It goes without saying that mistakes are an inevitable part of life. It’s very likely that you will be a bumbling and flawed mess through much of your late teens and early twenties, unless of course you are Hamish and Zoe-Foster Blake, in which case you are oozing with perfection and universal likability. If you’re anything like me though, it’s not until you have the benefit of hindsight and years of self-analysis when you realise how truly ubiquitous your mistakes were. It’s not as though I spend by time dwelling on them and beating myself up about my previous choices, but rather I reflect upon them to guide my present behaviour, and to avoid certain actions and thoughts. Like most people, the overarching goal of mine is to live a happy and content existence. In order to give myself the best possible chance of achieving this, I analyse my previous attitudes and behaviours and take note of what hindered, and what fostered, my growth and happiness.
As a twenty six year old, I am in the position where enough time has passed since my late teens that I can view my choices and attitudes from a more objective and informed perspective. Of course that isn’t to say that at twenty six there’s no more progress to be made, and that I have reached my peak of enlightenment. There will be plenty more mistakes made and decisions that will be incorrect, with the benefit of hindsight. But it is important to analyse our behaviour and choices to increase our chances of making better ones. At this point in my life, I can pinpoint four key mistakes that I made that shaped my current situation in significant ways and changed the trajectory of my entire life. Importantly, this isn’t to say that if I could teleport back in time and re-visit these crucial moments that I would change everything. I am very happy with where I have ended up right now. I believe it’s these poor decisions I have made that have increased my levels of empathy and gratitude that I experience daily, and has paved the way to me focussing on living a life centred around health and creating as much happiness as possible. In fact, I have my “no ragrets” tattoo booked in for next week as we speak… No but really I am by no means crippled with regret, but I write this article in the hope of persuading others to self-reflect on their own life and decision-making, and to ensure that minimal time is wasted in their youth.
Mistake #1: Choosing a career based on what I thought others wanted me to do
What’s that I hear? You chose a potential career path because you’re a slave to other people’s opinions? This is a cliche as old as time and I still had the naivety to fall for it. Take it from me, do not base any long-term decision on what will generate the most pats on the back or likes on instagram. My people-pleasing nature and strong desire to be liked and admired created the perfect breeding ground for my questionable career choice. As a seventeen year old, I was completing my year 12 exams and doing surprisingly well despite an ostensible case of chronic fatigue syndrome. At times I experienced a strange combination of apathy towards my school work, coupled with a sporadic desire to do well on the odd occasion. I’d always thought I possessed english-based talents, or perhaps it’s because anything beyond year nine maths made be feel as though I had a bag of rocks for brains. This supposed knack for english, coupled with an eccentric but hilarious legal studies teacher who made attending class actually enjoyable, lead me to the poignant decision to prioritise law as my choice of degree at university. Not exactly strong foundations to base a decision that will shape the rest of your life.
When I began my degree, I vividly recall the moment when I realised that the course and career path of law was unequivocally wrong for me. Despite screaming the “C” word at parties more often than a year 8 lad about to get in a bust up at a train station, I would categorise myself as introverted and relatively shy. I despise conflict and arguments (my boyfriend would probably find that shocking), and talking in front of a group of people is enough to send my sympathetic nervous system into overdrive. These personality traits – of shyness, aversion to public-speaking and desire to avoid conflict – are the exact opposite of what typifies a lawyer. Despite this incongruity between my core personality traits and the fundamental characteristics of a practising lawyer, I stuck it out. Not having any clear passions or hobbies and a failure to analyse myself and life at the time, provided the perfect setting for my complacency to grow, and allowed me to continue throughout my degree despite an obvious lack of pleasure towards it.
Whilst persevering through any challenge and refusing to be limited because of our personality traits are admirable qualities, the reason why I continued down that particularly path wasn’t so admirable. I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride undertaking a prestigious degree. I wanted people to think I was clever and successful, and this desire to be perceived in a positive light was the key motivating force behind me decisions. At the end of the day, whilst it’s good to take other people’s opinions into account when making decisions, their perceptions of you should not be the determinative factor as to what course you study or what particular career move you want. They aren’t the ones that have to get up in court and talk in front of a room full of know-it-all criminals. And then there’s the clients. A nightmare. But in all seriousness, you’re the one who has to go to work 80 percent of the week (again, not great at maths), and you sure as hell want to look back on your life knowing you chose the decisions for yourself, and didn’t live a life dictated by other people’s transient opinions of you.
Mistake #2 Not Listening to Your Intuition
I’m not one for wishy-washy and esoteric jibber that is prolific in the health and wellness field. I’m sorry star-signs peeps, it’s a no from me. I appreciate the importance of science and empirical evidence when making particular claims or trying to help people live a better life. However, something that I can support when making decisions despite its inability to be tested in a scientific setting, is the benefit of listening to our intuition. In laymen’s terms, this means trusting our gut and paying attention to the little voice in our head that says “no this isn’t right champion” (the voice in your head is apparently a sports coach). I can think of key moments in my early twenties when I ignored my gut feeling about a situation and ended up experiencing a world of regret. For example, like most insecure and awkward girls in their late teens, I ended up in the unfortunate situation where I was in a relationship with a complete nutter. The confident and self-assured girl I always wanted to be was hiding in Cancun throughout this relationship, and the blubbering, appeasing and timid version of myself was on full-display. Hindsight is a cruel mistress, but I can recall simply knowing within myself how wrong this relationship was. Something just simply wasn’t right. Even when his attitude and treatment towards me improved dramatically, my gut was telling me that I needed to rid myself of his oppressive presence in my life.
