What do you wish you could have known, aged 15?

I’m going back to my old school on the 17th of December to give a short talk at their presentation evening.

They’ve asked me as someone who works in the field of technology (they’re (now) a specialist technology college) to award some prizes – some brief handshake, a smile and a word or two of congratulation – and then make a ten minute speech. It should include my recollections of my time at the school, what I gained from it, what I did at university and what I’ve worked on since, at IBM and the BBC.  And then “finally and most importantly – some words of encouragement and advice to the students”.

The factual stuff is easy, but the encouragement and advice?

I started thinking about what the 15 year old me would think of the 30 year old me. He was born in 1993, while I was born in 1978. That’s the seventies. Oh wow, he thinks I’m really old. He thinks I’m set in my ways and comfortable. He probably thinks I’m incredibly boring. He either thinks I’m totally disconnected from his life or (worse) trying too hard to be cool by talking about instant messaging and the web.

I’ve changed quite a bit in the last 15 years, but have I learned anything? And if I have, what can I tell the 15 year old me about it? And would he even listen anyway?

I think I want the 15 year old me to know that it’s OK to seek out whatever you find fun and interesting. It’s OK not to have a plan. And most of all, not to ever, ever listen to anyone who says you have too much time on your hands if you’re doing something you love.

What would you want the 15 year-old you to know?

56 replies on “What do you wish you could have known, aged 15?”

  1. Don’t be afraid to have fun doing something that isn’t aligned with your studies or your career (it may end up being more valuable to you that something “proper”).

  2. 1. things will get MUCH BETTER. adolescence is hard. anyone who tells you “these are the happiest years of your life” is full of crap.

    2. make stuff. make mistakes. try new stuff. think carefully about the things you tell yourself about yourself “i’m not athletic” or “i hate math” or “i can’t draw” or “that’s not my thing”… so much of that (for me) turned out to be lies.

    3. get a mentor. having adult friends who aren’t your parents and can empathize with you while guiding you — that can sometimes make all the difference.

  3. Its OK to make choices (GCSE subjects, A levels, Uni course and so on) that allow you to keep doing what you’re good at and enjoy, because eventually someone will actually want to pay you to keep doing it.

    And there isn’t always just one right answer. Except possibly in GCSE exams.

  4. Whenever I think about talking to actual young people (I was ten in 1968) I always end up remembering Dan Pink’s “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko”, subtitled as the last career guide you’ll ever need.

    It imparts its wisdom through six lessons, and they are these:

    1. There is no plan.
    2. Play to your strengths.
    3. It’s not about you.
    4. Persistence trumps talent.
    5. Make excellent mistakes.
    6. Leave an imprint.

    I think that getting some 15 year olds to take in even a couple of these would be really worthwhile. I really wish I’d known these when I was 15, especially 1 and 2.

  5. Some great comments here.

    I wish I had been told that exams and school don’t really matter. However you might as well take advantage of the free education, as there is plenty of time to do the things you want to later.

  6. A more constructive reply, apart from pointing out that Roo is irritatingly young, would have been:

    1. Fail in lots of things. Just as important as passing or succeeding. Trying and failing is better than not trying at all.

    2. Learn how to live on a budget. As soon as possible. Your health will thank you for it, as it’ll avoid stress and headaches later on.

    3. It’s nice to be important. But it’s important to be nice. (I nicked this from somewhere. I like it though).

  7. Things I wish I’d known when I was 15 (which would have been about 1985):

    – when you leave school, you have *options*. Just because everyone you know plans to go to university, doesn’t mean you have to. Not immediately. (Leaving it until you’re a bit older is probably an excellent idea.)
    – stop and pause and think about life for a bit. What do you actually enjoy most? Have you tried enough things yet to answer that? Try more things.
    – there’s a good chance you will end up earning a living doing something you have either not heard of, or never once considered. Qualifications on bits of paper can be over-rated.
    – some people end up having a career so they can earn big money to pay for big houses. If you didn’t bother having the big house, and didn’t need the big money, how could you productively spend your time?
    – good friends are the people who demonstrate that they care about you. Focus on these people, and never neglect them. They are precious. You will probably lose contact with most of your school friends, unless they are in that small group of people who really matter. Never mind – there will always be new friends to make. And you will make new friends, everywhere you go.
    – don’t try and follow the herd. They’re usually following bullocks.

  8. Things I would tell my 15 year old self:

    1. Don’t worry about the future (and what you want to do or be)
    2. It’s OK to change your mind
    3. You will never stop learning so the end of school isn’t the end but really the beginning – it just gets easier and more fun once you are through A Levels.
    4. Work hard – it will be worth it. (Just don’t get stressed!)
    5. Smile, breathe deeply and enjoy the things you enjoy doing and don’t worry about what the rest think!

  9. Here’s a couple of catch-phrases that stuck with me:

    1. You only get out of life what you put in… (not sure this sits directly beside the “It’s ok to be lazy” philosophy, but I think it’s quite true)

    2. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and take what comes.

  10. 1 – Find something you love to do, and keep doing it
    2 – Find someone you love, and keep loving them.

    really, I can’t think of anything that isn’t covered by those two.

