An esteemed colleague and I recently contemplated whether or not we would go back in time if we had the chance.
For the purpose of this discussion, we were not considering time travel in general, but specifically whether we would go back to an earlier point in our own lives, which would give us the opportunity to change the way we did some things.
I suppose most people have considered this at one time or another. Unless we are extraordinarily lucky, there are probably decisions we have made or things we have done that we wish we would have done differently.
For me, one critical element would be that I would want to take the knowledge and experience I have now back with me.
It would certainly make some of those decisions easier, if I knew back then what I know now.
I am reasonably confident I would have done far fewer stupid things along the way if I had the benefit of my current knowledge at the time. Understanding not only options but potential outcomes makes a big difference.
Direct experience is an effective, but often painful, method of learning.
On a basic level, taking a pan out of a hot oven with our bare hands is likely to provide immediate and severe feedback, and is likely to convince the dimmest individual that he has made a poor decision.
A broader understanding of the world prevents us from having to pick up every hot pan we encounter to determine if it is the right decision.
I’m sure that if I had been equipped with my current knowledge, I would have wasted less time earlier in my life, and devoted more time and energy to things that were important to me, or that I enjoyed.
Had I had more confidence in myself at an early age, I would have invested less time on people who were not real friends, or who were a bad influence or used other people.
Knowing what I know now, I would have tried more things, and taken more risks risks in the sense of stepping out of my comfort zone, not in the sense of playing in traffic.
However, as my wise cohort pointed out, there may be complications associated with this idea of going back in time.
Suppose, for example, that the things we would do differently substantially altered the course of our lives. In some ways, that would be a huge benefit.
If making better decisions kept us from running afoul of the law or hurting people we care about, that would be a good thing.
If we decided to study more, instead of letting wild women lead us astray, that would be a significant benefit.
Using our time more efficiently and effectively early in life could make our later years more comfortable.
In other ways, however, making different decisions that change the course of our lives could be bad.
Maybe our new choices would put us on a path that keeps us from meeting a spouse we love very much. My confrere noted this would make her very nervous, and would constitute an unacceptable risk.
Perhaps making different choices would prevent us from meeting people who have become important in other areas of our lives, such as friends, colleagues, teachers, or mentors.
This makes the concept of going back in time complicated. Not only would we want to make better decisions in general, but we would want to do so in such a way as not to jeopardize the things we got right the first time around.
Perhaps that’s why we can’t go back.
The pieces of our lives are so complex and so intertwined, changing one thing is bound to alter other pieces later on.
It’s fun to dream about going back and changing things we regret.
The better course, however, is to use our knowledge and experience to make better decisions today.
It pays to remember the lessons of the past, but instead of worrying about what we could have done differently, we should live in the present and dream about the future.