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The best advice people can give their younger selves

Looking back on where you've been can be a good way to start thinking about where you want to go.

11 min read


The best advice people can give their younger selves

Unsplash photo/SmartBrief illustration

There’s something positive and uplifting about the start of a new year. Especially if the year left behind resembled a scaled-down version of the apocalypse.

A new year is an opportunity to revisit our cherished notions of how things “ought” to be in the future.

But when I took a closer look at the word “apocalyptic,” I found it stems from the Greek, meaning “unveiling” or “uncover.” So while the new year seems like a good time to pause, pull back the veil and ask ourselves where we’re going, it’s also the perfect time to reflect on where we’ve been.

As humans, we anchor ourselves in the firm belief that we evolve as we move through life, that we create things from the inside out, so we are forever yearning, growing and changing for the better. Then a year like 2020 smacks us alongside the head, and while we haven’t fallen, we’re shaky on the uptake and slow to strike out again.

A year that ushered in a global pandemic brings a truly important question to the forefront: Yes, we are constantly moving, but where are we going? It turns out that the great unveiling is really about us — the person we’ve been and, more importantly, the person we can still become.

Most of us fantasize in some form or another about how our life could have been different “if only”: if only we’d taken more a chance with our career, if only we’d dumped the loser lover who never flushed the toilet sooner, if only we’d moved to another city before meeting the loser lover.

The list goes on, and they’re good questions to ask of ourselves, but the real unveiling would be the best advice we would give to our younger selves.

1. Make plans but write them in pencil

It’s important to plan ahead because it can give you a clear direction of where you want to go in life. Goals can be the injection of inspiration that helps us through a tough time. They help us organize our time and resources so we can make the most of life.

But, while you may have a clear sense of your goal, the means of getting there may need to change. Life is unpredictable, and you can confront an unexpected crisis, either in your personal life or in business.

You may need to pivot and move in another direction — you may get fired and the only job offer is in another city. The yellow brick road no longer looks the same, so you may need to adapt to new circumstances.

On the other hand, unexpected opportunities may arise, and it’s stupid to ignore them simply because they weren’t part of your original plan. The means of reaching your goal no longer looks the same, but plans need to be flexible to absorb the impact of positive and negative events in life.

How to make It work for you: While plans can give you clarity, don’t get fixated on them. Plans will almost always change so be prepared! It’s called living life with open arms. You will end up where you’re meant to be, so don’t stress it.

2. Read better books

Books can enlighten our understanding of history and an appreciation for what has transpired before us. A study of history reminds us that human beings are evolving because while the world is not perfect now, it has been far more unjust in the past.

While they can offer an escape from reality, books also offer perspectives that are different from our own. We can embrace or reject those perspectives from a safe distance while we ponder our own values.

In today’s culture, people shout their point of view in our face and dare us to challenge it. If our opinion differs from theirs, we are canceled. Books are a safer way to explore differences while we make up our own mind about issues. No one needs an idiot shouting out their truth, all the while expecting you to adopt it as your own.

How to make It work for you: Read a book that will challenge your perspective of life. You may not agree with it, but explore why you don’t. Or, why you do. Improve your abstract thinking by reading a novel and putting yourself in the shoes of the characters.

3. Invest in friendships

A popular quote goes: “People are like dirt. They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.”

It’s very important to take the time to search out people with whom you share common interests and values. Just as important is that these people respect you and have your best interests at heart.

Like attracts like, so be the kind of friend that you want in others. Your energy will attract the same kind of energy. If you focus on your flaws or have low self-esteem, you will find people who reinforce your low opinion.

If you want to grow and pursue values that are important to you, guess what? That same type of person will be attracted to you!

Be picky. There’s a good chance that you’ll let someone into your inner circle who is emotionally abusive. Dump them as soon as their ugly personalities show themselves for who they really are.

How to make It work for you: Find your tribe and build it. Be careful about the kind of people you let in. Choose people who will give you a boost rather than those who pull you down.

