"Mysterious thing, time. Powerful, and when meddled with, dangerous." —Albus Dumbledore

 

As Leon’s December Writing Challenge co-editor, I’ve enjoyed reading all of this year’s submissions, a rich mixture of wishes not to disturb the lessons life teaches, a careful sprinkling of re-dos, a few winning lottery numbers, and a healthy set of Back to the Future references. But as much as Marty and the Professor may have beckoned so many to consider the potential benefits and risks of time travel, I felt they more than received their due respects. Instead, as my family re-watches the Harry Potter films each Yuletide, I think of Harry, and of Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner.

 

Not to debate the technicalities of the original Time-Turner’s five-hour travel limitation, nor the potential added benefits of “True” Time-Turners or anything involving the Malfoys, my basic takeaway from the story was this: if’n you could travel through time, you’d end up with exactly the same result when you returned. Whether you credit Niven or Novikov, you can’t do anything to the past that hasn’t already happened.

 

I’m not sure a spoiler warning is necessary for a 14-year-old movie, but when Harry realizes that his father isn’t coming to cast a Patronus – and that in fact, he’s his only [and best] hope – he’s able to be exactly who he’s always been, and who he would always be.

Image 1: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

 

Harry’s charm wards off an army of Dementors, and saves his godfather and himself. He was who he needed to be – he didn’t need anyone more than himself in that critical moment. And when the moment came, he rose to the occasion. Every single time I watch that scene, I cry for the beauty of it.

 

Time travel wasn’t the solution to Harry’s problem – he was. It only gave him the perspective to realize what he needed to do. It didn’t change it, because he’d already done it.

 

In many ways, the travel we each do through time – the travel that brings us to the present – offers us all the same perspective. We are who we are because of the lives we’ve led, the things we’ve done, and the things we’ve left undone.

 

So, knowing I couldn’t change the past in putting a Time-Turner around my neck to visit my past self, what might I tell her? Nothing I’d say would cheapen the gifts of my hard-won lessons. I couldn’t undo great mistakes and rob myself of the wisdom they brought, nor make minor changes that would rewrite entire chapters of my life.

 

If anything, I’d want to give her a hug, and tell her that everything is turning out precisely as it should – complete with imperfections, disappointments, and tragedy, yes, but also with deep happiness, joy, and hope. I’d want to encourage her that even when all seemed lost, when every choice she thought would lead towards the life she desperately wanted [or thought she did] only led to more pain, frustration, and shame, that a better future was still out there. I’d tell her that even when everything seemed lost, and help didn’t seem to be coming, to hang on, and just keep going.

 

I think of Harry and Hermione waiting in the forest, Harry absolutely certain that his father would save Sirius and himself, growing more agitated and panicked that help wasn’t coming, that hope was fading. I’d like to think Current Me would be like Hermione to Past Me’s Harry, and reminding him that he’s enough – that I am enough. That I can take care of myself, that I can get through the darkest night, that I’m stronger than I think I am.

 

In all the stories our writers shared with this year’s challenge, I was impressed with the number of us who focused on this very lesson. No, we can’t undo the past, and in spite of perhaps even some very dark days, we really wouldn’t want to do so. We recognize the role our challenges play in bringing us to where we are in life. We benefit from the well-timed reminder that life will get better, and from those around us who believe in us as much as we should believe in ourselves.

 

And as we have traveled through time to meet ourselves today, I like to think our past selves would be pretty impressed by how we’ve all turned out. By how we’ve met obstacles both big and small, celebrated wins, learned from losses, and how we cherish our families, friends, and the good things in life, however we see them. And as we head into a new year – into the very future itself – I hope we all choose to encourage ourselves to be strong, to believe in ourselves, and to remember that we are enough.

My grandpa used to say that 99% of the things you worry about never happen… which just goes to show that all that worrying works.

 

Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like that’s my life motto.

 

My name is Alli, and I am a worrier.

 

A little bit of worry is healthy. It’s what keeps you from being totally reckless and potentially in a bad spot. After all, like Grandpa said, worrying about bad things prevents them from happening, right?

But worrying can also prevent good things from happening.

 

I’ve gradually come to realize that when you worry less and live more, amazing things start to happen. Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities become realities. Facing your fears ends up bringing you irreplaceable joy. Taking a risk pays off and might turn out to be one of the smartest things you’ve done.

 

Younger Alli, remember all the times you were worried that the upside-down rollercoaster was going to be too scary or too intense for you, but your sister made you go on it anyways? You ended up loving that ride, and you caught the adrenaline bug. Nowadays, your worry about rollercoasters is proportionate to the number of loops they contain, but you’re getting a lot braver.

 

Younger Alli, remember that time in elementary school when you unexpectedly made a really good friend because you stopped worrying what the popular kids thought of you? They made fun of her, but you saw her for who she truly is: a crazy fun, eccentric, beautiful soul.

 

Younger Alli, do you remember the time when you spent an entire summer having to re-study for the AP European History test because the entire school had to retake their exams? That caused you a lot of worry and stress, on top of all the worry and stress that’s a natural part of being a teenager. But it turned out okay in the end. You did even better the second time around.

 

Younger Alli, be reassured by the fact that while I’m telling you that you should worry less, I still struggle every day to take my own advice.

