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Home / Success & Failure  /
The Fruitlessness Of "I Would Have Done Things Differently"
done differently

If you're not prepared to have become a completely different person, you aren't prepared to have done things differently in the past


George Bernard Shaw famously quipped, "Youth is wasted on the young." 

Only an older man wise to life's ironies would make such a statement. With age, we hope grows wisdom. We're able to assess our life in greater perspective. So with all that acquired wisdom we fret at the current generation of youth and wonder how they could be so dense as to not reap from the insights we've gained personally through our experience. 

And that's just it.  Youth don't have the experience to fully process insights for matters that currently have no meaning for them.  That's why they're young.  Relayed wisdom comes off as intergenerational nagging.   Remember when you were younger and your parents nagged you?  You swore they didn't know what the hell they were talking about. 

I recall an episode when I was 21 years old and awaiting a flight home after a three week trip to Israel.   An Orthodox Jewish man at least twenty-five years older than myself went out of his way to sit down next to me for absolutely no reason and lecture me how chasing after women would amount to nothing. Why he picked me out I'll never know.  I was probably just an easy youthful target to waste his time on.  Even if I had been a chick magnet at that age, this man's message would have gone in one ear and, with negligible processing, out the other, as if he were speaking Tagalog.   

Personal experience isn't always necessary to take an elder's advisories in stride. As little kids, most of us take our parents' word for it when they tell us not to touch a hot stove. Someone we trust can give us advice on what college to attend.  In these instances, we're seeking guidance, not experience.  Guidance we'll accept.  Experience we want to soak in for ourselves.  What if someone outlined for you in intricate detail their latest three month escapade to Thailand complete with pictures and movies? Would seeing what another experienced satisfy you the same as going yourself? 

There is an instinctual reaction in the older man to review his life and think of things he would have done differently. Unless we lack any level of introspection whatsoever, we can always come up with something we would have altered, something we wish never happened or had happened in a different way.  Money and romance lost or unearned come to the top of the list. There are women from my past of which there's no love lost not having them be a part of my life now and a knee jerk response sometimes, especially if the femme fatale caused me great pain, is to declare that I wish they never came into my life in the first place. 

But is that really true? 

Were it not for the 16-yr old born again Christian idiot I was accused of not treating like a lady during my junior year in high school or the psychopathic basket case I dated during my latter Los Angeles years two decades later, I wouldn't be with the wonderful woman who's my wife today.  

There are many ways to get from Cleveland to Los Angeles. You can drive through Chicago, head to Missouri, Arkansas, and onwards through New Mexico and Arizona, a journey I made myself way back in 1997 over two weeks. Or you can cruise through the northern American states and veer down to California from the Pacific Northwest and take a month. Or go all the way into Canada, cross the Land of the Maple Leaves, and move southwards and take a year.  With the miracles of modern transportation, you don't need stop anywhere. You can catch a flight from Cleveland and reach Los Angeles direct in less than six hours.   

There are innumerable ways one can travel from 16 to 36, too, but each of the journeys will always require twenty years. 

Most of the time, I've come to realize, you wouldn't want to get to where you arrived any sooner. 

If I could somehow go back to the year I was 16, it would still not be in my power to cut out the 'unnecessary' middle (wo)men and make a direct beeline to the woman who became my wife. She would have been much too young for me. Let's say I could journey back to 26 instead. That works better for the statutory rape charges I might have faced if I picked her up when I was 16, but the people we were then, I'd hazard to guess, would not have been compatible with one another. We would not appreciate the qualities in each other that we hold dear now due to the experiences we've gone through since then. 

The person you are now is a product of all the choices you've made and experiences you've undertaken up to this point. If you've made a lot of different choices and undergone a lot of varied experiences in just the last five years, you become, effectively, a much different person than you were five years ago.     

I appreciate foods, locales, free time, health, and companionship in different ways now than I did a decade ago and still differently again than I did two decades ago.  Were I to travel back in time to advise my 16-year old self, he'd only take me seriously inasmuch as he knew the older man was actually himself. Without access to that secret, why should he steer his life in some drastically different direction because of some old guy's "wisdom" he doesn't have the vocabulary to process?  Would I want that he followed me blindly because I've been there and done that?  That wouldn't be him acquiring his own experience. That would be him trailing on autopilot behind the experiences I've forged.  He can only become me and be satisfied with what I am satisfied with after he's done all the in-between stuff first.

There are no real shortcuts. 

Could he become richer quicker? Could he learn certain skills earlier? Sure -- and as a result, become a completely different person.  He wouldn't be me as I know myself today, so the contemplation becomes a meaningless thought experiment, like asking what would my life have been like if I grew up in India or as the child of a famous movie star?