4. Know when to leave

Whether it’s friendships, relationships or your career, recognize the signs when it’s time to move on. This means you may need to take a risk. When you strike out on a different path, you leave behind what is known and comfortable, even if that comfort zone is leading nowhere.

The only difference between a rut and a coffin are the dimensions.

Here are some signs that it’s time to leave:

  • Your needs aren’t being met
  • You seek to have your needs met somewhere else
  • You’re hesitant to ask for more
  • You feel obligated to stay
  • Your friends and family encourage you to move on
  • You start to lie to put on a happy face

So often, when it comes to people and relationships, time put in does not equal success. This is when the advice from trusted friends or family is so important. They know you better than most and want what is best for you.

How to make It work for you: Don’t worry about sounding needy or emotional. Speak up and be honest about how you feel.

5. Forget about following your passion

If we listen to self-help advice and gobble up Google searches, we’re left to believe that following our passion will lead to happiness. The problem is that phrases like “follow your passion” and words like “happiness” are Band-Aids to cover up a much deeper yearning.

Passion is temporary and self-centered. It’s all about what life can give you. Be the better person and ask yourself, what is your purpose? Purpose is rooted in values and is about what you can give to life.

Happiness is another dud. It’s nice and we like to be happy, but like “follow your passion,” it’s fleeting. We snatch moments of happiness, but if we’re the better person, we won’t settle for happiness as a goal. Instead, we’ll seek to find joy and contentment — the byproduct of life lived according to our values.

To identify your purpose and find joy and contentment, you will need a clear understanding of your values and the things that give your life meaning.

How to make It work for you: Identify your values by:

  • Taking time to think about them
  • Writing them down
  • Prioritizing them
  • Listing the ways they show up for you
  • Pinpointing where and when your important values are out of alignment and you’ve let others take their place
  • Creating a values action plan

6. Solve harder problems

It’s tempting to take the easy route, especially when it takes us to where we think we want to be. Unfortunately, the easy path is also littered with questionable values, people we’ve stepped on and priorities that are out of whack.

The things that are important to us are the things we’re willing to work for. If we’re mentally tough, we won’t settle for what is easy; we will solve the harder problems because we’re committed to living by our values.

Your core values play a huge role in how you decide to live your life. As a result, life shifts and the problems you encounter may be harder, but they lead to joy and contentment.

How to make It work for you: Take a closer look at the problems you face. Are they important to you? Or someone else? Make certain that youre not living someone elses values. Double-check that the things you consider important weren’t foisted upon you by parents, teachers or friends.

7. Forgive first

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” ~ Alexander Pope

We all screw up at some time or another. Those screw-ups can lead to resentment, anger and bitterness.

The fault may be ours — no matter how many flawless selfies we take of ourselves, we’re still not perfect. It hurts to admit this because, deep down we’d like to think we’re the divine one, that we are our own God.

This is the perfect time to pause, pull back the veil and reflect on where we’ve been. It can clarify where, when and why things fell apart in the past. It’s not a question that we experienced wrongdoing, because we did. If we’re responsible, we need to forgive ourselves and ask forgiveness from others.

What about the asshole who wronged us? Should we get down on bended knee and forgive them for what they did? It’s not that simple, because what we’re talking about is your attitude, not theirs. A jerk will most likely always be a jerk, and our feeble attempt to make them see the error of their way will most likely be met with a sneer.

So let’s get some things clear:

  • Forgiveness does not mean you condone what the asshole did
  • Forgiveness does not mean you forget — you’ll never darken the jerk’s path again

Instead, forgiveness is shedding the negativity that surrounds the person or the wrongdoing. It’s letting go of the emotional baggage that bogs you down. When you forgive others, you also forgive yourself. It’s that simple.

You have a choice: Be bitter or let it go.

How to make It work for you:

  • Take the time to process your pain, anger and hurt
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes to gain another perspective on what happened
  • Forgive yourself for your contribution to what happened
  • Leave it in the past
  • Focus on where you’re headed in the future


Are you mentally tough? Take this free assessment.

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Get Quy’s new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles” as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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