack gym bag
- Use electric toothbrush for 2 and a half minutes then floss
- Minimum of ten minutes removing make-up and slathering on various oils and creams
No-one ever grew as a person by shying away from new experiences. Take for example a social invitation; nights curled up at home might rejuvenate your soul, but with every year that passes they’ll become more and more the default.
I’ve never regretted getting off the sofa and seeing friends or devoting free time to planning days and little London adventures. I’m grateful that potential evenings of boredom or self-pity were catalysed into memorable nights out (or in) with close friends.
Don’t Lose Your Roots
If I could go back to my twenty-year-old self, I would ask more candid questions to my grandparents. Once they pass away, your key to the past is cruelly lost. Thankfully my granddad wrote up a lot of his life history for my uncle so I have word documents typed up full of details of his life growing up in Birkenhead, as well as one or two asides about his own parents.
That being said, a day after initially drafting this blog post, Nanny Win, my last surviving grandparent died so this point is especially poignant. She would chat about certain times in her life, but I barely know a thing about her several siblings and how they lived their lives. Now, they’re reduced a box on myheritage.com:
Cherish Your Independence
Once you’re in full time employment it’s hard to quit and perhaps even harder to score a sabbatical — there’s always a path to promotion or potential new role within reach and walking away carries with it sacrifices.
One of my best decisions was blowing my savings (plus overdraft!) on travelling and seeing the world. In fact, my blog has 14 pages of travel posts! It bears repeating — you’ll likely never be as free as you are today. Before you know it, you and your friends will be saving for mortgages, marriages and munchkins so opportunities to connect with them decline.
What lessons have you learnt in the past decade that you would pass onto yourself? I’d also recommend a book entitled What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, featuring letters that forty-one famous women wrote to their younger selves.