A student wrote to me with this question:
Would you restart your life again if you could?
When I was younger (even during my undergraduate days), there were many moments where I wished I could restart my life. But now, I’m very happy with what I have despite the ups and downs, and in spite of all the screw-ups (some of them really major) I’ve made in the past.
What changed over the years? I came to two key realisations over the years.
(1) The first realisation is that progress and success is not linear. When I was much younger, I used to think very simplistically about such matters. It was as if to get anywhere in life, you had to accomplish certain things along a track, e.g. get good grades so that you can do Honours. Get Honours so that you can get a high paying job or enroll in a graduate programme, etc. And if you fail to accomplish any of these steps along the way, you’d derail your path to success. This made me feel like life was very do or die. You either succeed or you fail miserable. So binary!
In my younger days, I screwed up in some ways, and that mode of linear thinking made me wished I could restart my life so that I won’t make those screw ups, so that I could then succeed.
But it’s very myopic! And I soon came to the realisation that a lot of things in life can be achieved even if you don’t succeed in accomplishing the next stage on that linear track. E.g. if I don’t do a Masters or PhD immediately after graduation, I’m not going to lose out (as what some people like to say). I still can do well in my career, which is what’s happening to me now.
(2) The second realisation is that all the experiences I’ve had – the good, the bad, and the ugly – were all essential in shaping me to become the person I am today. I still resent some of the experiences, I still am embarrassed by some of the screw-ups I’ve made in life, e.g. saying the wrong things to people, doing certain things that were imprudent in my youth, etc., I still sometimes wished certain bad things didn’t occur to me. Nonetheless, these events shaped me. It made me more driven, more independent, more creative, and more human.
I’ve contemplating long and hard over the years whether I would be the same person that I am if I were spared some of these bad choices or bad life events. After several years of contemplating this question, my conclusion is that I would be a very different person, shaped by a whole different set of events. And in all honesty, I wouldn’t like the person that I would have become in that alternate timeline.
Of course, it’s very easy to imagine other scenarios where we could have been so much better than we current are and dislike our present situation. But I’d like to offer a different perspective on the matter: the fact that you are able to imagine better versions of yourself or yourself in better situations means that you are in that realm of possibility where it is within reach for you to make it into a reality.
Sure, this sounds like some motivational speech, but let me explain why I say this. We can only imagine what we are aware of and what we know and what we can possibly do. Suppose there’s a new career skill called “actionology.” You’ve never heard of it, and so you cannot imagine yourself doing it. It’s outside your realm of possibility. It cannot yet be actualised until you know what on earth that is. On the contrary, everything else that you can imagine is built from your experiences and knowledge. The fuzzier your imagination of it, the less you know, and hence the further you are in that possibility space. But the more vivid it is in your imagination, the closer you are because you have more experience and knowledge of the matter. That being the case, you are really just a couple of steps away from actualising that imagined possibility. And it is your past and present that has led you up to this moment where that imagined possibility is within reach in that realm of possibility.
So even on days where I sometimes wished I was better in some other way, I wouldn’t want to restart my life, because I know that this recognition of wanting to be better is the product of my past experiences shaping me to this very moment in my life to want to be that better version of myself.