Although it’s true that you can’t change the past, and
“there’s no use crying over spilled milk”, there is
nevertheless much value in pondering your life with a view
to seeing the mistakes you have made. In this way, you can
avoid making similar mistakes in the future. You can also
learn to accept responsibility for what you have in your
life, and the fact that you yourself created it through the
things you did, or left undone.
Hence, in this article and several others that will follow, I
will make some very candid confessions about mistakes and
regrets of my own; the sort of things that I wish I had a time
machine to go back and correct. I don’t, of course, but some of
these lessons might help you if you are currently in the same
place in life as I was, or likely to be headed that way.
They say that people’s biggest deathbed regret is that they
never took more risks in life. I believe that it is already
I truly believe that it is critical for a person to follow
his/her dream rather than simply pursuing the safe
compromise first, with the mistaken notion of pursuing that
dream at some later date. Maybe it sounds very reasonable.
However, dreams have a habit of turning as stale and useless
as bread left out on the shelf for too long. It will almost
certainly never happen.
The time for action is always NOW, and not later; “once I
get my degree”, or “once I get that job”, or “once the kids
have grown up” or “once I retire”, and so on. Someday never
When I was around sixteen years old, and trying to decide
which three subjects to study at advanced level prior to
university, my father told me “You should do the Sciences,
because there’s always a job in it. You can always do English
This is THE moment I wish I could have a time machine to
reach. You see, it’s probably some of the worst advice I
have ever received because it set the course for a future
that cannot now be changed. Now, I’m not blaming my father
for saying this. The fact is that the vast majority of
parents usually end up saying something very similar to
their children. They are well meaning and truly believe that
what they are saying is for the best. Besides, I should have
had enough presence of mind back then to be making some
clear plans for the rest of my life. What DID I want to do
Yes, it seems like good advice. However, it really is not.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that one should
always be wary of taking advice that seeks to limit your
potential in any way, or postpones your dreams to some
indefinite future date. You should also consider
carefully the experience and qualification of whomever is
giving you the advice. People who give this sort of advice
have almost certainly never lived their dreams. Not even
Parents often mean well, but speak from their own negative
experiences, failures and disappointments. Hence, the
ceiling they have placed on themselves to keep them safe
from pain is the same ceiling that they rush to place over
their children’s heads.
However, absolutely nobody can say for certain what someone
else is capable, or how high that person could fly. Your
experience is not my experience. Your father’s
disappointments and setbacks are not your own. Take a sample
of successful and famous people, and you will find that the
correlation factor between them and their parents is
extremely low. So how can anyone know what potential their
child might hold?
This was an important moment in my life because it set me on
a course that become ever more hardened in stone as the
years went by, to the point where true change became
extremely difficult. You see, at age sixteen, I had suffered
the mixed blessing of having done equally excellently in ALL
my exams from Arts to Sciences. Hence, I was undecided about
my future direction.
However, what I had forgotten was that I was not equally
talented in all of these subjects. Whilst the Arts came to
me easily, especially writing, the Sciences did not. I had
to work like crazy at the latter to achieve the same
excellent grades as the former.
Somehow, I forgot this, took his advice, and went the
Sciences route, to my endless regret. Frankly, this route
became ever harder as the years passed, and my interest
waned in proportion. Through some miracle, I ended up
getting a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics! However, I had to have
been one of the most untalented and uninterested physicists
in the world! I was sweating blood, and the light at the end
of the tunnel seemed very very far away during each day of
those three long postgraduate years.
Also, one little thing they don’t tell you is that, yes,
there may be a job in the “practical” route at the end of
the day, but it may not be a job that you would ever want
to do. That was my dilemma after six years at university. I
found myself perfectly qualified to do jobs I would
Meanwhile, throughout my six years in university, I was
wearing strange brightly colored striped trousers, pointed
shoes, hanging out with the English students, being the
local expert on Bob Dylan, and reading and composing poetry!
I hardly met a Physics student outside of lectures. Talk
about missing your vocation?!…
The point of all this is not now to blame my father for his
advice (although he is STILL giving this misguided advice to
teenagers he knows, fully thirty years later). Rather, the
point is that we should find out what our strengths are,
what our dreams and loves are, and follow THOSE.
Nobody else can know what you are capable of, and you should
not let anyone else rob your dream, or clip your wings,
based solely upon their personal failures or
disappointments. They may mean well, and be trying to keep
you from harm, but nobody else can know your true potential
for sure. You probably don’t even know it yourself. The fact
that someone else is crawling along under a self-imposed
two-foot high ceiling does not mean you have to stoop over
and do the same.
For me personally, the price has been spending years – no,
a decade or more – doing stuff that did not interest me
much. Sure, thirty years later, I am now doing a whole lot
more writing (such as this article). Ahhh… But what might
have been? What if I had spent that decade doing something I
actually cared about; something that actually interested
You see, it is very hard to change the course of an oil
tanker. It takes many miles of open ocean to do it. And it
takes an enormous amount of effort to change your course of
having done something totally different for a decade or
more. That is why people should consider their course very
carefully at crucial points in their lives.
Of course, you cannot know the future or what any decision
might bring. But at least you can ask yourself, does THIS
decision I am making now have full integrity behind it? Am I
doing it because I want to do it, or because I don’t know
any better, and have to decide one way or the other? Am I
doing it because I think it is a good idea, or because
someone else does? If the latter, what qualifications does
that person have to advise me? Once this decision is made,
how easily can it be changed?
There is a school of thinking that says that you do not have
to make the right decision, but “you do have to make every
decision right”. In other words, you may make a wrong
decision, but then you need to work like crazy to make it
come out right.
Yes, that is true. However, some decisions have a very
binding effect and are hard to live with later on. Hence, it
behooves you to be more AWARE of what you are doing at these
critical forks in the road, and be aware of the forces that
are at work within you and upon you as you ponder your
The fact is that you cannot go back in time to make things
better. And in making careless decisions, you may find that
it can take a decade or more of corrective action to put it
right. In my case, it was a direction of study. In your
case, it might be a marriage, or a career decision, or a
Remember that the only risky route is the safe route. Life
itself is risk incarnate. Remember the Muslim girl who fled
the Middle East to escape the bombings and terrorism, only
to be one of the rare few to be blown up on that bus in the
London bombings of July 7th 2005?…
So, you cannot avoid risk. If you try to do so, all you will
get is a lifetime of regret and wishful musing. At all
points, the best advice that anybody can give you is to find
your dream (which is NOT easy in itself for most people)
and then follow it with all your heart. There is a strange
power in doing so, and the universe moves to help you.
Most of the people who make it big in life were not
“qualified” to do so. You don’t need a university degree to
be successful. You just don’t. Often, a university degree
excellently qualifies you to do nothing. Still more often,
you become qualified enough to be a follower, not a leader.
The education system is designed to turn out employees, who
let others do their thinking and deciding for them; not
entrepreneurs who do all this for themselves.
Even a high-school dropout can start a company. Indeed, many
of them end up far MORE successful than those who go to
university: the latter often end up working for them!
Bill Gates actually terminated his university education to
take advantage of the immediate opportunity that presented
itself. Bob Dylan hopped onto a train bound for New York
with only some spare cash in his pocket.
So what are YOU going to do to live your dream today? That
is the key question. I have shared some of my insights and
wistful musings with you. I hope that they have been useful
But the question really is: what are YOU going to do with
this information, in your life … starting now?