I saw a post on Facebook that read, “What four words do you wish you could tell your 17-year-old self?” I was intrigued, so I did what any other self-respecting social media patron would do; I read through the comments section.
I read many peoples’ four-words of wisdom. Much of it was common and expected. Things like, “You’re worth the wait.” Or “You are loved greatly.” All good things to say and know; but there were some pieces of advice that rang through with unexpected truth and authenticity.
So, I began to think, “What would I say to myself?”
Knowing what I know now, what would I encourage or discourage; what would I empower or downplay. What strengths would I try to foster, and weakness would I try to prune? I believe that when we honestly evaluate ourselves, we often don’t need to look too far to find out the truth about ourselves.
And much like I thought, I didn’t think for long before I was overrun with wisdom I would’ve liked to have known years earlier in my life. The following are three of those ideas.
The first thing that immediately came to my mind was the phrase,
“You’re not a failure.”
What I mean is that just because I fail, just because I may not be the best, just because I am struggling, or because I am taking the non-traditional path, that doesn’t make me a failure.
You see, I found myself spiraling down a path of fear and poor self-esteem, because I had messed up, failed, missed the mark, and I thought that those things had become my definition.
All through my early life, I had gleaned the mindset that I was only as good as my last success, and that bred in me a fear to try. I was afraid to take a chance and screw it all up. It’s not that anyone told me this outright, rather I just picked up on it by the pace and mentality of culture.
I realized something very interesting; our culture, which is arguably addicted to being authentic, never likes to acknowledge the before until we have the after. However, we all have a before picture.
You know what I mean, like in diet commercials, when the beautiful person gets up and shows a picture of what they used to look like. In those reveal moments, whether it’s subconscious or not, we all think, “That’s amazing!”
We love those stories.
We love when the Tina Fey’s of the world get up and talk about how they were unemployed for a while, but now they are the major influencers of the world. We adore the quote from Thomas Edison, in reference to creating the lightbulb, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  However, when we’re in the thick of failure, we don’t tend to be so optimistic.
When we’re the ones looking up from rock bottom, we don’t think, “Man this is going to make a great story!” Nor do we say, “Just think of what lies ahead!”
We get enveloped in the mess that seems to be enrapturing our lives. It would be naive to think we would welcome failure with open arms. Although, I believe my fear and avoidance of failure is just as foolish.
I remember talking with my mom, the summer before my senior year of college. We were sitting in her car, and I just broke down in tears. I was fully convinced that everything in my life was falling apart. I was questioning my future, my career, my faith, and who I was at my very core. I had just broken at the seams and could not contain the emotions any longer.
I sat there, in the rubble of what seemed like complete and utter failure. And I asked her with full sincerity, “What if I get out of school, and I can’t get a job. I just don’t want you and dad to be embarrassed of me. I don’t want to be a failure.”
I remember her looking at me with the type of motherly intensity that lets you know she means business. “Matthew, you are not a failure. You’re just asking a lot of questions about life. And really, what would be so bad about not getting a job in your field, directly out of school? Honey, this doesn’t make you a failure; this makes you human.”
And in that moment, my mother reminded me I was not alone. I was broken, but so is everyone.
The best imagery I have ever heard for failure is the idea of a broken vase. This thing is shattered into hundreds of pieces, it’s completely smashed. Now, you have two options of what to do with the vase. You can leave the pieces broken. Maybe even throw them away, hoping to forget about the shattered pieces of your past regrets, mistakes, and failures. This is seemingly our default mode. It’s easy to wallow, to host a pity party just for me, myself, and I.
However, there is one other option; you can make something out of the ruin. You can put the pieces, or the knowledge of the failure to good use. You can make a mosaic of the past.
The beauty of this image is that the pieces are broken regardless. The failure happened. There is no changing the past, but we can choose how we react to it.
Will we hide and distract ourselves, storing guilt and shame deep within our hearts and minds, or will we learn and grow beyond who we were to who we can be? Every day we choose which it will be.
My mother reminded me, that failure happens, and to avoid that is to avoid being human.
In Ancient Japan, around the 15th century, potters began repairing broken, imperfect, and chipped pots and vases, filing the cracks and imperfections with gold inlaying.
This quickly began being connected to the Japanese philosophical ideology, wabi-sabi, which implores the acceptance and celebration of beauty found within the flawed and broken. This process is called Kintsugi, which is Japanese for “golden repair.”