Whether one wishes he were a completely different person depends, I suppose, on how content, overall, he currently is. There are people I know, if granted the opportunity to go back and tweak or alter something in the past, wouldn't think twice about doing it. They've got nothing so they've got nothing to lose.   I know far more people who would be idiots not to go back to transform their lives effortlessly for the better but wouldn't do it. They continue to cling to a shadow of what they've become.   

I used to live my life on a time delay. In my early 30's, I still felt like I was in my 20's. I tried to do things I hadn't been able or aware of or too scared to do when I was really in my 20's. There were thoughts -- then, not now -- that I had missed out on youth. 

The easy trap many middle-aged guys get caught in: why couldn't I have had more girlfriends in my high school and college years, lived it up a bit more, been more frivolous and fancy free? An older man can aimlessly spend the rest of his life trying to play a nonexistent game of catch up.  Catch up?  To what? You spent your past not pursuing experiences you rather wish now that you had. You can't play catch up because you can't go back and be 16 or 20 or 25 again and check off those escapades as if you were someone truly that age. If you chase after all that stuff much later in life, you do so as a considerably different person and acquire a much different experience. 

It's all too easy for too many of us to turn the past into a nostalgia festival, to dress it up in ways it wasn't really like when we lived it. 

Reminisces about the girls from my own past is the easiest thing to discredit. A quick sift through the girls I was interested in at 16, 18, 21, 24, 31, and onwards brings a grimace to my face. Do I really wish there were more? To be consistent with the person I am now, I'd have to stuff these additions into the timeline I actually lived upon. The personalities of these fit-into-the-slot girls wouldn't be a refined image of the magnificent companion I can appreciate today.   They would be the logical progression of the girls that came before and after them. If you're trying to fit in more stops between San Diego and Los Angeles, Austin (Texas), no matter how intoxicating Austin lovers swear it is, will never fit.   

Jobs are similar. "If I knew what I know now, I wouldn't have had to fill those wretched positions between 1997 and 2005." But you didn't know then what you know now, and what you did then is what transformed you into who you are now.   

Most of us aren't willing to give that up:  who we are essentially at this very moment.   The core of it. We would prefer that a few minor tweaks be made.

There are always some exceptions. If you're a drug addict now and have, for the last countless number of years, regularly made stupid and destructive decisions that bore no positive impact on yourself or anyone else, you might wish you could be granted a complete do over. There's nothing from your present you wish to salvage. 

But if you're in a mostly good place, you should be thankful for whomever or whatever got you here.  The only things that really matter are where you are now, where you intend to go from here, and if you can get something concrete out of all the experiences along the way. 

I don't feel I have all that much in common with today's youth -- a not very shocking realization when my own parents didn't seem to have much in common with my generation when we were the youth. There's a term for this, the generation gap, and we apply it as if the youth today have radically changed in temperament from the youth we once were. 

But the youth of today aren't all that different.   There are some noticeable changes due to the unique times we grow up in.  At 14-17, the risk of me turning into a social network/gaming/internet addict and pre-Type II diabetic wasn't what a 14-17 year of today faces.  We faced simpler variations of the same problems, like becoming addicted to too much television and eating a little too much processed food. 

The truth is: I don't have much less in common with today's youth any more than I do with my own. It's just a lot easier for me to see my own past self as connected to me and to superimpose present day attributes onto that person I was in the past, a younger, slightly more naive version of who I am now.   That's not an accurate image. 

We can grasp how we've changed physically, from alterations in height, weight, and hair color and style, but the mental changes aren't so easily discernible.  They have to be recreated, from re-reading old journals we may have kept or from unearthing, in retrospect, what kind of frame of mind we had to have been in to have made certain decisions we'd dare not repeat today.   The majority of the time we forget most of the details of our pasts or romanticize them to the point of fiction to get us sanely to where we are in the present.   

The seventy year old understands what it's like to be sixty, fifty, forty, and thirty, and twenty. A twenty year old only understands what it's like to be twenty.  As the twenty year old continues to age, his remembrances of twenty change to adjust to the person he is constantly evolving into, until one day he wakes at 70, a world apart from the man he was at twenty. 

Only he doesn't suddenly wake up.  He was up the entire time but forgot that he was always changing. Don't demonize your past. Thank it.  Every story needs a beginning, and you have the gift of years on your side to constantly remember it differently. 

If you liked reading this, consider:
 The Right Time To Jump Ship
 Economies Of Obsolescence
 The Complete Article Index