What can only be described as an unwavering awareness of what was objectively right – to leave the relationship – seems at odds with an arguably subjective decision that could surely be framed in positive and negative ways. But no, despite the subjective nature of all relationships – and that there is arguably no one right answer – I knew within myself deep down that the only decision was to leave. Unfortunately, like most things in reality the decision wasn’t that simple. It took me far too long to listen to my intuition and I wasted a lot of time that I will never recover on someone that was about as empathetic as Voldemort. I cannot highlight the importance of listening to our gut-feeling about these particular decisions, because it can be incredibly frustrating to reflect upon your previous choices knowing you ignored what was best for you to cater for an immediate reward or cessation of pain. Sometimes listening to your gut means paying attention to the guilty feeling in the pit of your stomach when cancelling on your mum’s weekly dinner or missing a friends birthday because you feel mildly sad. You know deep down that the right decision is to go to your friend’s party and have dinner with your mum, and I think it’s important that we focus on these minute feelings or we may run the risk of experiencing significant regret.
Mistake #3 Not getting out of my comfort zone enough
I know it might shock the reader, but as a self-confessed introvert with a tendency to feel anxious in any situation, I was never the type of person to step outside of my neatly defined comfort zone. I feared any sort of change and would approach novel situations the same way as one might approach a trip to the dentist to get your teeth ripped out. This aversion to change and new situations began in my childhood and I recall ordering the exact same food at Subway to avoid stepping outside my comfort zone, and startlingly it was literally just a plain chicken roll. No sauce. Whilst I probably should have been whisked away to a psychiatric ward for not even including a bit of lettuce, my Mum would instead gently encourage me to try new things and not be so terrified of experiences. To paint a picture of my shyness and fear of novel situations, I can recall clearly one of my birthday parties in primary school was held at a strange sporting centre, and my bubbly and outgoing friend Teasion was greeting all the guests at my own party whilst I shyly stood in the corner.
This shyness and hesitation toward change continued throughout my teens and early adulthood. When making many important decisions – about relationships, career, travel and friendships – I was much more likely to choose the option that would cause the least amount of change and disruption in my life. I didn’t go on Contiki’s in Europe, or date a new boy every week, and I remained in the same shitty relationship and degree for far too long. If the thought of moving away from home, travelling overseas, or doing something completely different invokes a feeling of anxiety just know that you are not alone. I would advise not to become caught up in your fear of change that you remain stagnant in life. It’s important to realise that from challenging experiences comes the greatest growth, even if it might not feel like it at the time. Upon reflection, I realise that the times where I did sway from my comfort zone – where I said yes to events that I previously would have refused to attend, or when I flew solo to the Cook Islands for example – ended up being the best decisions and shaped the trajectory of my life in positive ways.
Too much future-focussed thinking and not enough mindfulness
It can often be a difficult task striking a balance between being organised and sensibly planning for your future, and focussing solely on the present moment. Whilst it’s important to engage in goal-setting and forward thinking to set yourself up for a future that you really want, it’s all too common to fall into the trap of thinking about how happy you will be in a future moment and ignoring the beauty of the present moment. We often believe that our happiness is only just around the corner and we will be in a state of unwavering bliss once we have attained some external desire – like the attractive boyfriend or the shiny black car, or the house overlooking Bondi Beach. Don’t get me wrong, these things would be fantastic and I wouldn’t exactly be throwing the keys into the ocean if someone gave me a waterfront house, but it’s erroneous to assume that these external things will give us everlasting happiness. Moreover, living in a fantasy land of potential future occurrences is robbing you of the present moment and all the good things you currently have in your life.
I spent much of my teen years and university days constantly focussing on the future – always looking forward to upcoming events, playing them out in my head in a way that was never reflective of reality. I thought happiness would be achieved once I hit certain milestones – once I finished school, when I lost the 5kgs, when I found a job that I enjoyed. But the goal-post always moved. Once i’d achieved a particular goal or i had reached a milestone, rather than basking in contentment and appreciation of the present moment, I would be thinking about the next occasion, the next source of potential happiness. When your life is spent constantly chasing the next source of pleasure, you might wake up one day and realise you let the important moments slip by you – the graduation; whimsical inebriated parties; car rides with your mates to festivals. These are the moments we want to grasp onto – to fully immerse ourselves in because we will look back feeling significant longing and regret if we never truly appreciated them. One of the only certainties of life is that our future isn’t guaranteed, so it’s important we truly focus on the moment we are experiencing,
I know this article might just seem like a vicious attack on law and shitty ex-boyfriends, there are some important messages that I implore the reader to take on board. Your early twenties should feel like a chaotic and confusing time. If you tread carefully and stay within the confines of your comfort zone, you will be bereft of the most important and life-defining experiences. Trying new things doesn’t mean ignoring all uneasy feelings that arise, and I hope you can appreciate the importance of trusting your intuition in circumstances that you just know something is wrong. For example, if you know that the degree you are studying isn’t for you, or the job you are in makes you a miserable troll, then it’s crucial you pay attention to your inner voice. This might be in spite of what your friends and family want of you, because at the end of the day you don’t want to reflect on the one life you had and realise you made significant choices on the basis of other people’s desires and not your own. Finally, to experience an enriched and content life means to focus as much as we can on the present moment. I wish I had learnt this earlier, and I urge you to take this on board as much as you can in order to make the most of a uniquely enjoyable time of our lives.