There are always things you wish you’d known ahead of time. For example, I wish I knew when the market was about to crash or when Steve Jobs had the idea to make the iPhone. But that’s just wishful thinking. Often, when someone asks you about something you wish you had known before, your mind naturally navigates toward something that would increase your material security. How many times, though, do you stop and ponder about how your life would’ve been different if you had an insight about some issues you face today, or, at least, the consequences of those things? That is the idea I’m exploring in this article—the things I wish I knew and how I believe my life could’ve been different had I known them ahead of time and done something about it.
I Wish I Knew You Can’t Turn Back Time
When I was young, I don’t remember thinking about the finite notion of time. At that early age, up until my late twenties, time just seemed to stretch ahead of me forever. It almost seemed like I can’t go wrong no matter what I did because there was enough time to fix everything.
Obviously, that is untrue, and the older I got, the more that became clear. So, one might then ask the question: When you are young, how do you know the things that you should know? The answer is, unfortunately, that you don’t. You can’t.
The second problem is the youth’s arrogance about their choices. To open your eyes to the things that you don’t know early in your life, you’d have to be able to project yourself into the future and look back with a critical eye. But that would mean questioning your current path and decisions.
At that young age, we all feel a bit arrogant about the road we take, so having a reflection at that time is pretty damn hard. Your eye is on the future, not on the past and, for sure, not on the present.
So, it’s to no surprise that, much like most people, here I am in my mid-forties pondering on the things that I wish I knew when I was younger. It seems like a waste of time, in a way, but it’s not. That’s because it’s never too late to gain self-awareness and start fixing past mistakes.
The 13 Things I Wish I Knew Early On
Before I start with my list, let me just say this: I have not based this compilation on research, and it doesn’t contain some sort of theoretical itemization of those things that I think one should know ahead of time. Instead, this is a pure list based on my reflection on my life.
This list below is personal to me, and it’s a result of many years of self-discovery. It didn’t come to me overnight; it came from experiences, pain, and struggle.
I hope that by reading this list, you might become curious to do your reflection and analysis and come up with your own list.
1 It’s Okay to Make Mistakes and Fail
I grew up terrified of making mistakes. I don’t know if it resulted from some sort of deeply-rooted perfectionism or perhaps the fact that I wasn’t that brilliant in school, which meant I had to compensate everywhere else.
Today I believe failure should never be a goal itself, but we all need to accept it as an integral part of reaching a goal.
The more you fear failure, or fear rejection for that matter, the fewer opportunities you will embrace, and you will do anything in your power to shield yourself from risks.
The way to reframe my mind so many years later was to say out loud: “I don’t know everything.” To learn, I must try, experiment, and accept that the unknown will be met with failure every so often. So, I might as well fail more and fail fast because each failure brings me one step closer to success.
That goes hand in hand with the concept of starting before you feel ready. I think my whole life has been clouded by this idea of putting all the pieces in place before I move to the next step. The problem with that way of thinking is that you never feel ready, so you never move forward.
- Be okay with failure and mistakes.
- Accept that failure is a natural part of your growth.
- Learn from failures and mistakes and apply those lessons in life.
- Actively seek places where you might fail and go there wholeheartedly.
2 Express Your Feelings and Be Vulnerable
This one’s a tough one for me. During my childhood, there were several people in my life whom I thought had everything figured out. My grandfather, my dad, my grandmother, to name just a few. They always seemed like “rocks.” They took care of business, and nothing seemed to stand in their way.
So, that external appearance of an “iron man” was the image I thought I must project for people to take me seriously. To prove to the world that I am worthy, I cannot let them see any of my weaknesses. In time, that mentality translated into equating vulnerability with weakness.
The problem is that when you suppress those feelings and emotions that you believe might make the people around you think that you don’t have it all figured out, you also contain other emotions as well.
Your brain cannot distinguish between them, and, all of a sudden, your range of emotions gets narrower and narrower up to the point where it seems like you don’t feel anything anymore.
