A letter to my 23-year-old self

Dear Ian,

Congratulations on leaving Hatfield and getting a pretty good degree! I’d like to say that you worked hard for it, and you certainly put the effort in over that last semester. You’re a bright lad and you have come a long way. You didn’t have many expectations of yourself when you started this journey but I hope you have come to realise that you’re cleverer than you thought you were.

Thirty years later, I think that I’ve learned quite a bit more about life. I know you’re not good at taking advice, but I thought that I would put this letter in a time bottle and throw it overboard. Perhaps by some kind of temporal miracle it will reach you and change how you think about a few things. But I guess that I know already that it didn’t. Unless that many worlds interpretation of quantum theory is correct, in which case this is another future you who never existed typing this, and there’s a different future me trying to whisper to another me in not-his past.

This whole time stuff is confusing.

Anyway, this is as much about me as it is you which means I’ll write it anyway. That’s the first lesson by the way: it’s never always about you.

When we look back at our past selves it’s easy to become either condemnatory or nostalgic. What a prat I was. Or on the other hand how full of youthful energy, how lacking in fear!

Like most views of the past, no one can never really know which is more true, but I suspect that actually neither is all that accurate. So, I’m not going to judge you and find you wanting, or lionise you and wish I was you, again.

Instead, I’m going to write about a few things that I’ve learned more about since I was you, and hope you can consider them. Feel free to reject them — I probably would, and I was you once — but also think about them often.

The first thing I would say is to care less about what people think and more about what people feel. When I was you, I was obsessed with reason and thinking. I was very much a rationalist, even though I thought of myself as a renaissance man. Spending your time obsessing about what people think about you is less important than making them feel good about themselves. People are always more insecure than that look. You can capitalise on that, but to be honest that makes you a bit of a bastard. Lift people up. Make them feel like they are the most important person in the world.

Remember too that love is something that requires nurturing, and expect it to change. You don’t love people in the same way all the time. Love ages, and like all things that age that can either mean it withers and dies or it becomes deeper and more seasoned. But it never stays the same, and harking back to how a love was is to choke it with the thorns of your memories.

Take some risks. You have time on your side here, but no matter what age you are you can always shake things up a little. Don’t do it for the sake of it, but remember that life is change: the more you hold on to it the more quickly it will slip away from you.

Grasp opportunities — but only if they are something you want to do. Just because someone else presents with you with a chance to do something doesn’t mean you have to take that chance. Of course, that depends on you knowing what you want…

To understand what you want, you need to be more reflective. I know it feels like navel-gazing, but without understanding what you want you can never have it. It’s only recently that I’ve understood that failing to think about what you want is really all about being afraid: afraid that if you find what you want, you might not be able to have it.

Academic philosophy is not for you. You’ll find this out of your own accord, of course, and it all turns out absolutely fine. But I think you probably know this already.

Remember that friends are not hot-swappable. Moving away doesn’t have to mean moving on. It will take you a long time to realise how much you miss people but you’ll get there in the end. Getting to it earlier will save you a bit of anguish.

Do more art! Don’t be afraid to call yourself an artist. You can write and you’re a good communicator, but keep practicing. Art is a practice, but that means you have to keep flexing those muscles. Put the words out daily, and never be afraid to show your work in progress.

You’re a good lad, and you are still such a lad in so many ways. Not a boy, not really yet a man, but very definitely a lad.

I would say all the best at this point, but I know that you don’t get all the best. No one does. But I still wish it for you.

So, all the best,

You + 30.


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