 

This year, I moved halfway across the country, away from family, away from my newborn nephew. Let me tell you, I worried a LOT about all the things that could go wrong with that. But everything fell into place perfectly. Even though I’m far away from my family, moving was a really good decision. (In fact, if I hadn’t made that decision, I wouldn’t have written this blog post.)

 

I recently started playing this really cool, really fun, really nerdy game called Dungeons & Dragons. I immediately fell in love with playing it, but when I started actually RUNNING the game, that came with a lot of worry. What if I’m not a good Dungeon Master? What if my players don’t like me? What if I have to break play to look something up? But as I get more experience with Dungeons & Dragons, I’m finding it a lot easier to not worry, and the games start getting even more fun.

 

Do some of the things I worry about merit worry? Certainly. But I see it over and over and over again: when I dial down the worry, good things happen.

 

Turns out Grandpa was right. (Well, maybe not the part where the worrying is what keeps bad things from happening, but that’s beside the point.) In most cases, my worries are just head trash holding me back.

 

Younger Alli—and present-day Alli—you really need to worry less and live more.

For starters, I went back and forth on that subject line. Will people even want to read this after seeing “millennial” in the title? Ironically, that unconscious logic sets the tone almost too perfectly for this post.

 

Having grown up in a culture that has so rapidly changed with my generation, I’ve struggled greatly with the stereotypes that come therein. If I’m being honest with myself, aside from my birth date, I don’t view myself as a millennial. Boldness. Entitlement. Purpose. Confidence. I could go on, but you’re living amongst us, too. You know.

 

Growing up, I had plenty of friends, but I never had a sense of belonging. My parents divorced when I was 4. My parents couldn’t settle amicably, so I was sent to a therapist to help determine which parent would be the better fit. The therapist lied in court about who I wanted to live with full-time, and right then began a steep precipice with being able to trust others. I went on to live in a tumultuous environment while my other parent lived 3,590 miles away.

 

I’m sure you’re wondering—why is she recapping her childhood? We all suffered growing up in some fashion. I promise, it’s a critical part of the narrative and I’ll get there quickly.

 

When my family dissolved, I was spirited away from the one parent that I felt was a better fit for me. I felt alone, isolated, and played the "average" child around school and with friends. For the most part, my friends had parents who were actively involved. They had what they needed to be successful, at least from my perspective. I was embarrassed to admit what would happen at my house, why I didn’t have lunch, or why I didn’t have sleepovers, so I became a chameleon to create the illusion that I was one of them. I never expected anything because if something was going to get done, I did it. I didn’t have a disciplinarian or an encourager; I simply led with what I thought was the right thing (and bless my heart, I was wrong so many times).

 

Through this, I became extremely independent at a very young age. To the point that I pushed relationships away because I would get irritated and quickly shut down. I was so used to people going in and out of my life, I didn’t understand what it took to maintain healthy relationships. I began leading a life of what I didn’t want instead of what I did want.

 

When I began my career, that’s when I really started to notice how much my youth affected me. They [millennials] went into every meeting with a level of confidence that I was enamored with. When we had conversations around our career goals, they knew exactly what they were going to do for the next 20 years. And what I was enthralled with was their acceptance of failure. Was it because they had more experience? Was it because they knew things I didn’t? How were they so comfortable? Yet again, I felt like I didn’t belong.

 

As I matured, both personally and professionally, I would stretch myself so thin to fix anything that I believed had value so I didn’t have to watch it fall. I would do things just to get them done. It was the only way I believed it would get done. I remember an old boss of mine would make comments that I was an “old soul,” while complaining how their entire team was a team of millennials, and this enhanced my disdain with the association therein. Sure, it was meant to be a compliment, but it surfaced an emotion that I execrated: a sense of belonging.

 

With all this, what I would tell my younger self (and if I’m being honest, myself today):

  1. Things will always work themselves out. You don’t need to fix everything.
  2. You’re doing exactly what you should be doing if you’re fulfilled in what you’re doing.
  3. You need close relationships. Quality over quantity is key.
  4. Sometimes good enough is more valuable than perfection.
  5. Have a healthy level of skepticism but try to assume good intent when possible.
  6. Trust in others. They have your back more than you might assume.
  7. Trust yourself to be right. You’re smarter than you think.
  8. Celebrate your wins. You deserve recognition sometimes.
  9. Focus on what you want instead of what you don’t.

 

And finally, it was at this very moment that I realized—I am a millennial, and that’s OK. Things failed terribly in my life, and that’s OK. I missed out on having a traditional upbringing, and that’s OK. I’m still young and learning, and that’s OK. I belong, and I needed to stop questioning that in order to move forward.

 

Lastly, because I can’t end without a bit of humor. Even though the stigma is there, our [millennial] principles aren’t terrible. At least we don’t have to explain what the Tide Pod challenge was.

In all honesty, my immediate thought having sat down to write this is: should I even say anything to my younger self? At my current stage of life, I have an amazing family, a successful business, and enough close friends to be happy. What if something I said to my younger self changes all this?!

 

Should we look back at actions and decisions we have taken in life and guide ourselves to do something differently? This, as no doubt has been surfaced many times in this series, is something you can philosophise to the point of madness. There are multiple dimensions to this, which could be swept away by a “don’t live by regrets” mentality. I most certainly agree that dwelling on the past invites negativity into your thoughts, but I am also a strong believer in the adage that you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes.

