The Never List

A friend of mine e-mailed a big group of people this weekend with an interesting question: What’s one piece of advice you would give to your 15-year-old self.

My friend has a nephew who is about to turn 15, and as a Christmas present he’s putting together a book of advice and anecdotes for him. I love the concept, and I’m sure this will certainly elevate my friend to “cool uncle” status. The following is my contribution to the book.

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The One Piece of Advice I Would Give My 15-Year-Old Self

When I was 15, I had a list of things I had already decided I would never do. I somehow knew after 15 years of life that I knew all the things I would never do for the remaining 70+ years.

It didn’t seem so presumptuous at the time.

I didn’t write down the list; it was something I had composed in my mind over time. The more I thought about it, the more definitive it became. I knew for sure I would never do those things, and I had already decided that I would be a better person because of those limitations.

There’s nothing wrong with creating a list of things you’ll never do. In fact, I wish I had written down that list. Because if I had, I would have told myself the following advice:

Go out of your way to do everything on your Never List.

What I didn’t realize at 15 was that the Never List represented all of my fears. I had painted a picture of a safe life for myself, one where I never had to do all of the things I was afraid of. For some of those things, I was afraid of the actual act or experience. For others, I was either afraid of the consequences of doing the thing or I completely misunderstood the risks involved (or the lack thereof).

We all experience fear of the unknown. Thus if you let things remain unknown, you’re going to continue to fear them.

Terra Mystica Cat

At 15, I told myself I would never get a pet for a number of reasons. We all know how that turned out.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my fear made me really judgmental of people who did all the things I decided never to do. Because I had decided they should never be done, I assigned a moral compass to many of them: If doing A is bad, everyone who does A must be bad. Which isn’t true at all. You won’t realize that until you do A and realize that you are not defined by that experience. Doing things on your Never List will make you a more compassionate human being.

Here’s the truth that my 15-year-old self never would have known: You’re going to end up doing all the things on your Never List anyway. Really. In fact, you’ll probably do most of them in the next 5 years. But you’re going to do all of those things—many of which are, let’s be honest, pretty bad ideas—for the dumbest possible reasons. You’ll end up doing them as a dare or to impress a girl or due to peer pressure or because you’re tired or drunk or horny. You will do them (and you’ll most certainly learn from them), but you’ll wish you had done them under different circumstances.

So make your Never List, then check items off of it one by one over the years. Be intentional about it. Do stupid things in wise ways—make them learning experiences instead of spontaneous decisions.

I wish I had known that when I was 15.

What was on your Never List when you were 15 that you ended up doing? Is there anything left on your Never List that you would consider doing in an intentional way?