The reality is that vulnerability creates connection. Being able to open yourself up and spell out when you are in pain, when you are struggling, or need help brings you closer to those who love you and care for you. Nobody wants to live next to a rock.
By allowing others to enter your world—your full world—you invite them in and begin to strengthen those relationships.
- Vulnerability is not weakness.
- When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you strengthen your relationships.
- Through vulnerability and expression of emotions, you learn more about yourself and grow.
- Vulnerability opens conversations, but you must vulnerable only with the people you trust.
3 Don’t Worry About What Others Think
Oh boy, if I could just erase this damning thing from my life, I wonder where I’d be. Have you ever sneezed really loud on the subway, and then, all of a sudden, it seems like everyone in the car is looking at you?
Yeah, it turns out, nobody gives a shit, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. You see, it’s natural to imagine that you are, somehow, at the center of the Universe, and everything else revolves around you. But, the older you get, the more you realize that everyone is the same. To paraphrase some old joke, “Never forget that you are unique. Just like everybody else.”
Everyone is worried about themselves. Everybody has some kind of plan and goals. We are all different, and it’s okay to be different. The more you worry about what other people think, the more you’ll be stuck in place trying to figure out what they want or need from you.
Some people are deeply invested in your life, such as your family and your close friends. With them, it’s okay to get to a consensus on some issues, so long as you are sure they have good intentions.
But most people that you meet in your daily life have no investment in you whatsoever. Yet, you still give them the same power over you.
If you condition every action in your life and try to arrange it so that it doesn’t upset or offend anyone, soon enough, you won’t be able to take any action. Because you are not a mind reader, you cannot know what people think. But your brain will start to make those things up.
A strange look from a person, now you start to feel self-conscious. A reprimanding email from your boss, now you spend hours editing your emails to make sure you don’t mess up again. You’re frozen.
It’s time to unfreeze yourself.
- Create a life plan and focus on that plan.
- Don’t worry about what everybody else is thinking.
- Seek and take feedback only from those you intimately trust.
- However, not worrying about what others think doesn’t mean you get a carte blanche to be an asshole.
- Be a decent human being, and follow your vision and goals.
4 Not Everyone Has to Like You
This one is closely related to the one above, but it goes one step further in its insanity. Not only do you worry about what people think, but now you also make all efforts possible to make sure that everyone around you likes you. Why? Are you so damn precious?
Well, the idea is that if everybody likes you, they must accept you. The more you are accepted, the less likely it is for people to judge you. The fewer people judge you, the less you will face conflict and push back. After all, even if you fuck up royally, a person who already likes you a lot won’t be that mad, right?
Wrong. People adjust their expectations to the situation, and they will sniff you out for being unauthentic. The amount of energy you spend managing your image in front of everyone is energy you can’t use toward your goals and dreams.
On top of that, trying to be Mr. or Ms. Perfect all the time will actually drive people away. Combine this with not being vulnerable and the disconnect between who you think you are and who the people around you perceive you to be becomes a gaping hole.
- It’s okay to have conflicts, even if that means some people might be upset with you.
- Conflicts create ideas, and once the battle is over, bonds are stronger.
- You are not perfect, and nobody expects you to be. Learn how to be yourself.
- You must like yourself; for everybody else, it’s optional. Accept that.
- When you stand up to people, you gain respect.
5 Take Calculated Risks
I’ve always been a risk-averse person. I’m not sure why. Maybe I grew up in a society where there was not a lot of room for risk. My country, Romania, was under communism for most of my childhood and adolescence. So, I guess I grew up learning to get whatever was in front of me and try my best not to break the rules.
The reality is that no matter how much you try to manage your life to avoid uncertainty, you won’t be able to eliminate it. And the problem with that is that you’ll be hit by the relentless uncertainty when you less expect it, regardless of all the walls you build to protect yourself.