 

If you have ever read a personal development or “secret of my success” book, the power of positivity cannot be understated. Preventing negative thoughts, which most often come from looking back at regrets from your past, can have dramatic impacts on people’s lives. Sadly, there are people who have one incident, something that happened in a split second, that shapes their life from that moment on. For some, it is simply not possible to control thoughts looking to the past.

 

So, the question remains, if you could, would you tell your younger self something that would change the direction of your life?

 

Well here goes…

 

===========================================================================

 

An Open Letter to Younger Me (circa 1985)

 

Hello me!

 

Well this letter is going to come as a bit of a surprise, and don’t even ask how much the stamp cost!

 

I have been given the opportunity to write this letter and speak to you in a way I hope will let you know you are already on the right path. Let me (us) be clear, you don’t know it, but who you are now will only grow and improve. Your insecurities and lack of understanding of your future are NOT unique; in fact, you are MEANT to feel this way.

 

I won’t say too much about the future, as I cannot risk you changing too much about what life you create for me at this point, but I can say there is so much for you to be proud of.

 

You are feeling that your child and teenage years go so slowly and that becoming an adult is so far away, but please, please realize that it comes sooner than you are actually prepared for, but more importantly than that, make the most of NOW. I won’t patronize you and tell you that your childhood is the best time of your life, as while that is not far from the truth, there is so much to look forward to.

 

Shocking truth alert… you are an introvert and you currently think that your shyness is a weakness. This is not the case. Many of the positive things you achieve in life and the influence you have on your family, friends, and relationships are based on your thoughtfulness and empathy. It took a while, but once you learnt to embrace this fact, the happier we became. This will open up the word “yes” more, and yes is a word that makes things happen. It enables us to see, do, experience, and learn more.

 

Remember when you wrote out hundreds of lines from the ZX Spectrum computer magazine in Basic, typed Run, and spent the next few hours seeing how many typos prevented the program from running? Then the excitement of a simple sprite moving around a screen, when the code was finally correct. This is only the start of the adventure into how computing affects your life in the future and the start of a lifelong passion for technology (and gadgets).

 

I am going to ask you to do a couple of things differently and only a couple:

 

  • You will get glandular fever. Do NOT take this lightly. You are not invincible and if you don’t fully rest it out, it will have a huge impact.
  • An invite to Manchester will come along—get the train!
  • Say yes to that dance at the Rose Wilmot disco. I know you can’t dance (and you already know you never will with style and grace), but that is not the point.

 

Time’s up… See you in 2018!

My advice to my younger self?

 

To compare is to despair.

 

I think about how much angst, stress, and time I would have saved had I appreciated this when I was younger. I also would have spared myself some seriously questionable fashion and style choices (say it with me, bangs are BAD on T Nels).

 

And I didn’t grow up in the age of social media with its nearly endless stream of comparative fodder. Small blessings.

 

To compare is to despair.

 

I tell myself this every day. It’s been my mantra for the last two years and started with a dear friend who I’ve known for nearly 20 years. She’s my “sister from another mister” and the godparent of my children.

 

High-profile in our industry, she’s pursued by organizations to pontificate on all things brand and social. She hob-nobs with impressive glitterati and has interviewed a former First Lady. She manages a large global customer success team and navigates interactions with titans of industry each and every day with grace and confidence. She’s polished, poised, never fails to send the perfectly written thank you note (and her kids do, too!), and her Christmas cards are ALWAYS on time. 

 

She is my mother’s FAVORITE daughter (and I’m an only child).

 

For years, I struggled with this. How could she be at the top of her game, while I felt that I was just getting by? Our paths were largely the same: we graduated from the same university, started our careers at the same company, married around the same time… While my biggest, unique accomplishment is having seen every single episode of Law & Order SVU. At least twice.

 

One day, I stopped. I took a deep breath and realized that we each made choices that lead us down our respective paths. I can’t speak for her, but I wouldn’t change any of the choices that I made, because they were best for me.

 

I chose to have my kiddos early rather than put them off for my career, because I was already tired.

 

I chose to stay in Austin rather than travel for other opportunities, because I love the heat and love this town.

 

I chose a career that puts me more in the background, because I love to see others shine.

 

I chose to binge-watch all manner of TV shows, because I prefer the comfort and quiet of home to a packed schedule of networking events.

 

Sure, I could have picked a different path, jumped to page 23 instead of page 56 in my “Choose Your Own Adventure” to be where she is. But, then again, I might have ended up in an entirely different place, missing all of the things I cherish today.

 

I realized that not only was upward social comparison unproductive, but that downward social comparison was also doing something funky to me: making me less sensitive and appreciative of other people’s unique situations. Turns out the “compare and despair” thing actually works both ways. 

 

So now, I do my best each day to take a step back and stop myself before I compare myself to anyone else. I am not always successful, but I’m at least more thoughtful about it now. I find that I’m better at celebrating my bigger accomplishments, and more appreciative and prouder of my smaller ones, too. I stopped sweating every tiny difference, every little choice, and just settled into what was right for me.

 

And, I find that I have a lot more grace and goodwill to go around.

