5 Tips From My 31-Year-Old Self

I once proposed that in addition to Throwback Thursdays and Flashback Fridays, we add Wistful Wednesdays, dedicated to looking back on moments of your life with deep, soul-crushing regret.

I was kidding, of course. I don’t think regret is a very useful tool other than the occasional growth experience, and by that I mean one good, solid moment of regret followed by a hearty helping of lesson-learned and a generous serving of self-forgiveness.

Sometimes, as a direct result of my First World free time, I think about how much cooler, better off, smarter, more confident and interesting I’d be if I were to suddenly transport back to being a teenager with the knowledge and experience I have now. This is usually accompanied by an oddly real anxiety that I might actually magically fly back in time and be forced to relive the most awkward years of my life.

In order to get something constructive from my silly fantasies, I decided to compile a little list of five pieces of advice I would tell my 13-year-old self if I had a conversation with him. Advice on things that I’ve come to realize are important and smart in the 18 years (an entire childhood!) I’ve lived since then, with the humility to acknowledge that in another 18 years I’ll have plenty of great tips for my 31-year-old self. Some of these are things I wish I had done but missed the boat on (i.e. regrets). Others I wish I had done and still have plenty of time to remedy (i.e. things I can’t whine about). And still others are things I did do, and compared to some of the shockingly awful decisions I made in life, they stand out now as particularly smart choices (I don’t have another term for this).

Above all, hopefully they’re all things that might be good for someone else to hear, like my niece and two nephews. Because while I’ll probably never get to talk to a younger version of me, there are other non-me people in the world, finding their way through this blind maze called life, bumping into walls and listening for the wise directions of others while, hopefully, trusting their own instincts. I’m one of you, and I take all the help I can get.

1. Learn About Cars.

Your car is, as my brother likes to say, the most complex (and expensive, next to a house) thing you will ever own. To not take care of it is doing yourself an unnecessary disservice. That’s good enough advice right there, but there’s an important layer on top of that: even if you are a saint about scheduled maintenance, the world is full of people who would love to take you for a very expensive ride (hey, that was a pun!). That is, of course, unless you know your shit. The first time I took my car in to get the brakes checked out, I walked away with a $530 bill because I didn’t know what I should say “no” to. I went home that night and learned everything there was to know about brakes. I also went to a different mechanic from then on.

The days are mostly gone when you can pop a hood and tinker until that rattling sound goes away. But while cars are becoming driving computers, the days are not yet gone when you should know everything you can know about what your auto does and doesn’t need. You don’t have to be a grease monkey. Just don’t be a sucker. And find a good mechanic.

2. Learn To Cook.

Being able to impress Gordon Ramsay isn’t important (though it is quite a feat). Learning your way around a kitchen enough to be able to make a variety of decent, healthy meals and a handful of really good ones, on the other hand, will radically improve your life for three reasons: first, you’ll save money and be healthier being able to cook most of your food at home. Second, you’ll always have a go-to dish to bring to a potluck and you’ll be able to help around the kitchen for dinner parties (situations that come up more and more as you get older). Third, you’ll be able to impress the opposite sex. No, really! There are few things in life that are as big a turn on as having a really amazing meal cooked just for you. Plus, it’s a pretty cheap date.

Look, you’re gonna eat multiple times a day, every day, for the rest of your life. Why not put a little love into it and see that you’re putting the right things in your body? It’s a (physically) satisfying accomplishment. And ignoring how suggestive those last two sentences sounded, it’s good to note that food is one of those things you can be thrifty about but shouldn’t skimp on for the sake of saving money. (I mentioned this in my post about Lessons I Learned From Being Poor.) Oh, and when you go grocery shopping, park close to the cart return, not close to the entrance. You’re welcome.

3. Take a Dance Class.

Some of you out there are natural dancers. A beat plays over the PA system and you’re out there shaking your ass and taking names. That’s awesome. But your natural confidence on the dance floor only further intimidates the cross section of humans that I belong to: the ones so helplessly uncoordinated and naturally ungifted at dancing that the mere thought of a nightclub makes us come down with a sudden case of broken legs.

Oh, did I mention that I’m a professional f#$%ing musician? Because I am. I have solid rhythm and a great ear. But when I hear music, although I reallyfeel it, it is immediately internalized so that by the time the signal gets around to reaching my limbs, they’re a bar-and-a-half behind at best. If bobbing your head counted as dancing, I’d be winning reality TV competitions. But it doesn’t, and dancing is something that comes up again and again in life (just wait until you’re invited to 6 weddings in a single year). It’s also a distinct social advantage to at least be confident in your dancing ability, and if you’re a guy, there are very few women who won’t strongly appreciate it.

You don’t have to be James Brown. You just have to know you can do it. And the best way to know it is to take a few classes until you have some solid basics down.

4. Find What You Love

It sounds trite, but the true key to leading a fulfilling life is to figure out what you really love to do. Some people are lucky enough to find this when they’re young, and for many of us it changes throughout our lives. That’s fine—it just means you’re evolving. But if you’re still not sure what makes you truly excited to get out of bed in the morning, you’re doing yourself an incredible disservice every day you spend doing anything other than trying to figure that out. That means trying a shitload of new things all the time, because who knows if there’s something out there that turns you on even more than what you love doing now. Never get complacent; complacency is the enemy of progress.

A few things happen when you find what you love to do. You become more independent. That makes you more confident. And that makes you happier. No matter what happens, you can always come back to this thing that you love, and you rely only on yourself to find happiness and fulfillment. Everything else is just an awesome bonus. That makes life extremely gratifying.

But there’s a caveat: you have to be eternally grateful for every moment you get to spend doing what you love to do. Otherwise you risk falling into the devious illusion of entitlement. You should find a job that you enjoy, but always remember: it is an amazing privilege to be able to do what you love to do for any amount of time, in any capacity. Love every second of it, be grateful and realize that your life is really goddamn awesome.

5. Don’t Be a Dick.

Look, sometimes life sucks. Bad days are usually not so bad, but you’re going to hit some serious rough patches. People will fuck you over, you’ll lose people you love, you’ll get sick, you’ll fail miserably, you’ll get stressed. But when you have a good attitude, you get through it. So realize that many people have it far worse than you, and everyone else is just trying to figure this whole “life” thing out just like you. Show them some compassion. If you get nothing else from this advice, just remember: don’t be a dick. In my experience, those four words will get you further in life than you could possibly imagine. Just trust me on that. The phrase “nice guys finish last” is wrong; you don’t have to be a pushover, but the older you get the more people appreciate a genuine, good-natured, friendly person. That opens doors where others (read: dicks) close them.

 

So there it is: five things that, in my opinion, will give you a leg up in life. But don’t spend too much time thinking about growing up! You’re only a teen once, and it will be gone faster than you realize. So have some fun… You can worry about making your way through the real world later.