So, instead of hiding away from uncertainty, embrace it. Accept that it’s a part of life, and as you grow older, life only gets more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, or VUCA, as the US Army calls it.
The best you can do is manage expectations and set goals that drive you forward through calculated risks. That doesn’t mean being reckless but testing the waters and understanding that you can’t prevent everything no matter how many precautions you take. So, you might as well go for it.
- Uncertainty will never go away.
- Things will only get more uncertain as life goes on.
- Learn to embrace uncertainty and take calculated risks.
- Practice taking risks in areas that are not life-critical until you improve that skill.
6 Save Early for Financial Security
This one stings badly for me. That’s because I am a financial professional who’s been actively working in finance and banking for over twenty-five years. That means that concepts such as compound interest and dividends are evident to me.
So why is this on the list? Because knowing something theoretically and understanding its applicability to your own life are two different things.
For the first fifteen years of my life, I never saved a dime. Why? I don’t know. There was no vision back then. I had no goals, no ideas about the future. I was coasting life.
Today, looking back, I realize how much of a mistake that was. If I had a time machine, I’d rush back to me at twenty-two and slap myself really hard. “Save 10% of your income, moron. Every month. Invest it wisely. Use your damn knowledge and apply it to your life. Don’t be an idiot.”
- Start saving money as early as you can.
- Put a minimum of 10% of your income into a diversified portfolio of investments.
- Compound interest is your best financial friend.
- Invest in passive income opportunities early on.
- Maximize your pension contributions every year.
7 Nurture Your Relationships
Paraphrasing Simon Sinek, we are our relationships. Our life is made rich by the people around us, much like we enrich their experiences with our presence. You don’t live in a vacuum, and neither does everyone else.
Although I’ve always had good friends, and to this day, I am still very close to my colleagues from school, I’ve always kept people at arm’s length. I never got to know my friends well enough, and I maintained most of my relationships at a rather superficial level.
Even with my family, I’ve never been the warm and fuzzy guy who reaches out and tries to understand the problems of those around me.
I lived most of my life inside my head, preoccupied with my own thoughts and ideas. As a result of that, I feel like I’ve lost touch with many people, or at least, I haven’t shown my love and care in the way that I should.
This is one of the most critical things I wish I knew ahead of time, and now I wish I had a magic wand to go back in time and rectify all that.
- Be the one who reaches out to friends.
- Do little things that make someone’s day.
- Say I love you.
- Hug someone.
- Call your mom.
8 Saying No Is Okay
This one is a kind of a subset of the two above (not everyone has to like you, and don’t worry about what others think), but it merits its own point because it’s huge.
You see, when you are a people-pleaser, such as yours truly here, you will always aim to be the hero. That’s your way of shining and creating “love” for yourself. If you say yes to everything and everyone and then do it, people must appreciate you. They have no choice, right?
Wrong again. Yes, people will have beautiful things to say about you, but that doesn’t create a lasting bond. It only works so far as your abilities and capacity to do things.
But what if you are asked to do something that you don’t know or can’t do? Or if too many people ask you too many things at the same time?
Then what? You’re screwed. Now you will agonize about figuring out a way to solve it because you simply cannot break that shallow image that you’ve created as the one who gets shit done.
You can’t please everyone. That’s a fact. You should stop trying to please everyone because the more you try, the only person you will lose is yourself.
Instead, create standards for yourself. Create boundaries. Learn how to say no to people and only say yes when you have to.
- Have standards and live up to them.
- Set your boundaries and make them loud and clear.
- A No doesn’t break a relationship. If it does, there was none, to begin with.
- Practice saying no more often and deal with the consequences. You’re a grown-up.
9 Be Authentic and Don’t Lie
Here’s another one that goes hand in hand with a few of the items above. The more you try to manage your image in front of others because you care what they think and don’t want to upset them, the more you lose your identity. You start to force yourself to become (or pretend to be) the person they want you to be.