  11. I have told this to someone who was fifteen and stressed at school.

    School finishes *really soon* now, and all the arseholes that you currently hate, who make your life miserable… you never have to see them again! Really soon. Take a look at the people who make your life miserable and know that their opinions are nothing. If you want to go to university, you will meet people who are like you. Who think like you, or ask questions like you. Life after school rocks, basically, and you are in a position to understand that. THe kids who are intent of bullying, and causing grief to everyone around them have no conscious understnaing of what it is to move forward, and on to do all sorts of interesting, cool things with their futures.

    Whereas you do. So just brush them off, they are idiots.

    The other thing I’d say to them is – you’re not going to believe this, but learning just gets better and better too. And never stops.

  12. Hmmm … all these thoughtful posts by erudite people.

    When I was a 15 year old geek, all I wish I’d known was that girls don’t bite, and that if you don’t take a gamble and act at the time then the moment will be gone for ever ;-).

  13. I was fifteen about two weeks ago… OK not really, SIX whole years, but still.

    Being the really good at talking to people, or making people laugh, or being able to play the piano really well, or the best at ping pong are just as valuable as being the smartest. Everybody is great at something. They just need to find what it is.

  14. That your peers’ opinions that matters so much now won’t matter when your an adult. Don’t be afraid to be your unique self and you will thrive once you do. Be comfortable in your own skin.

  15. I’d tell the 15-year-old me to go to start going to gigs, to take an interest in politics and current affairs, that school can be great but is nothing like the real world, and that being funny is a valuable skill.

    And, if you’ll excuse the sentimentality, I’d tell him that it’s OK to be gay.

  16. If I could go back and tell my fifteen-year-old self one thing – and to make James feel older, that’d be 1995 for me – it’d be to agree with #19 and stop taking everything so damn seriously! In the end, much of it won’t matter that much, some of the rest isn’t really under your control, and beating yourself up over the remainder doesn’t help; learn to be gentle with yourself and the people around you.

    (I could probably still stand to learn those lessons! That’s another thing, isn’t it; everyone’s a work in progress. Learn to learn and everything else flows.)

    Sorry if that was a bit *too* navel-gazy. I was a disgustingly swotty kid.

  17. I’d be sure to put something in about beer and girls!

    On a serious note, I’d advise my younger self to be more aware of the connections between the theory you learn at school and what it means in the real world. Making the not-so-obvious connections is something that is very valuable to me today, but was something that took time to develop.

  18. Good stuff here! My two cents:

    – Yes, it’s still ok to play with legos and will continue to be!
    – Don’t just automatically continue to study what you LIKE – look around a little for study areas that have demand. Prefrable a *rising demand* in the future.
    – If you want to hit on girls: a) understand that they prefer older guys and b) you’re mother was wrong, being polite, super nice and all is a FAIL… ;)

    And maybe show some cool photos of e.g. IBMers in various events, where everyone played and partied with no signs of boring adulthood! :)

  19. I’d tell them to ignore all the namby pamby do gooders in these comments. Start working harder. Exams are more important than you think. You need an precise plan of what to do for the next 60 years. It’s important that you get things right first time and there is time for fun, when you retire.

    Essentially, start taking things much more seriously, worry about stuff more and it’s not ok to fail.

  20. You spoke once before at the Blandford School, during assembly. I remember, I was there. You were asked what the meaning of life was. Your reply was along the lines of ‘getting drunk and general hedonism’. I remember thinking it was a pretty dumb answer at the time.

  21. @29: really? Are you sure it was me? This doesn’t sound much like me and I don’t remember being involved in any school assemblies since I left school. (It’s always possible that I’ve blanked out a period of alcohol-fuelled hedonism in my life, but there would be other signs, surely. Like liver damage). When was this?

    Everyone else: wow. I wasn’t expecting such a response, and such responses. This is wonderful stuff.

  22. I would tell myself not to try TOO hard. At 15 (’85) I was trying to be a yuppie wanted apartment in NYC, fast car, and a mobile (my mum made shirts for real yuppies and one had one of those huge brick phones that I thought looked cool). I am now trying to live life slower, enjoying moments. I think I might be about to quote ferris beuller. “life moves pretty fast ….”
    Seriously go deep not wide.

  23. Funnily enough, you were probably 15 at the time. I was in the year below. And as for who i am?

    Chris Killer

  24. I Like this.

    Heres a contribution;

    1. Try out a lot of; stuff, places and people.
    2. Don’t let peer pressure hold you back, but:
    3. If you try to avoid every instance of peer pressure you will end up without any peers whatsoever, the trick is to succumb to enough peer pressure that you do not drive your peers away but not so much that you end up in a situation in which you are dead or otherwise uncomfortable. This is a difficult trick and most people never master it and end up dead or uncomfortable at least once during their lives. (not mine, but has grain of truth)
    4. Don’t just back ‘winners’, you can learn from failure. If your not prepared to risk a little every now and again, your going to struggle.
    5. We, or Roo in this case, don’t know the future any more than you do. You are in-fact the future, in that you will make it. Added to this, just as you get the hang of a stage of life, it will change, i.e. school, uni, career, marriage, kids, old etc. Given that you are not going to know what’s coming until it hits you, enjoy what you can, as you can.
    6. Don’t believe the hype / media / spin
    7. Take care of each other

  25. Hi Chris. Suddenly your comment makes a lot more sense. The term I used was probably ethical hedonism, but I can well imagine I would have been spouting a lot of nonsense 15 years ago.

