Letter to my younger self: “Don’t be so damned sure.”

My high school yearbook photo

My high school yearbook photo

What would you like to tell your younger self?

This week, I had a Twitter exchange with @workdayweb, aka Dave, about writing notes to our younger selves. Dave said he got the idea from reading an article in the Virgin Australia inflight magazine. (A quick Google search shows it’s a popular literary device, with many people sharing lessons they’ve learned.) If Dave and I steal like artists, maybe we can build on the idea in some new way that might be interesting or beneficial to others.

There are many lessons I wish I understood and practiced earlier. Here’s one.

Dear John,

I’ve been thinking a lot about you (the younger me) quite a bit. In the last few years, I’ve become aware of a trap I wanted to warn you about. I figured I could spare you some awkward moments while helping you discover some useful things more quickly.

Here it is: 

When you think you really know something, especially when you’re feeling smarter than other people, don’t be so damned sure.

Take your strident atheism, for example. It’s easy for you to dismiss other people’s beliefs because you don’t share them. But listen to one of your heroes, David Attenborough, an intelligent champion of science and evolution, describe his uncertainty about religion. Of all people, how could he be uncertain? 

“When I have taken off the top of a termite hill and I’ve seen termites in there, all busy about building walls, caring for the queen….they’re all blind and they haven’t the faintest idea that I am there, watching what they’re doing, because they don’t have those sense organs which would allow them to know that. And I do sometimes feel that maybe I’m lacking in some sense organs, that I don’t know whether there’s anybody else involved…”

So what are you absolutely sure of? Not too long ago, people were sure the earth was in the center of the solar system. It was easy to mock them for their combination of ignorance and certainty. But are you any better? Now we have string theory and the prospect of multiple universes making a mockery of what you thought you knew for sure. Like the termites, you and I don’t even have the sense organs to perceive what that new knowledge implies.

You’ve scoffed, too, at magic and mysticism, miracles and meditation. They were all ideas that seemed alien to you and described in language you didn’t understand. So you dismissed them. Yet now, for example, fMRI studies show how our brains change in response to meditation,  giving us different capabilities, and finally validating wisdom that monks have been trying to impart to us for 2500 years.

What other wisdom have you dismissed? What else are you sure about but shouldn’t be?

Look, I’m proud of what you’ve learned and what you aspire to learn. Just don’t be smug. Don’t confuse critical thinking with simply being critical of things that are different or that you just don’t understand. Be respectful of other people and their beliefs. And be smart enough to know that there’s a lot you don’t know. 

If you listen more, talk less, and be open to the possibilities, life will be a lot more interesting.

Love you.



About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
This entry was posted in Self awareness and improvement and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Letter to my younger self: “Don’t be so damned sure.”

  1. John says:

    Excellent advice, John. Wish we had such insights back then..may have made things a little easier.. Best regards.

  2. Jon Bidwell says:

    Probably number one would have been…”don’t make fun of the electrical engineering majors, be one”. On the other hand, one benefit of the insurance business is some higher power is always smacking us in the side of the head with some outcome we never thought of or modeled correctly.

  3. Great post! The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. And one thing I have learned – just because someone thinks or does something differently than you doesn’t mean they are wrong…just different.

  4. Cornelia Levy-Bencheton says:

    John, the fact that you are writing to your younger self is proof positive that you’ve grown young. Recalling the wise words of Pablo Picasso, “It takes a long time to grow young.” Congrats!

  5. Sue Mastroianni says:

    LOL Haven’t seen that photo in ages. Priceless.

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