Instead of boring you all with a lengthy essay, I compiled a list of ten items that I would tell my younger self, the final three of which are powerful quotes from two of my favorite thinkers of all time.

 

Without further ado, here are the ten things I would tell my younger self:

 

1) Find something you’re good at that you can’t live without, and do it at all cost. This is what you’re meant to give to this world and what will most satisfy you.

 

2) Your parents, teachers, and society, really, in fact, and without a doubt, don’t know everything, and neither will you. So, have fun, do point #1, and don’t take life too seriously.

 

3) Most importantly, be a good person, be happy, and always be grateful for good health. That we know of, we only get one life to live, so make the most of it and cherish every moment.

 

4) Be reasonably confident, above all, to protect yourself from stupidly confident people. (Note: This is a partial interpretation of Charles Bukowski’s quote, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”)

 

5) Your “heart” feels what your brain cannot “know;” in other words, do not ever disregard your gut instinct about someone or something.

 

6) Going to a top-tier university, or having a well-paid “dream job,” are both overrated and loads of unnecessary, boring hard work if you’re not doing something that you’re passionate about.

 

7) Do not regret listening to and empathizing with people that do not know how to do the same back. This is anyone’s greatest strength, because you learn from listening to others. Vice versa, being willfully ignorant is anyone’s greatest weakness.

 

8) Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. The mediocre mind is incapable of understanding the man who refuses to bow blindly to conventional prejudices and chooses instead to express his opinions courageously and honestly. -Albert Einstein

 

9) He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying. -Friedrich Nietzsche

 

10) Without music, life would be a mistake. -Friedrich Nietzsche

I am sitting here at my desk considering and reflecting about what I should tell my younger self.

 

It is a big responsibility.

 

If I influence myself to actively pursue or avoid something, then I could change who I am now.

 

Every trigger action has a resulting consequence, good or bad. Cause and effect.

 

So rather than advise myself, I choose to simply reassure myself.

 

I would appear to myself as a ragged old man with a swirling cloak, a long staff, and a wispy grey beard. Someone familiar, wise, ancient, 8-bit.

I would exclaim to my former self in a booming voice, "You have accomplished so much. There is much more to come. The moments are everything. Enjoy them! Don't worry, you are going to be okay. Take more holidays!"

 

I would keep it positive. I wouldn't want to be rich. I wouldn't want to be poor. I wouldn’t want to change things, no matter how bad or good they get. I don't believe in fate or destiny; I believe that we are all creatures of endless possibility.

 

As a boy, I enjoyed reading about magical faraway trees and friends who journeyed to imaginary lands to fight against evil. I read as much as I could all about the myths and legends of ancient Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Norse gods, and the ancient Green Man who still resides in gardens all over the U.K. I loved the adventures of Sun-Wukong the Monkey King on his Journey to the West, his powerful staff made from a mountain, his chaotic vagabond spirit. I read about nature, wildlife, and the delicate ecosystem we share on this planet.

 

I attended university and studied for a Bachelor of Science in computer communications at Northampton University. I was not particularly clever or studious, but I was determined, and I didn't give up.

 

I learned about neural networks, spectral equations, X25, all the theoretical stuff we rely on every day.

 

I postulated about the multiverse, secret societies, and the Big Bang.

 

I learned first-hand about mind control and subsequently about fear and the dangers of quackery and woo. The internet helped me find like-minded individuals who supported each other. I explored our capacity to survive and to move on and that there is no instruction manual for life.

 

I was inspired by Carl Sagan and his Pale Blue Dot.

 

An opportunity to travel presented itself and I took it. I wholeheartedly recommend this to everyone. Go get your bags packed, leave your desk behind, and have adventures.

 

I saw the beautiful golden skink lizard who ran over my feet in Australia. I swam around the Maldives and saw the damage we are doing to our beautiful world. I sat amongst the flax in New Zealand watching for yellow-eyed penguins. I swam with the fishes off the edge of a huge reef searching for black pearls in the Cook Islands. I met a flying German botanist named Wolfgang from Leipzig who taught me to go slow and appreciate my surroundings. I was audited for Thetans on Hollywood Boulevard. I discovered music, my singing bowl, guitars, ukuleles, and an old tape of the Bee Gees that kept me going while driving with a boating injury in New Zealand.

 

I helped out at an international cheerleading competition, learned how to tumble like a clown, and still avoided learning to dance. I found my place on the front line of a political protest. I met a Nazi nun and an ex-Metropolitan police chief who I upset because he was prejudice and I told him so. I am the only person I know who has crashed an electric car halfway up a lamp post. It was icy.

 

My trade was learned in data centres, garages, workshops, back offices under stairs in data cabs, with interesting people who all have amazing stories. I've seen technology change. I'm amazed where we are now and I can't wait to see where we are going.

 

I have been lucky enough to be able to afford my own home, lucky enough to find a wife, lucky enough to have a child, lucky enough to have supportive family and friends, lucky enough to have a lot of animal friends. I also discovered I preferred being vegetarian, most of the time.

 

I lost my father recently to dementia. A horrible experience. If you know anyone who has it, hug them. It’s too late to learn things from him now.

 

In 2013, I formed a limited U.K. company based around SolarWinds monitoring technology. SolarWinds made my work interesting again and gave me purpose. SolarWinds gave me the tools and access to knowledge I needed to help others.