You lose your authenticity and your sense of self. As a result of that, you start to live the life that others have envisioned for you, instead of chasing your vision.
Also, the more you try to make sure that others around you like you and appreciate you, the more you try your best not to upset them. You do this by holding back your thoughts.
If you believe something on your mind might bother a person, you’ll hold it to yourself. That’s the same as lying. You are not helping that person by keeping your mouth shut; you are enabling them. That’s wrong, and it’s only one tiny step away from manipulation.
The more you try to manage the truth, the more you live inside your head. And the more you do that, the less sensitive you’ll be to other people’s feelings and emotions. Soon enough, you’ll spend all your energy managing your image, and you’ll completely lose your connection to those who love you.
Look, I know some things are hard to tell. Some truths hurt. But if you were on the other side, would you prefer a person lied to you and kept you oblivious and complacent, or would you like them to tell you the truth? You see, the truth opens up room for change. Lies and lack of authenticity promote complacency and obliviousness.
- Be authentic: admit to yourself and others who you are.
- Own your flaws.
- Speak your mind, but do so with love and care.
- You can be direct so long as you do so with empathy and understanding.
- Don’t lie. Don’t ever lie.
10 Seek Role Models Not Competitors
When I was a child, growing up in a country under a totalitarian regime that denied its people even the most basic needs, I remember being jealous a lot. Not in a romantic way but in a “why can’t I have more stuff” kind of way. Back then, we used to get some glimpses of the outside world through clandestine media, and I remember feeling resentful toward “them.” Them out there who had everything.
Jealousy of any kind is, in general, a damning feeling that rots you at your core and prevents you from moving forward. Instead of letting myself fall prey to those emotions, I now realize that I should’ve actively looked at everything out there as a source of inspiration, not as a cause of jealousy.
By deliberately looking for people who know more, have more, have done better, I would have access to their nuggets of knowledge and apply them to my own life. One element that I now find especially critical is never to compare myself to others. Instead, I must look at those who’ve done better as a source of inspiration.
The only person you should compare yourself to is yourself from yesterday. If you have improved by 0.01%, you’ve done an excellent job.
As for the rest, seek mentors and people you can learn from. Their experience and success should be nothing more than a catalyst and motivation.
- Be inspired, not jealous.
- Don’t compare yourself to others.
- Compare yourself to you.
- Look for role models and find mentors to guide you.
11 Invest in Yourself
Once I finished college, I was eager to be done with formal learning, and I took a few years off from learning new things. During that time, I did teach myself programming, and I had to do some on-the-job training, but that was it. And if you think about it, that was all mental training: nothing but skills.
There was no emotional training and definitely no effort to understand my strengths and weaknesses. It was a lot of trying to push my strengths forward blindly and cover-up my shortcomings. That, combined with a fear of taking any risks, meant that I lived in a very narrow comfort zone.
That all started to change about six years ago when I first started to do some reflection and self-discovery. Since then, lots have changed, but I can only imagine where I would’ve been if I had started this process early.
This has spawned this idea in my head that none of us should ever stop learning. The more you learn, the more chances you have to be successful. Thinking that you know enough is arrogant and plain wrong.
- Never stop learning.
- You don’t know everything, and you never will. But you can always try.
- Consistently push your body, mind, and heart out of the comfort zone.
- Continue to invest in your growth (money, time, energy) for as long as you live.
- As you grow and improve, remember to stop and help those around you.
12 Keep Your Health in Check
Did you ever feel immortal during your early twenties? Well, maybe not immortal-immortal, but you know what I mean. That feeling that no matter what, tomorrow morning, you’ll be anew, and all the shit you’ve done the day before won’t matter anymore?
Yep. The problem is that it does matter. Your health left unchecked decays slowly and silently, underneath the shiny armor you keep on the outside. One day, soon enough, you’ll start to feel the effects. At first, you’ll deny them and double down on the crap you put your body through.
