I was looking through some old notes about my goals, and one of them was “help younger versions of me skip the potholes that I fell into.”
Well, what are the potholes? Off the top of my head: Bad diet. Bad sleep. Lack of exercise. Poor social skills. Lack of discipline. Lack of focus. Inability to plan and to execute on my plans.
Here’s what I know about diet, and I’m not an expert. Excessive sugar is a bad thing. When I was a kid I used to eat at McDonald’s all the time, because it was familiar, easy to order. And I guess I was pretty much addicted to carbs and sugar. I used to drink Coke all the time, and eat ice cream, and skittles and cookies and candies of all kinds. I’m amazed that my teeth are somehow still intact.
When I look back on my teenage years a lot of it was literally a blur, especially around ages 16 to 19. I was just constantly sleep deprived, constantly having sugar crashes, constantly irritable. I picked up smoking and I think I used it to help regulate my blood sugar levels. I didn’t eat breakfast, usually because I woke up anxious from not having done my homework the night before – I’d be worried about what sort of trouble I was going to get into at school. And it was just this endless cycle.
Diet was one thing that could have helped that. If I could go back and be a big brother to my younger self, I would get me to eat more proteins and fat, and less carbs. I would eat something more substantial for breakfast every morning – maybe 2-4 soft boiled eggs and a glass of milk.
I slept late all the time because I liked staying up late all the time, because that’s when I felt I had some sort of freedom and control over myself. It was really temporary, and illusion. It was time spent in the Dark Playground. But in those hours I felt “safe”, I felt like “me”. It seems really silly on hindsight but at the time it meant a lot to me. How would I change my mind about that?
Exercise. Oh boy, this is one way I could have made a huge difference. I would go to the gym, but I would only ever do a bunch of upper body stuff. The biggest thing I would do was the bench press – and then I’d do bicep curls, tricep extensions, shoulder raises, things like that. What I should really have been doing is squats, which I was terrified of doing because a part of me thought I was likely to get injured, and a part of me was embarrassed at how skinny and weak my legs were. And so I had a “looking for my keys under the streetlights” problem – I avoided doing the thing that most needed doing, and instead focused on minor things that felt more comfortable. As a result I feel like I’m years behind in terms of how fit I could be. I started doing squats late last year and it was life-changing. There’s something about squats – it uses the most muscle groups, it puts weight on the spine, it stresses the body fully in some good way – I don’t know the precise science of it, but it just makes me feel really good. It makes me feel stronger in a very fundamental way. It increases my testosterone levels, I’m sure.
Lack of discipline. It would be disingenous for me to tell my younger self to study harder, because the things I’m doing in life now are completely unrelated to what I did in school. In fact, if I could go back in time, I’d spend even less time in school, and less time worrying about my grades and whatnot. What I should’ve done instead, though, is be more discplined in pursuit of my own interests. I was interested in playing the guitar – I could have made a lot more progress and become a much better musician through some deliberate practice. In fact this is still something that applies to me – I still have so much of progress to make as a musician. I mean, there’s always progress to be made, but I haven’t even really plateaued as a limit of my abilities – I’ve plateaued because I’ve been too lazy to take the trouble to be focused and disciplined about what I need to learn.
If you think about it, progress is quite simple. It isn’t complicated or mythical at all. Progress is simply being able to do more than you were able to do better. If it’s in the context of a single piece, it’s being able to say more with it, being able to emote it more strongly. Being able to do more with less, and so on.
Inability to plan and to execute on my plans – I’ve only made some progress on this, and I’ve made it very recently, but I think it’s enough to inform my past self a little better. The big mistake I made over and over again, and continue to make now, is to try to plan too big, too large. That’s setting myself up for failure. If you can’t run 2.4km, there’s no point trying to run a marathon. You’ll just be overwhelmed, disappointed, see nothing but red flags, red scores, failures. If you can’t make and execute big plans, that’s fine. Make and execute small ones. Plan your next 5 minutes, and achieve that. Then plan your next 10 minutes, and achieve that. Do those little things over and over. If that sounds stupid to you, just do it anyway. Just keep increasing the scale and scope of your plans incrementally, and execute them in a tight feedback loop. It’s like playing a video game – you can’t just jump into level 50 and hope to get it through trial-and-error. There’s simply too much to handle, and you’re going to screw it up every single time. You need to work your way up from level 1. If you think you’re better than starting from level 1, demonstrate your finesse by blazing through it with an epic speedrun.
Poor social skills. I recommend reading the 48 Laws of Power – not because you want to have power over others, but because you want to have power over yourself. That’s really the only power you ever really have. You want to see how you’re affecting other people, how other people are perceiving your supposedly clever or important actions. And you’ll realize that you’re not as big as you thought, you’re not as important as you thought, and most people have a less-than-positive impression of you. And if you want to achieve great, cool things, you’re going to need to win people over. That requires humility. That requires listening.