It became possible for me to walk into a room and know things.

 

I know things all the time now and so do you.

 

So after all this, would I traverse space and time to give myself advice?

 

No.

 

I've seen the movies, the paradoxes, the risks, that a butterfly effect or a sliding door could disrupt time and space messing things up and I wouldn't be me and you might not be you.

 

If I was to go now, into the unknown.

 

I would go with a smile, knowing that I have lived.

 

Laugh with me and have a wonderful Xmas!

Today, my friends, is December the 24th.

 

In Germany, this would be the evening where young kids start a raid at the Christmas tree, and grown-ups invite their parents for dinner. Or, in case of no kids available, you make sure your friends with paws are having a good time with fresh tuna:

So, everyone is busy, and no one is reading this blog post!

 

But wait, surely some IT folks are working and minding those pesky servers because servers don’t know it’s Christmas!


And for some reason, I now have this
song from the 80s in mind, but that’s fine as the task is to write about "what would I tell my younger self."

 

The lack of a time machine aside, let’s do it!

 

Twenty-something years ago, I wanted to become an architect, but, while looking into what I would need to study, I decided it's too much mathematics, which would require too much effort, so I ditched the idea early.

 

Instead, I told myself, "Okay, I am interested in art and computers," and started studying applied IT in computer media, hoping I could get away with this lazy approach and express myself through photography, video, and web design.

 

I guess you know what happened: math did strike back at the traditional IT topics and has followed me ever since. That includes random occasions, like exams asking for calculating variable subnet masks, ahhhhhh!

 

So, I am telling my younger self: Be adventurous, and try new things!

 

Now for the next thing, food.

 

If you’re following me on Twitter, you probably wouldn’t believe that, up until 2016, I primarily ate fast food.

 

Seriously, a long time ago I spent two years in Paris without learning much of the language besides “un menu Big Mac avec frites et coca,” and at home, I just used the microwave.


The only appliances in my kitchen were the microwave and a small fridge!

 

A little later, after I arrived in Ireland, I learned how to prepare precooked food. I learned to fry beef mince, added cream and a spice mix from a bag, and felt like a master chef.

 

Hey, it was at least an improvement!

 

It took me a few more years to start with serious cooking, which opened a new world to me.

 

So, I am telling my younger self: Be adventurous, and learn to cook earlier.

 

There is one more thing which just came into my mind.

 

For the majority of my life, I was living in a small city in Germany, and I never wanted to move elsewhere. Not even 60 kilometers south for a job—so I commuted each day instead, which turned out to be a nightmare.

 

In 2005, I had the chance to turn my hobby into my profession, and I moved to the big city, Paris, France, far away from home. The time I spent there was so-so, but I felt encouraged to relocate even farther away to Ireland a little later. An island, would you believe, and they drive on the wrong side of the road!

 

But so many things have happened. As I have lived in three different countries, I became much more open-minded and changed my views of the world, the people, and life in general. I am born German, but now consider myself European.

 

So, I am telling my younger self: Be adventurous, and explore the world.

 

Now let me introduce you to another nice German Christmas tradition, Glühwein (heated mulled wine with the addition of a sweet spirit like Amaretto). You would start drinking these at Christmas markets in late November:

Happy Christmas.

When I first read about the writing challenge topic, my mind flicked over several different moments in my past. At what point would the advice offered be the most practical? (Or most interesting for a post!) When I was in primary (elementary) school? High school? University? Various points of my career?

 

One moment stuck out the most.

 

This was way back in primary school (grade 5). There were two grade 5 classes, and the teachers had swapped classes for the week to change things up. The second teacher was giving us some math work to do in class and spent some time going over it.

 

I was an eager student striving to please, so I finished the work quickly and put my hand up to say I was done, expecting something else to do. The teacher snapped at me, "What do you want? A goddamn brownie?!"

 

Inside my child mind I thought, "Hell yeah, I want a brownie!" But it was also a shock and it gave me some pause. I didn’t know how to respond to that. Afterwards, I would often think back to that moment and subsequent work would only involve "just enough." I would lose the strive to seek out more, to push myself.

 

Therefore, I would tell my younger self, "It is OK to push yourself; it is OK to want to learn more! Never let anyone else tell you to stop trying to improve yourself."

 

Many years later I overcame that hurdle, but sometimes I wonder how much damage was done from that moment. My brother is a teacher, and I've had discussions with him about that time. He remembers this teacher and has commented that with what they know about teaching now, her style of teaching was detrimental to students. From firsthand experience, I can't disagree.

 

I still had to push myself to put my hand up for this task though!

As an aged, wise 25-year-old, I’ve acquired such a wide breadth of knowledge, it’s hard to narrow down what I’d tell my younger self to just one, or even two, things (hopefully my sarcasm is noted). So here are some of the things that keep me moving through my 20s, that I wish my younger self might have had some foresight into. (Also, I hear your 30s are supposed to be better. If someone can confirm that, it’d be a big relief for current me).

 

Starting off with some of the lighter points:

 

Brace yourself, but you’ll be living in Texas and it will be of your own free will.

Luckily, there will be this magical land called Austin, where your political beliefs will be reassured, there will be plenty of dogs to pet and it will be generally acceptable to do so, and melted cheese will be a part of your daily diet. (Side note: you’re not lactose intolerant, but you’re getting there, so EAT ALL THE CHEESE WHILE YOU STILL CAN.)

