What are some important insights you would give to a younger version of yourself?

I recently watched an older TED talk on Youtube, and after watching it, realized there was a comment beneath it, written by me, 10 years ago:

This is frustrating. I have all the possibilities to live a great successful life, but I just don’t have any idea how to keep my motivation up over time.

This surprised me. Not only because it’s a bit unexpected to watch a random Youtube video only for it to end up being a window to your personal past, but also because I had pretty much forgotten about my frustrations at that time. When I wrote that comment, I was around 20. And reading it made me think a lot: 30 year old me really doesn’t struggle with the same issues anymore. Why is that? What am I doing differently? How did I get here? Did I do this, or was I just lucky? If I were granted a conversation with 20 year old me, what would I tell him? Could I in any way accelerate that journey from frustrated-me back then to a more satisfied version of myself? What words would I need to say for past-me to be able to apply everything I’ve learned since?

This admittedly is not a very original question. I’ve come across a whole lot of “what do you wish you had known when you were 18?” type posts, videos, lists and comments over the years. And I’m sure there are some on lesswrong as well. Although, surprisingly, I didn’t find anything too close despite using a whopping three different search terms – surely that justifies a new post on the topic.

So, I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts, and would phrase the question this way:

What are the three most important pieces of information which you could give 10-years-ago-you that could positively influence their life?

I’m of course not referring to random trivia about the time since, such as “Invest in Bitcoin/​Tesla/​Zoom”, but rather “robust” knowledge that would be likely to be useful in most possible futures of your past self. Also, these tips may be pretty specific to your situation back then and not apply to others. This is fine, no need for generalization here.

What follows is my attempt to answer the question for myself.

Firstly: Separate your drive/​motivation/​actions from visible immediate results.

Find some intermediate steps to create motivation. Experiment with small (randomized) rewards, track your progress visually, derive motivation from reaching goals even if they’re just numeric in nature and don’t immediately correlate to anything you fundamentally care about (e.g. “do 50 pushups throughout one day” may be a decent milestone, even if it has no visible effect on your health or looks).

Identify all good aspects of a desired behavior that you can. For instance “going to work by bike” comes with a whole number of advantages, some of which aren’t quite obvious:

  • It’s healthy

  • It’s cheaper than taking the car

  • It doesn’t wear down the car

  • It’s fun

  • It wakes me up in the morning

  • It’s a great way to get my mind off work when driving home

  • It’s better for the environment

  • It solidifies self image as an active person

  • It sends positive signals to society

  • The route is nicer than the one I’d be taking by car

  • I’m less affected by traffic

  • Biking in bad weather increases my resilience

  • Taking the bike in the morning may start a success spiral for the day

You can find a lot of reasons for doing pretty much anything once you’ve decided you want to do it. Such rationalization may not be great from an epistemic standpoint, but can be pretty handy instrumentally.

Feeling motivated is not a necessary precondition to doing something. In the end pretty much everything comes down to physical or mental actions. Realize it’s possible to go through all these action steps however you feel about them. Sadly, I’m aware this whole statement is most likely not useful and will not change anything except maybe adding to the guilt of not doing what you desire to do. Maybe 40 year old me will have an answer to this dilemma.

When motivation does hit however, use it not merely to do the thing, but to make doing the thing easier in the future.

Secondly: You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

This is probably one of the most relevant nuggets of insight I got from reading Atomic Habits. Goal setting can be very useful and give you some valuable direction, but it’s not the primary lever that steers behavior. You don’t get more productive merely by increasing the magnitude of your goals.

What I was missing in my early 20s was a reliable system, a system that kept me on track and which I could trust. A good system keeps you accountable to yourself. It allows developing trust between present and future-you. Something needs to get done in the future? Find a way to ensure this happens, so you can trust in your system and future-you working things out, instead of having to constantly unproductively worry about it. In order to have justified trust in the system working in the future, it’s vital to follow the system today as well.

Related to this, find good tools. Be it trello, workflowy, notion, roam, beeminder, google calendar, notepad, the todo app on your phone, or physical sticky notes: however your system looks, there are tools that do a better job at supporting it than others, and maybe you’re not yet using the most suitable one. Past-me had neither a system nor any particular tool that would help with self-organization.

Thirdly and somewhat ironically: There is no piece of information that will fix your life.

In a way this is what I’m (hypothetically) trying to do here, yet it seems pretty obvious to me that it’s not going to work, at least not in the way past-me would probably have hoped. The way I see it, such information might accelerate the process to a degree: I know what has worked for me, so maybe I can at least spare past-me some searching. But at the same time it seems somewhat essential to actually experience things and learn things over time. In 99% of cases, you don’t change via some spontaneous insight provided from the outside, but very gradually over time through your actions and their consequences.

One implication of this is that reading whole books can be (depending on the book of course) much more valuable than just going through a summary. It’s not just about the concrete points these books make. It’s about bathing your brain in these ideas long enough for it to remember and internalize them, to combine them and apply them to your own situation. The value of a book lies not primarily in the conclusions the author has come to, but also in the way and the reasons they got there in the first place, and the meaning all of this has to you personally.

Realize that the person you are today is very likely in most regards the same person you’ll be a year from now. Don’t rely on future-you to be somehow “better” or different. There won’t be some mysterious change in the future, turning you into a different person that suddenly gets things done. You must behave in the way you desire to.