Christian Jarrett reported recently in BPS Research Digest about a new study by Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord, published in the Journal of Social Psychology. The paper is titled, "If I knew then what I know now: Advice to my younger self." The scholars examined what advice people above the age of 30 would give to their younger selves. Jarrett explains the findings:
Their findings show that people’s advice to their younger selves is overwhelmingly focused on prior relationships, educational opportunities and personal worth, echoing similar results derived from research into people’s most common regrets in life. Moreover, participants who said they had followed the advice they would give to their younger selves were more likely to say that they had become the kind of person that their younger self would admire. “…[W]e should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves,” the researchers said. “The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.”
The two studies followed a similar format with the participants (selected to be aged at least 30 years) asked to provide either three pieces or one piece of advice to their younger selves; to reflect on whether following this advice would help them become more like the person they aspire to be or ought to be; whether they had actually followed the advice later in life; to consider a pivotal event that had shaped them in life, especially in light of the advice they’d chosen to give their younger selves; and to reflect on what their younger self would make of their current self. Participants mostly gave themselves advice around relationships (“Don’t marry her. Do. Not. Marry. Her.”), education (“Go to college”), selfhood (“Be yourself”), direction and goals (“Keep moving, keep taking chances, and keep bettering yourself”), and money (“Save more, spend less”).
I enjoyed digging into this paper because I think it has important implications regarding the value of self-reflection. Several years ago, I heard former Baxter Healthcare CEO Harry Kraemer, now a professor at Kellogg, discuss his nightly routine of self-reflection. Each night, Kraemer takes a few moments to think back to how he conducted himself throughout the day, both in his professional and personal life. Kraemer has developed a set of useful questions to use during this reflection time:
- What did I say I was going to do today in all dimensions of my life? What did I actually do?
- What am I proud of? What am I not proud of?
- How did I lead people? How did I follow people?
- If I lived today over again, what would I have done differently?
- If I have tomorrow (and I am acutely aware that some day I won’t) and I am a learning person, based on what I learned today, what will I do tomorrow in all dimensions of my life that are important (as a father, as a leader, as a son, as a spouse, as a spiritual person, etc.)?
I cannot say that I have Kraemer's discipline for daily self-reflection, but I have taken to trying to take some time every few weeks or months to consider these questions. While I would benefit from pondering these questions more often, I do think that even the occasional time to reflect has been extremely helpful. This research certainly bolsters Kraemer's argument and makes me want to try to make more time for reflection on a more frequent basis.