 

Consider finding an employer who will allow you to deposit a portion of your paycheck directly to Target.

Whether you’re feeling sad, happy, or just purely existing, Target will be your Mecca; it’ll be the place that grounds you. Just know that whenever you step into the red and white fortress, you’re most likely going to walk out with at least one new top and at least a hundred dollars lighter.

 

You’ll still be watching Bravo.

Don’t worry, Bravo is still a channel and Andy Cohen is still the emperor of mindless, yet highly-scripted, reality TV. However, your favorite Real Housewives city will change multiple times, depending on where you are in life. You’ll go through a brief period where Orange County is your favorite city, but don’t be too hard on yourself—we all have low points.

 

Now the meat and potatoes of what I’d tell lil’ me:

 

There will always be things that are hard, but your ability to deal with them will get better.

I’d like to say that life gets easier, but sadly, it doesn’t. Sometimes, it will get even more challenging. You’ll feel things you’ve never felt before, both good and bad. You’ll still have panic attacks (womp-womp), but you’ll no longer start physically running from them. You’ll be able to sit and face them.

 

Just know that with each thing you go through and recover from, it’ll make that next hurdle a little bit easier to jump over. You also won’t have to do things alone, and don’t feel like you have to. Some of the friends you have now will still be there to help support you through the highs and lows, and you’ll have even more pretty amazing people join your corner along the way.

 

Follow the writing, wherever it takes you.

Worried what you’ll do with that degree in English Language Literature? You should be. Luckily, as your Dad keeps telling you, everyone needs people who can write. Your career in writing might not look like you imagined (being a writer for Rolling Stone hasn’t quite happened yet, but honestly, that’s probably for the best), but the variety will be fun. You know how you know virtually nothing about computers, other than using AIM? Well, you’ll end up working for a tech company! The exposure to the new and unfamiliar is a great thing, trust me.

 

Things happen for a reason.

You’re going to go through some things and wonder why in the world it’s happening to you. Wonder why you moved to Texas by yourself? Well, there’s going to be a lot of things building up to it, so be grateful for each one that comes along. It might take some time, but eventually you’ll look back on those things and realize they’re what helped you get to where you are—and I’m pretty sure you’re going to like where you end up.

Hi, Tom the Younger. It’s me, Tom the Elder. I’m writing you this note because there’s something you should know.

 

You’re a jerk.

 

Now, it’s not your fault you’re a jerk. But it is your problem. And the sooner you recognize you have this problem, the better.

 

I could write pages of examples to demonstrate how you have been a jerk. Doing so won’t solve the issue. Instead, I’m going to give you one piece of advice to help you stop being such a jerk.

 

There is one skill, above all others, most critical for success in any career. Once you learn this skill, you will stop being a jerk. Well, OK, maybe “stop” is a strong word. Let’s just say this skill will slow your roll a bit. You’ll be seen as a jerk less often.

 

This skill will open up new possibilities for you. It will remove roadblocks. It will make for better communication between you and your coworkers. Your family will benefit, too.

 

It’s a skill easy to learn, too. In fact, you’ve done it yourself at times. You just don’t do enough of it. But you have the power to change, starting now.

 

Empathy.

 

I want you to develop your sense of empathy for others.

 

No, I'm not talking about Commander Deanna Troi. She was empathic; there is a difference. I'm asking for you to develop empathy for the people in your life.

 

The best way to develop empathy is to talk to people. It’s easy to do! Heck, you’ve been interacting with other humans most of your life, as a teacher, a coach, a cook, and even a restaurant host.

 

And even now, as a junior software analyst, you’re interacting with people in a technical field. You will find that it doesn’t matter what the industry, people are the same everywhere. Talk to them. Find out their priorities, their concerns, their motivations.

 

When you develop a sense of empathy, you will find the nature of your conversations change for the better. Empathy is going to be the key for you to manage your relationships better. Because the corporate world is all about relationships.

 

Oh, one more thing. The world of tech is small. The people you work with now will cross your path again at some point. And they will remember how you made them feel.

 

So, learn some empathy, you jerk.

 

Before it’s too late for us.

 

#datahug

 

Tom the Elder

Dear Younger Self,

 

It was difficult for me to decide which piece of wisdom I should give you. Not because I am so much wiser than you. In fact, it’s the opposite. Though I have had more time to learn, it turns out I am a slow learner. I continue to make the same mistakes and learn the same lessons. I am no wiser than you, I’ve just lived longer and am finally starting to notice the patterns in my life.

 

You’re likely thinking, “Wait, are you telling me I’m never going to learn? I thought this letter was going to make me feel LESS scared!” Which brings me to my chosen piece of advice for you, my younger self: Don’t let fear stop you. Yes, I am telling you you’re always going to be scared. Unfortunately, fear never seems to leave our side.

 

I know fear can feel paralyzing. It stops us from making decisions. It makes us shut down. But there have been times when we have put that fear aside, and taken a leap of faith. Remember when we were too scared to go on rollercoasters at theme parks? Dad and Caroline would go, while we stayed behind with Mom to ride the “easier” rides. One day, we put that fear aside and bravely ventured onto one of the “scary” rides. It was exhilarating. We rode it again and again and couldn’t imagine a time before we dared to ride that ride.

