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. starting now?
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 my own. 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 arrives. 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 later.
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 with myself? 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 close. 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 certainly hate! 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 sort of misguided advice to teenagers he knows fully forty years later – now it revolves around becoming a doctor!). 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, many 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 me?…
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.Also, time passes much faster than we realize. When we are young, we think we have forever. By the time we reach middle age, we realize how little time we have left.
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 be cause 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 make 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 future.
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 relocation.
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 an 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 Harvard university education to take advantage of the immediate opportunity that presented itself. What do you think his parents had to say about that? 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 to you. But the question really is: what are YOU going to do with this information, in your life?…