Oliver Burkeman devotes one of his Guardian columns (link here) to the logically futile but frequently posed question of what advice would you give to your younger self, in terms of major life insights and decisions:
You only acquired the wisdom on which your advice is based by making the mistakes you’re now advising your former self to avoid. . . . Experience, as the saying goes, is a harsh teacher: it makes you sit the test first and only gives you the lesson afterwards.
This may only lead to regret and, perhaps, deeper self-berating.
The better approach, he suggests, is to “abandon all this time-travel business . . . and go straight to the real question: how would you advise a beloved friend?” Burkeman writes:
Because the crucial issue, after all, isn’t what you might have done differently in the past, had you been someone that you couldn’t have been back then. It’s what you’d do now, if you treated yourself with half the kindness and goodwill you unhesitatingly extend to your favourite relatives or friends. For many people, I know, this can be a major challenge. But unlike changing the past, it has the enormous advantage of not being impossible.
Indeed. To borrow a line from one of Sinatra’s standards, “regrets, I’ve had a few.” But the reality is that time-travel do-overs are impossible, unless I’ve missed a major development in applied physics. Or, to stay on a musical note, as my voice teacher Jane is fond of saying, if you sing a wrong note, there’s nothing you can do about it, so move on without beating yourself up about it.
Yes, we can learn from the past, but it’s only useful to us if we apply the lessons to our present and future, with a healthy dose of self-compassion to go along with it.