 

Remember in high school when we decided to audition for a musical, having never sang in front of an audience before? We weren’t sure we could do it. We blacked out and don’t even remember the audition. But we did it! And musical theater became an important part of our life for years after that. We couldn’t remember a time before musicals.

 

I’m reminding you of these times to show that, even though some days it feels like fear is ruling your life, you can, and you have, overcome it. You don’t have to let fear stop you from trying new things, from taking risks, from doing something you want to do and not worrying about the outcome. Some of the happiest moments in our life, the times we’ve felt most free, have come from taking a leap of faith and overcoming fear. Let’s do more of that!

 

I’ll let you in on a little secret, younger self: this letter is just as much advice for you at your age, as it is for me at this age. I’m still figuring everything out one day at a time, but from now on I am going to strive to not let fear stop me. Together, we can build a more fun, more rewarding life for ourselves.

 

Ready, set, go!

Accepting a compliment seems like a small thing in the context of the many, many things I could have done better if I knew more when I was younger, but I’m a big believer of small changes reaping big rewards. It’s also a topic that’s front of mind for me as I work on modeling constructive behavior to my daughter, who pays closer attention to what I do than what I say.

 

I know this isn’t only a female issue, but I’m going to speak to it with that lens as it’s what I know. Society has a way of sending not just mixed, but unhelpful messages to girls. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. Properly accepting a compliment is one example. Women constantly get the message that we must always be modest, and accepting a compliment makes us appear arrogant or cocky. So instead, we:

 

•             Deny: “I wish that were true” or the equivalent of “This old thing?” to a comment on your outfit.   

•             Downplay: “I didn’t do that well. (Goes into list of things I could have done better).”

•             Deflect: “Actually, (insert name) is much better at (whatever) than me.”

 

But why does agreeing with someone make you cocky? I’d like to tell my former self that by giving in to those ridiculous reflexes, I was not only refusing the praise, I was negating it altogether. With my awkward attempts to be humble, I was broadcasting a message that I was timid and lacked confidence, and that the person trying to give the compliment was just plain wrong. This reflex probably topped off at irritating in my personal life, but absolutely hurt me in the workplace. “Former self,” I would say, “Knock it off. Here comes some advice.”

 

•             Just say thank you! It’s simple, appropriate, and easy to do, even when tongue-tied.

•             If you want to say more, focus on things such as acknowledging the work behind the achievement. But be careful not to hand the whole thing back or to someone else.       

•             Share the compliment. Almost any accomplishment is in some way a team effort. Making sure those that had a part share in your success is a fantastic way to strengthen relationships.

 

I’m not done with my former self yet. Former self, you also need to check your body language, as it can contradict your words. I’ve worked in male-dominated fields for many years. I’ve had hundreds of wonderful co-workers. But unfortunately, I’ve been in handful of awful situations that made me want to make myself small and unnoticed. Younger Kathleen, don’t let the exception, the few, steal your opportunity to shine. Stand up straighter, uncross those arms, make eye contact, and assume those kudos are deserved and the intentions behind them are pure.

 

Graciously accepting a compliment is an easy way to demonstrate self-assurance, and, as a woman I admire once told me, to own your success. I’ve worked hard throughout my career, and I’m good at what I do. When people notice and offer praise, it’s deserved. Acknowledging that does not make me a narcissist. It shows I can appreciate a win and sends the message that I’m capable of more.

 

While I can’t really go back and influence Kathleen of the past, I can focus on doing this right today and going forward. Hopefully, my daughter—who is the closest I’ll get to my younger self—will notice and grow up feeling comfortable receiving the praise I know she will deserve. To me, that would be even better than a time machine.

Discussing anything on THWACK even tangentially related to time-travel is tricky, because there are many members with both strong opinions on temporal mechanics, and passion to defend them. Add in the loose confederation of Back to the Future timeline wonks, and things get really interesting. But throwing caution to the wind, both for comments and unintended butterfly effects, I’ll state for the record I would go back in time and pay a visit to my younger self. I’d step into a portal and go back to sophomore high school me with one simple bit of advice: don’t get stuck in the friend zone.

 

I’m assuming I’m not the only now-grownup technologist who back in the day hung out with co-ed peers, was regularly introduced to their friends, and got invited to a decent number of parties. But while I was generally conforming near the safe-middle of the normative social curve, I also encountered a disproportionate tendency to end up a cherished and irreplaceable platonic best friend. Apparently speaking the way I wrote the previous sentence did not automatically stir romance, and further steered budding relationships into the friend zone. Also not helpful? The express route to what’s now known as ghosting, the parental kiss of death: “He’s so nice, when will you two go out again?” After a couple of years, that became pretty confusing and disappointing. How could offering me—my best, open, and excited by the world of ideas me—not magically result in hearts, flowers, and unicorns?

 

Open the Time-Portal

 

If I could go back, I’d offer specific advice which has turned out to be also surprisingly valuable in a technology career.

 

“Hey me,” I’d say to myself.

 

“OMG dude, will I really become that that old?! Ugh,” I’d reply to myself, genuinely curious.

 

“Hopefully you’re going to get a lot older than this… but listen. I’m here to get you out of the friend zone.”