For most of us, it probably takes a visit to the doctor to snap you out of it, but by the time you get to that doctor, it might be too late. The damage is permanent or, at least, really hard to reverse.
Do you know how many times I wished I could go back and slap that first cigarette out of my hand when I was seventeen? I smoked for only seven years, and I quit right around my twenty-fifth birthday, but it was enough to inflict long-lasting issues.
I realize that every crap I put my body through in my twenties takes about double the time to reverse. Over the past five years, I’ve been aggressively working on my health, but think about it: I was forty years old when I started to care. Holy crap. That’s freaking late. It’s half my life, if I’m lucky.
Don’t ignore your health. It’s at the base of everything.
- Keep your health in check. You are not immortal.
- Exercise, eat healthy food and see a doctor once a year for a wellness check.
- Don’t let stuff add up; it will be hard, if not impossible, to reverse.
- Don’t poison your body or mind.
13 Learn to Listen
This one goes hand in hand with maintaining good relationships. You see, I’m a problem solver. I am. If you come to me with a question, my brain goes into crunch mode in 0.1 seconds. I immediately take your situation, dissect it, chart it, map it out, and attempt to figure out the best course to go from point A (your pain) to point B (no pain).
I don’t even care if you want that. It’s what I want. See how much of a joy I am?
Simon Sinek gave a great speech a while back in which he explained why it is critical to be the last one to talk. I, on the other hand, have always been not only not the last one to speak, but I’ve also been for most of my life that annoying person who finishes your sentences because he believes he knows precisely what you were about to say.
And, by the way, I also knew what you meant before you said it; I was 100% sure about how you were going to say it, and here’s what I think you should do about it. Problem solved. Thank you.
Damn… Imagine that. Some people don’t even have to imagine because they’ve met me before… Oh, boy!
If somebody would’ve only told me when I was young about the power of empathic listening and that people sometimes simply want to be heard. Understood. That sometimes, they simply want to unload and look into somebody’s eyes and see that they get it. That someone understands their pain at that moment. And maybe they simply want to hear: “I hear you. I’m here for you.”
From this entire list, this is probably the one issue I still struggle with the most to this day.
- Empathic listening creates a connection.
- Be humble and allow people to talk.
- Don’t problem-solve.
- Ask questions with genuine interest.
Identify Your Own I Wish I Knew List
This was my list. I’m sure there are other items that I could add, but these thirteen are the crème de la crème for me. It took me years to put this list together because all of these “I wish I knew” items simply came from a lack of awareness.
If you are blind, how can you see? And then, when you get sight, do you want to see?
Acceptance takes years. Self-reflection is a painful process because it involves questioning your entire existence. Once you create a list like this for yourself and read it aloud, boy, it will sting. Not only because you’ll feel like an ass, but also because you’ll suddenly understand what you missed out. What could’ve been?
The secret here is to let those things seep in, but don’t baste in them. Regret is a powerful feeling, but much like you shouldn’t allow any emotion to derail you from the path, you need to use grief as a tool, not a limitation. Regret should not make you cringe and hide in shame. Instead, regret should be fuel.
I can now get up and say, “I regret this, but fuck it, now I know what I have to do, and I’m going to do it.”
Self-reflection is excellent so long as it leads to not only a desire to change but to actual, deliberate actions and practices to change.
With this in mind, I suggest you try this for yourself. Sit down and look back into your life and try to identify those pain points from today, which could’ve been different if you knew the truth behind them in the past.
Trust me; it’s empowering.
Other I Wish I Knew Lists
- 32 Things I Wish I Knew Before My 30s
- 30 Things I Wish I Knew Before 30
- 10 Things I Wish I Knew Earlier in Life
- 27 THINGS I WISH I KNEW BEFORE I TURNED 27 (AND HOW TO DO THEM)
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- What are some of the tools you use for self-reflection and self-discovery?
- Do you have your own list of things you wish you’d known ahead of time?
- Which one of the items on my list resonates with you as something you wish you’d known, too?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!