What would you say to yourself 20 years ago?

This is an unusual week for me — I’m at the Aspen Institute sessions on the future of journalism beginning of the week (blogging to come; still synthesizing some), and tomorrow I’m heading to Princeton for an even more unusual event called Adventures of the Mind. It’s a program that collects ~150 super-high potential high school students and brings in interesting people to talk as mentors & such. There will be about 30-40 mentors, including a number of Nobel prize winners in science, poet laureates, very successful educators, thinkers & business folks — and me.

So here’s the question I have for everyone: if you had 10 minutes to talk to, you know, someone like you 20 years earlier, what would you do with that 10 minutes?


  1. I hope that someone records those mentoring sessions, and then posts these for the world to see. I suspect these would be as valuable as TED Talks.
    Yes, your talk, too, John.

  2. Me, 20 years ago? Probably something along the lines of, “Don’t be so competitive. Stop taking everything so seriously. Learn to relax and goof around and be silly as hell. Laugh as much and as often as possible. Never, ever forget the pure joy of learning. Eventually you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who are smarter than you, and it’ll be the best thing ever – revel in it.”

  3. 1. Adopt a growth mindset (read the book from carol dweck)

    2. Try to spent 25% of your time helping others

    3. Find something you love to do

    4. Learn to be patient

    5. Do not be afraid to take risks

    6. Try to be in the top 25% in 2 or 3 different domains

  4. This will likely end up sounding more negative than intended, but I would attempt to convey that big failures can be a whole lot more valuable and important than successes. If you completely fail at something and subsequently use it as a motivation to redouble your efforts and learn from what went wrong, you’ll end up achieving a lot more than if you had quickly become content with an early victory. This message is particularly valuable for people who have just had a sequence of early victories, because they are probably about to hit a major failure. Tell them that when they look back in 20 years that a significant failure is simply going be a inflection point, and ideally it is going to be one that gives them an even better trajectory.

    (ironic subtext: John may or may not be aware that the author of this comment didn’t even make it past the very first phone screen for an internship in Trilogy’s Design group 🙂

  5. I’d tell the 18 year old me that you can more easily have a large number of children (and all the joys that follow from that) if you start younger than you can if start later when you have less energy.

    This advice can be taken too far, of course. Almost no one should start a family as a teen-ager.

    The point is: if you want to have a family some day, be careful not to put it off too long for career or other purposes.

  6. It’s always good to start a story with a picture:

    This is me, winning the 6th grade spelling bee at Jones Middle School, in Upper Arlington, OH.

    I would give myself a high five, because when I was 13, I thought I had to become a doctor and I didn’t think that playing with technology and figuring out how it could make life better would be something that a person would get paid to do. Other things that 13 year old me would dig: my collection of radio control cars and the ability to buy any video game I want without going bankrupt.

    Getting married to a wonderful woman would have been utterly beyond my 13-year-old ken, as well as moving to the Silicon Valley I read about in books and saw printed in the Cupertino addresses on the back of all my Apple II manuals.

    So I’d say nothing and just watch from afar, because while we do make mistakes, the life I lead today is too precious to risk.

    Also see- the Naussican scenario from Star Trek TNG

  7. My comments to myself would all be fairly mundane like “Don’t get married at 22 because you won’t know who you are yet” and “Go ahead and go to graduate school early because you will still want to do it 20 years later.”

    My problem is that I know I wouldn’t listen to any of my own advice. Youth is headstrong.

  8. Learn to listen to others and learn from what they have to say.

  9. Passion above all else for whatever you do

    Be Like Cream…Be The Best at what you do….when you do, you’ll also rise to the top.

    You will always be a student. Always be in “learning mode”. Always ask questions and add to your knowledge. Seek out new ideas and new ways of applying what you learn

    Teach others about your passion and what you’ve learned.

    Make a difference. Somehow. Someway. And especially to someone else.

    Keep perspective on what’s “really important” and make sure to remind yourself on a regular basis.

    Focus on the present. Planning your future is very limiting on living for today, a bit too introspective and selfish, and limits you from doing all the more important things above (being passionate, making a difference, teaching others)

  10. I’ve thought about this so much… too bad we can never go back.. i’d probably tell myself to party less and focus more on my future so I wouldn’t have to be overworking myself now. I’m a focused student at 32 and wish I had the same focus when I was younger. But we must always learn from our mistakes.