What would you tell your younger self?

Former first lady Michelle Obama wrote a letter to her younger self on the cusp of going off to college.
Former first lady Michelle Obama wrote a letter to her younger self on the cusp of going off to college. (Los Angeles Times)

Michelle Obama. Oprah Winfrey. Bill Gates. They're all remarkable people who have achieved enormous success, and they've each memorably revealed what advice they wish they could give their younger selves.

The former first lady last year advised her younger self in an emotional letter as she leaves for college at Princeton University.


"You're at one of the finest universities in the world. You're smiling, and you should be, you worked hard for this. But even now, after you reached your goal, you're still not quite sure if you belong and can't get one question out of your mind: 'Am I good enough?' ... You're more than enough, Miche. You always have been and you always will be. And I can't wait for you to see that."

If there is one lesson Microsoft founder and philanthropist Gates said he wishes he could impart to his younger self, it would be to learn to recognize and appreciate different talents.


In a series of tweets in 2017, Gates said, "Looking back on when I left college, there are some things I wish I had known. E.g., intelligence takes many different forms. It is not one dimensional. And not as important as I used to think."

He went on to say, "I also have one big regret: When I left school, I knew little about the world's worst inequities. Took me decades to learn."

Oprah Winfrey last year pondered what advice she would give her younger self.

"First of all, it would be relax. It would be stop being afraid. Everything is going to be all right. No matter what, you're going to be OK."

All of us have regrets and lessons learned the hard way, even if some of our lessons might be a bit more mundane and practical than those of Gates, Obama and Winfrey. The idea that our mature selves have wisdom to share with younger selves is commonplace, and two Clemson University psychologists decided to scientifically investigate it.

Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord, created a questionnaire about pivotal life moments and the advice we wish we could give ourselves looking back. Hundreds of Americans over 30 took the survey via Amazon Turk.

When the psychologists analyzed the data, they discovered that the responses tended to cluster around five broad categories of advice.

Relationships (Choose your life partner very carefully.)

Education (Finish college the first time around.)

Selfhood (Follow your own path and not try to please everyone around you.)

Direction and goals (Be more adventurous. Travel more. Live different places.)

Money (Save! Not just short-term for that guitar, but for early retirement.)


The answers closely mirror both anecdotal evidence of what people regret most and scientific research on the topic. For instance, Kowalski and McCord's work is littered with people urging their younger selves to trust themselves more and listen less to what others thought they should do with their lives.

Similarly, a hospice nurse who cared for dying patients reports their most common regret is wishing they'd been more true to their own vision for their lives.

What can you take away from this research for your own life?

First, the fact that the same themes arise over and over (I cannot emphasize enough how often people talk about saving more in the study) suggests that we have a tendency to make similar mistakes when we're young and inexperienced.

By flagging these areas, this research should nudge younger readers to take a longer and more thoughtful look at these parts of their lives.

But even if you've already stumbled into many of the pitfalls this research highlights, it still offers hope.

Some errors, of course, can never be undone. But many can, even if belatedly. Taking your own advice even years later than would have been ideal has significant upsides.

Study subjects agreed that following their own advice would bring them closer to the kind of person they want to be. And those who actually took their own advice said it had helped them become the kind of person their younger self would admire.

This goes with earlier research on the best way to get over regret. Forget beating yourself up or trying to ignore regrets, the research concluded, Instead, take action, however small, to try to become more like the person you want to be.

This latest Clemson study is only preliminary, but the findings suggest at least two key takeaways.

If you're just starting out in your career, think about saving and being true to yourself, two areas in which people often wish they could have a redo.

If you've already stumbled plenty in your life, don't marinate in regret. Instead, take your advice to your younger self and make some changes.

You can't fix every mistake, but doing what you can, even years later, will help you feel more comfortable and confident.

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