This article by Dorie Clark first appeared at Forbes.
Should you accept that promotion? Go back to school? Wait to start a family? When faced with a difficult decision, it’d be helpful if we could get advice from our future selves about the right course to pursue. Sadly, no one has figured out how to make that particular time machine work. But former New York Times columnist Ellyn Spragins, author of What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, discovered that there are also benefits the other way around, when writing a letter to your past self. “We’re always narrating our story to ourselves,” she says, “and it turns out there are two versions – a public one, for our neighbors and colleagues, filled with accolades and accomplishments, and a private and hidden one, where we store the bumps and bruises.”
In her book and a series of sequels, she invites participants – many of them celebrities such as Maya Angelou, Eileen Fisher, Queen Noor, and Madeleine Albright – to pick a specific moment in time and share the wisdom and advice they’ve learned over the intervening years. They chose to write about various struggles, from dealing with a bad boss to choosing which job offer to take, and from how to be yourself at work to grappling with guilt over work-family balance. But above all, Spragins sought an honest, authentic reckoning. “Usually what makes it a charged struggle is there are other layers to [the situation],” she says. “That may have to do with fears, values, the way you were raised, the expectations of your environment.”
The letters, says Spragins, “are really pulling back the curtain on the secret history we carry around. When you hear somebody else’s letter, there’s a germ of truth, and so much compassion in understanding who they were. The advice and guidance may not apply to you, but if it does, it really affects people in a deep way, because it’s accessible and they’re not being preached at.”
Many participants, says Spragins, describe the process of writing the letters as being “cathartic” – a feeling she also experienced when writing her own letter. “If you go back to some of those times, it’s really hard, and maybe you still don’t feel so great,” she says. “Maybe you feel like a failure, and something about that time still gets to you. What I believe happens is we kind of orphan those experiences, and shut them away. We don’t necessarily want to revisit them, but when you write a letter to your younger self about one of those times, there’s so much acceptance and understanding of what you’ve learned, it’s almost like reclaiming a piece of yourself.”
Today, she often conducts corporate workshops where attendees write their own letters; sometimes, she’ll work with the company’s top executives in advance to prepare their own missives. A typical corporate panel discussion “can be engaging, but they’re often very predictable and generic,” she says. Top leaders reading letters to their younger selves, on the other hand, generates a dramatically different response from the audience. “You look at these leaders and think they’d lead charmed lives – they’re so talented, and perfect, and different than you. Then you hear in their letter that something was hard for them, and maybe it’s not that different than something you struggled with or your friend did. It humanizes them and validates you, and opens the door for you to think, maybe I could [achieve what she’s achieved]. It opens the door to conversations and topics you wouldn’t normally feel comfortable talking about at work or at a conference.”
Was there a time in your life when you were struggling and could have used advice? Read these insightful letters from others, and check out tips from Spragins about writing your own letter to your younger self. What do you wish you had known? What advice can you share now?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.