 

“You mean get US out of the friend zone. Your motives here, though technically external, are actually selfish,” he’d sarcastically reply.

 

“First,” I began, “you need to back off the dictionary, professor. Adults eat that up, but it makes you look like a dork.” Young me would grimace while conceding that point, and I’d continue, “And second, when you get friendzoned…”

 

If I get friendzoned,” he’d interrupt.

 

“Sure. On those incredibly rare occasions you might get friendzoned… you must be honest that you really want to date your friend, or the inevitable dissatisfaction is on you.”

 

“But she says I’m her very best friend, that I’m like her brother and she can’t afford to lose me. She said that might happen if we go on a date-date,” he’d admit, with big, earnest, say-it-ain’t-so eyes.

 

“Yeah, that’s the thing. She’s saying that because she does mean it. She really, really likes you, but what you don’t know yet is she likes you so much that if offered a choice between certainly losing you now as a friend because the relationship is unequal, or taking a risk and perhaps building something more… she’ll likely take the risk. And yes, they’ll be some nervous and sad moments, but in general, that gnawing feeling of unfairness, of inequity considering your interest and effort will go away,” I’d conclude. At that point, young me would need a pocket knife, LEGO motor, LEDs, or some other tactile distraction to run some analytic CPU cycles and burn down the work queue. It would have been a lot to hear, especially from a gray-haired version of your future self.

 

“I’ll take it under advisement,” he’d finally say after a long sigh. “And, you should get on the SPF, so we don’t get wrinkled.”

 

“Is that how timelines work?” I’d ask over my shoulder, turning to step back into the portal.

 

“Ugh, that’s on me too??”

 

“Yep, but if you must choose only one, don’t get stuck in unequal relationships. You can do better than the friend zone,” I’d reply, and disappear into a puff of un-smoke.

 

Returning to This Timeline

 

Thinking of this logic exercise now, perhaps I’m projecting current career advice back into my adolescence. Because while the friend zone seems to be a frequent hazard as geeks come of age, it’s relatively harmless compared with its adult analog: the dutiful admin stuck in IT. The job friend zone is real, with serious side effects like a seven-digit lifetime income deficit, stress related illnesses, and worse, enormous missed opportunity cost.

 

So how does that happen to grown-up, otherwise logical humans? Despite the warm fuzzies paranoia and conspiracy theory brings to social media, businesses are not actually out to get you. Bosses don’t wake up thinking of new ways to torture us. We are not in the Good Place. But even though good management is (usually) trying to find work-life balance, or at least intends to when there’s time, how often do we find ourselves being offered the job friend zone?

 

Instead, IT might be one of the last careers that remember pensions. Maybe if we just work hard enough, if we’re loyal enough, if we can just hold out... everything will naturally work out. Management will notice we haven’t seen a real raise in five years, training budget will magically be released, or we’ll go on vacation and not get a call about the network. And it may well be that the job friend zone is our own creation—an unfortunate byproduct of striving to be good and believing that everyone else will too. Fortunately, realizing you’re in the job friend zone isn’t too difficult.

 

How many times have you heard one of these?

 

  • “You’re the strongest member of our team, but we can’t promote you now because you’re too valuable in your current role.”
  • “Love your enthusiasm – so many great ideas! We don’t have budget for that, but let’s see at the end of the year.”
  • “I hear you, but how’s your team development coming along? You need to demonstrate great management skills to take on that technical role.”

 

Ugh.

 

My advice for admins in that situation now is the same as it would have been to me as a high school sophomore:

 

“I know you like me, and don’t want to lose me. But if you don’t help me follow my interest to be the best I can be, then I’m walking out the door, and you’ll lose me for sure.” But don’t take my word for it—ask around. Especially in this job market, you’ll find lots of tech pros who broke through their managers’ reluctance to get back to delivering their best work, having the greatest impact on the businesses, and often getting seriously better comp.

 

We’re drawn to IT because we honestly want to please, to fix the unfixable, to keep the lights on no matter what, to know we’re heroic while eschewing accolades. It’s a calling. And it’s easy for management to mistake our significant flexibility and patience for submission or at least advantageous resignation. So sometimes we have to sit ourselves down to receive difficult advice: “Same age me, don’t get stuck in the job friend zone.”

If I were to choose one thing to tell my younger IT professional self, it would be “know your business.” That could mean many things, but what I’m talking about is make sure you have a solid understanding of the following:

 

  • Expectations – make sure that what you are doing is what is wanted/expected
  • Your role – in your team, your organization, and your company
  • Your value – what you bring to the table that others appreciate
  • The numbers – any numbers about you, your role, your job, and what you deliver that others look at or that guide business decisions
  • Measurements – related to numbers; what gets measured gets done, so know the key performance indicators
  • Money – how it effects your position, your team, your organization, how budgets are decided, and what gets tracked

 

I have worked with too many people in my careers that have flawed thinking. A lot of it stems from not knowing the business of what they do. They could be subject matter experts at X, but still not be successful. Knowing your business helps you to see the “big picture” in a light that will help you understand what decisions are being made, why they are being made, and what decisions are likely to be made in the future when Y happens. Many IT professionals complain that management just doesn’t get it; however, perhaps a more useful approach is to ask how management is looking at things.

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