    I love Ray’s suggestions of hearing what’s really important from our 60 year old selves.

  26. buy gold.

    Save one artifact a year and keep it for future amusement (eg. Lego Builder’s Club Card). Don’t hoarde the boring stuff.

    @35 – Glyn, I like #5 I always thought grown ups had some grand plan which made things make sense. Now I realise they make it up as they go along. The biggest thing they have over you is experience.

    History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

  27. there so much good stuff here. The one thing I have learned over the past 25 years and that I REALLY would have liked to have known back then is:
    If you do what you’re passionate about
    you will be good at it (eventually)
    and you will make money with it.
    This is true for the most ridiculous seeming ideas you might have.

  28. Embrace risk in life.
    Things own you, not vice versa.
    Understand your self.

    What appears to be
    Is a figment of the mind,
    Constructed by you.

    Future is not fixed.
    Live the story of your life—
    Ending is unknown.

  29. my advice would be.
    dont assume that the world of work means no fun. just dont spend the vast portion of your life doing something you hate or dont believe in.
    it really is not all about money
    as you get older remember to share what you know. people dont have to listen but if it just helps one person that is still great.
    to quote seth godin “do something worthy of a statue, not because you want a statue created in your honour”

  30. Roo, I would tell them to pick something they like doing and plan on making a living out of it. I would also tell them to choose an e-mail address that they intend to keep forever. They probably already have a mobile phone number which can be theirs forever.
    These children you’re talking to are entering a world where they don’t ever have to lose touch with the friends sat beside them in the assembly hall if they don’t want to. The have a world of social networks at their disposal where someone will know someone who is looking for the thing they do. Help them to imagine the social networks of the future … never know Roo you could retire on your after dinner speaking contacts generated from these 15 year olds.

    Enjoy it. It’s an honour.

  31. Ooops, looks like I’m too late.

    1. Exams will get you an interview, but it’s personality that drives the success rate and your career.
    2. If you go to university, make sure you get a full life education out of it, not just the academic one – and that’s a good reason to go at 18 or 19, and live away from home, if you can manage it.
    3. Tell people (especially boring and interfering adults, teachers, and managers) what you want to achieve: you’ll be amazed what can happen; and conversely, you’ll be amazed at what silly things they may suggest if you stay schtum.

    How did the evening go?

  32. There’s a whole month to go yet.

    So much to digest here. I’m not really in to giving advice unless it’s sought. I give quite a lot of advice at work, but it’s specifically about social media stuff, and people generally seem to find it useful. Real Life is different, and teenagers are totally different) so there was already much more in my head than I’d ever want to say to them.

    Many of the comments here underline things I already wanted to say, including that it’s OK not to have a plan. This amazing feedback has given me some more confidence, but a couple of additional ideas too. This is such a good resource that I’ll probably point them at it and say look.. I asked random friends on the internet what they’d tell their younger selves, and this is what they think. :-)

  33. That the place you dream about working when you sit in the careers libraries looking at leaflets will turn out to be everything you hoped for, even if it will bare more than striking resemblance to the place you’re really quite keen to escape from at the moment.

  34. There’s so much optimism and lovely sentiment here. I don’t think it’s representative. The majority of people in the world, and likely the majority of youth you will be talking to, will never do work that inspires them. They’ll do things because it makes them feel important, or because it gives them money to do the things they actually enjoy, the most important way in which they’ll change the world for the better is from the relationships they have, not their work. And that is OK. And that is how the world must work, until we have robots to do everything uninspiring.

    So when you talk, tell people that it is possible to find work that inspires, and that they should put great effort into seeking it, but don’t boast too much. You don’t want to sell them on a lie, just because you and your friends have been lucky in life.

    The skill they need is to be able to find friends and challenges and be themselves whatever they do in life.

    The important thing is to be prepared to change. Change is one of the hardest things people can do. You may not have a dream now, but when you do, give up your secure life and persue it. Don’t worry too much if other people who have never followed theirs say that yours is unfeasible. They don’t know. You’ll learn if it’s not only by doing it.

    Things I would warn people:

    1. If you have any self awareness, there’ll come a time when you realise that your actions do not match up to your self image. This is a crisis of identity. Don’t worry about it too much, you’ll cope. Try to work out who you really are according to what you actually do. If you truly wish you were more the person you thought you were, then take that as something to aspire to rather than beating yourself up about not being that person.

    2. Lots of people suffer from mild depression a year or two after university because work isn’t as much fun as uni was. Don’t let it get you down.

    I enjoyed 35.3, it’s a true insight that you will lose peers if you make yourself immune to peer pressure, but probably the majority of people you’ll be talking to are on the worrying too much about fitting in side of that equation.

  35. It pays to be nice to people. You never know when you will need help or a job, and more likely than not that help or job will come from someone unexpected.

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