This process of repairing led to an interesting result, the pots and vases became more valuable after they were broken and put back together.
For so long, I had let myself develop a paralyzing fear of failing. I had myself convinced that if I screwed up, then that made me a screw-up. I feared that I failed, if I was broken, that immediately meant I was a failure. I would never acknowledge my before picture. I was afraid that if I hit rock bottom, I would never escape.
However, what I didn’t realize, was that my brokenness did not have to be negative, nor did it discount me in any way. Rather, my brokenness, and the ability to put myself back together again, has helped me become more experienced, and in turn more valuable.
As I’ve grown older, and failed more, I have realized that the reason we love comeback stories so much is because there is something uniquely human about struggling to the finish line.
We can relate to broken people because we are, in fact, broken too. We just need to put ourselves back together again. I have to remind myself, when my heart gets heavy-burdened, that I am a work in progress.
I am not a failure, I’m just human.
The next piece of advice that boiled to the surface of my mind was born out of a place of deep insecurity for me. I looked in the mirror and I thought,
“It won’t complete you.”
I have spent a lot of my life thinking that I wasn’t good enough. A feeling that I’m sure that many of you are all too familiar with. I would think that if I weighed less, had more friends, got the girl, had the grades, saw the newest movie, had the most recent phone in my pocket, maybe if this was different, or if I had that, maybe then I would be happy.
I spent so much time trying to sooth the discomfort in my heart, that told me, “You aren’t enough.”
Media has cultivated a world in which we are left wanting more; more food, more sex, more attention, more knowledge, more love, more of this, or that, or the other. We always want more, and if we just had it, that thing that we have wanted/lusted-after/coveted, then we’d finally be content.
That’s the drive of marketing to create a desire for more. And it has been successful so far. This desire for more and better truly has become an addiction of our culture.
Addiction to anything- drugs, drinking, even pornography- intensifies because our bodies grow accustomed to the dosage, and we begin to need more of whatever it is to gain the same high as before. This process is called habituation.
However, the insidious nature of it all is that it’s a vicious cycle. The high only lasts so long, and before we know it, we have habituated ourselves and we continually need more and more.
We have grown accustomed to the gnawing within us for a different life, a better life, and we need the next dose, the next hit so to speak.
What this really boils down to is a poor sense of individual value.
We judge everything by this invisible, subjective, guideline of value. Society has a list of things that we must achieve to be considered “valuable,” and that list is made to keep us striving for more, but to never fully achieve. It’s formatted in way to keep us fighting for the next thing, the newest model, a smaller waist, to be wealthier, or whatever else we’re told we should have. And we believe that without it our value is lessened.
The creator of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, was once asked how to make a successful video game, and this is what he said, “You have to make it easy to learn, but impossible to master.”
Isn’t that what society, trends, and value seem like? It’s easy to pick-up an addiction to the spoils of this world, but it’s impossible to beat. We’re left reaching for something that is just close enough to idolize, and yet it’s just outside of our reach.
Value is something that I struggle seeing in myself. You see, I look around and all I see are people who have more or are better than I am. Much of this can be boiled down into this idea called “the comparison trap.”
This is the ideology that the voice inside our head -often manifested in our insecurities- seemingly magnify everyone who’s better than us. It essentially says, if you were more attractive, then people would love you. If you were funnier, then you would be popular. If you were smarter, more qualified, if you were better… and the list goes on and on.
This has only worsened with the invention of social media, in which we have a constant feed of our friends’ vacation pictures, their high points, their posts about all the blessings in their lives. Now, one of the many joys of social media is the ability to share your life with the people you don’t see on a daily basis. Although, what it has really become is a hotbed for jealousy, coveting, and the comparison trap.
All of this culminates and manifest in it, that thing that will make everything better, or so we’ve trained ourselves to think.
However, what we never realize is what we are already good at, or what we already contain. We have become so drunk on the idea of it, that we can’t focus on anything other than what we desire was different.
What I am getting at is that, no matter what it is for you -relationships, status, material gain, knowledge, attraction- whatever it is, none of it will complete you. It will give you the momentary high of happiness, but all too soon we’re brought back to the cruel reality that things and people don’t give us lasting joy.
I found that no matter what it is for you, it will never substitute first finding joy and value in yourself.
The last thing I want to discuss in this tirade of four-word wisdom, was the most enlightening piece of advice I was ever given before college. Ready?
Make time for memories.
