An Open Letter To My 18 Year Old Self
When I was in high school I was told that I liked to talk. The less diplomatic phrasing is that I had a big mouth. So I thought it would be fitting to make this conversation about the habit that used to get me in so much trouble.
This is about communication.
I want to share two stories. The first story is about the past and how I think about it. The second story is about the future and what to spend time on.
I’ve developed a process for reflecting on my own journey through life. A little bit about me: I graduated from high school in 2012. I then went to Syracuse University where I switched majors three times before graduating with a degree in Bioengineering. After Syracuse, I lived in New York City for a brief stint before I decided to move to Los Angeles. I still live there today, about five years later.
One of the amazing things about this journey is how many people I've been able to stay in touch with. Technology makes this easy. Products like iMessage, Twitter, Gmail, Facetime, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Instagram have given me a huge number of ways to communicate.
These products are incredibly important for staying in touch with people across the world. With these tools, distance becomes less important when maintaining relationships. Remember this, because we’ll come back to it later.
There is another type of communication that is just as important, but far less popular. All of the products I mentioned above are designed to share information between two or more people. What do we do when we want to send information to ourselves?
Journaling gives us this ability. Unfortunately for us, time only runs in one direction. Just like distance separates friends from each other, time separates us from ourselves. Instead of transmitting information through space to others, journals let us send information through time to ourselves.
I picked up the habit of journaling my freshman year of college and it has served me very well. If I could leave you with one piece of tangible advice today, it would be to take more time to write down a journal or video diary, just do something to capture the way that you are thinking and feeling about the present moment.
This can feel slightly mundane. In the moment, journaling often feels like you're just describing something obvious. But what I found is that writing down even basic facts or feelings about yourself in a journal (or a diary or whatever you want to call it) is a very useful tool for self-reflection. As time passes, details become fuzzy in your own and your friend's memories. Having a written record helps give you perspective when you compare your recollection of events to the way that you felt at the time.
I tend to fall into the unfortunate habit of wondering why I couldn't see something coming. I often wonder why I didn't make a certain decision at specific junctures in my life. Having a journal to reference reminds you that the future is always unknown. While we can make plans for the future (and we should work towards making those plans a reality) there's a large element of randomness in our lives that we have to deal with.
This randomness can be a wonderful thing. It brings new people and experiences into our lives. It also means that it's not possible to predict the future with a hundred percent accuracy. Journaling is a great way to have some form of control over your subjective experience.
I've found that revisiting my journals allows me to see patterns in my own writing. It becomes very obvious what decisions I'm going to make in the future just from reading the way that I'm thinking about things. The hope is the practice of journaling will enable me to better predict and understand myself. This is something that I'll likely continue to work on my whole life. Understanding my own psyche and how I make decisions, especially when I'm emotional or need to make a big choice, is a very useful tool.
My framework for thinking about the future is very simple. Instead of worrying about what will be different, I try to figure out what will be the same. Then I focus my efforts on things that will still be important in 20 years.
One of my biggest regrets from college was allowing myself to be convinced that any interest I didn't share with my immediate circle of friends must not have been legitimate or was strange. It took me a long time after I graduated to break out of this and allow myself to reinvest in things I thought were interesting, even if my friends didn't agree. The desire to conform (or be seen as normal, popular, or cool) is very strong, especially in educational or collegiate settings. If you have an interest or a passion that you don't share with friends or classmates, find a way to explore and express that interest. One great way to do this is through the internet. In fact, you'll very often find a richer experience and community built around these things precisely because there is no one to share them with in person. This has been the case for me and it's made all the difference.
Summarized into one sentence, my entire advice for the future: Use the internet. This is your biggest advantage over previous generations. You are digital natives.
Use it in the same way that you would use a sharp knife. Be aware that if you hold it wrong it may cut you. Not because it's intrinsically dangerous, but because it's a tool that requires training. Use the internet to cultivate friendships with others that you would not be able to meet in person. The internet doesn't care about where you're from or what you look like: it cares about your ideas. Practice expressing your ideas and sharing them with people, even if you don't think they're very good. Find groups of like-minded people who are interested in getting to the truth. Figure out ways to explore your interests that you don't share with people who happen to live near you.
There is a saying: you become like the five people you spend the most time with. When people hear this, they tend to think of their friends. This is sometimes true, but more often the place where you're spending time is online. I spend more than half of my waking hours looking into a screen and talking with people who aren't in the same room as me.
If I had to break down who I spend the most time with it wouldn't be my family or my friends in Los Angeles; it's people who I am able to connect with through a computer. These relationships are no less meaningful than the ones we make in person, but they are underrated. If you can learn how to successfully make new friendships online and take advantage of the massive amount of information while preventing yourself from getting distracted you will have a very successful future. This is something that most people don't learn.
I cannot stress enough how beneficial this has been for me in my career to invest in relationships that other people think are superficial or trivial because they started online. I believe this is the most important form of communication you can master today.