For whatever reason, I recently started thinking about what advice I would give to myself a decade ago if given the chance. Then I realized that was a stupid waste of time. First, because it’s a cliched exercise that only breeds cliched nuggets of meme-abley meaningless wisdom. Second, because I absolutely cannot, ever, give 21-year-old Natalie advice. She doesn’t exist. Finally, once you’ve written a book about a series your worst young adult decisions, you’ve pretty much exorcised those demons anyway.
I don’t know when this advice-to-our-younger-selves practice became a part of our human experience, but I have a feeling Oprah had something to do with it. What a better question would be, I think, is, “If I had the chance to give another young woman advice who may face some of the same obstacles I faced, what would I tell her?”
The difference is nuanced, but important. If you’re talking to yourself, and you’re through the mire, you can say anything. You can whip little you into shape. You can tell you how wrong you were about this, but how right you were about that. You don’t have to worry if you’ve said too much or too little, if you’ve been too harsh or too ineffective, because your audience is make believe.
But real people have real journeys to make. They have things to learn that they can only learn on their own. Advice can help, but it can also misguide. We can be so caught up in the lessons of our own journey that we are giving someone directions to the wrong destination. No present-day person is ten-years-ago you, exactly.
So what is my advice? My advice is to not advise. Instead, tell your story. When we tell our stories, truthfully and openly, those who might benefit from the lessons we’ve learned can pick up on the pieces that apply to them. They can see that the patterns they’re making in their own lives have been repeated before and broken before, and then they will decide whether or not to break them.
This is, in fact, the very reason that telling our stories is so important; because we live in a world flush with meaningless, cliched advice that people wished they could have given themselves but doesn’t quite apply to others. We slap them on memes, we needlepoint them on hankies, but no one listens. People listen to stories; they internalize them. They soak up the bits that apply to them and simply enjoy the rest. This is why stories matter.