I remember vividly, the summer between high school and college, people -friends, family, strangers- were exceedingly willing to give me advice. Every day, a new cornucopia of battle worn wisdom would flood my phone, email, or mailbox. They would tell me all sorts of things, some relevant, and some not so much.
My oldest brother, Jonathan, wrote in my graduation card, “Make time for memories. You will look back on your life and wish you had made more memories. Make sure you have stories to tell.”
In a time, where unsolicited advice was coming out of the woodwork, my brother’s plea to make memories stuck out to me as the most important advice I received.
He was saying that time will come and go, and at the end of the day I would wish for more times like these. These moments I am living right now will one day be fodder for me to share with old friends and family alike. One day, I will wish for more memories just like the ones I am living right now.
The world is busy.
Stress, deadlines, and expectations surround us from an early age, and they follow us into the grave. We can’t get away from the curse of a busy schedule. It’s even bred in us to sort of like it. You know what I mean?
The narrative has become, the busier that you are, the more important you are. And this plays into the sense that we must produce to be valuable. We have to make the grade, get the job, have the resume, so on and so forth. The problem is that those are all good things in theory.
The issue comes into play because we like to do them, so we fill our schedules and calendars with more and more good things, while we slowly wither under the weight of an over-encumbered life.
We sacrifice so much in pursuit of importance, and the biggest sacrifice is lost time.
Time is a fading commodity and it never replenishes.
There is an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Leonard, Raj, and Howard are tasked with cleaning out the office of a deceased professor at their school. As they begin searching through papers, files, desk drawers for anything the university should save, the realize that a human’s life can easily fall victim to being forgotten.
They begin throwing much of the papers away, but it starts to eat at them. Gnawing at their minds, that maybe this will be them someday. When Leonard says, “I still keep thinking about how an entire life can amount to nothing.”
Although it is what Howard says in response that is truly significant, “I guess the sad truth is that not everyone will accomplish something great. Some of us may just have to find meaning in the little moments that make up life.”
We must be able to find meaning in the little moments, finding joy in the beauty all around us.
I live with the image of my deathbed firmly burned into my mind. I do this for a two-fold reason, 1) it keeps me grounded in the blessing of this present reality, and 2) it reminds me that one day I will die. I know, it is not the most revolutionary thought.
But think with me for a moment, if you knew that tomorrow you were going to die, would it change the way you live today? Of, course it would. It would relieve the stress of a deadline. It would bring to light the silliness of the argument with your sibling. It would make you realize the exuberance of a stranger’s smile, or the beauty of a good meal.
It would allow you to open your eyes to the fact that every minute your alive, is another minute you will never get back. Knowing you will die gives you the chance to truly live now, because you know you might never get another chance.
You see, I don’t want to get to the end of my life and be filled with regret over wasted time. I want to get to the end of my life and be filled with peace that I lived the best life I could. I loved with all my heart, gave whatever I could, and lived to the fullest. I want to get to the end of my time and reminisce over a life full of memories.
There’s a song by the band, Carrollton, and they make the exclamation, “Don’t let the beauty of this life pass you by.” 
Don’t let the time you have here be wasted seeking more stuff, more things, more success. Spend your time making memories with the people you love. Spend your time making up a montage of great moments, little things that you will hold dear with the people that you hold dear.
So, go live your life, make memories, and collect some stories worth telling.
Four words can make a huge difference. If I could go back, these are just a few of the things I would tell myself. These are a few pieces of wisdom I learned along the way.
You’re not a failure.
It will not complete you.
And finally, Make time for memories.
So, I implore you to think; what four words would you tell yourself?
Four words are powerful. Four words can change a life. Four words can make lifetime of difference. So, I have to ask, what are your four words?
Nathan Furr, “How Failure Taught Edison to Repeatedly Innovate,” Frobes, June 9, 2011, https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanfurr/2011/06/09/how-failure-taught-edison-to-repeatedly-innovate/#176ef10765e9.
Kendra Cherry, “Understanding Habituation in Psychology,” Verywell Mind, October 28, 2018, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-habituation-2795233.
“Bushnell’s Theorem: Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master,” Wolfshead Online, February 25, 2007, http://www.wolfsheadonline.com/bushnells-theorem-easy-to-learn-difficult-to-master/.
Johnny Galecki and Simon Helberg, The Big Bang Theory, “The Champagne Reflection.”
Justin Mosteller, Carrollton, Don’t Let it Pass You By.