I just stumbled upon a box of letters to my future self—here’s what I learned
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with communicating with future and past versions of myself. I’ve always felt like if I could harness all my power and perspective from every age and every angle of life, I could better guide myself toward making good decisions about my future. The only snag in this plan is that time seems to maneuver linearly and we can’t just jump into the future and ask our older selves a quick question if we feel like it (yet…).
Once I reached my early teens and got old enough to start being nostalgic, I realized that this kind of ‘time travel’ can be achieved when looking back at past memories, particularly when it comes to writing. Opening a box of old homework at 11 years old could bring me back to the first day of first grade in an instant, no time machine necessary. After encountering this phenomenon a few times I started to realize that if I wrote myself letters in the future, they would eventually reach me.
I started to get really into this idea around age 13 when the crappiness of middle school started to hit me with full force. I felt awkward, uncool, and like nothing ever seemed to go my way. I wanted nothing more to reach out of the horribleness and talk to the older, awesomer version of me that I was so sure was on the other side. So I started writing letters to my future self. I’d talk about my day, problems I was having in that moment, and pleading to my future self to have either solved the problems or have moved beyond them. More often than not I’d write in times of crisis. Depression, sadness, and strife were all fair game to push off onto my future to solve.
Fast forward to right now, in 2015. I’m 24 and my mom wants me to go through a closet of my old possessions to get ready for a tag sale that we’re having in a few weeks. Low and behold, I found all of these letters, packed together in a single box. I hadn’t seen them in a few years, so I didn’t really know what to expect. By opening them I effectively had the chance to talk to all past permutations of Scarlet at once. Turns out, all the past ‘Scarlets’ had a lot to say. Here is what I’ve learned from all those past versions of me.
It gets better, but that doesn’t mean now is bad
In most of my letters I look to the future as the ultimate solution. Essentially the idea that things suck right now, but someday they won’t. Looking back on the letters I realize that’s how a K-12 education can feel when you’re going through it. Since you move up in your education grade by grade and know pretty much what your next steps are going to be for 12 years of your life, you can feel trapped in a timeline. When you’re in it, you can feel like you have no power to solve the ‘problems’ in your life until adulthood.
But then the funny thing you don’t realize about adulthood is that it’s open-ended. Anything can happen, and you’re the one who is behind the wheel. Once you’re on the other side you start to appreciate the good times you had when you were younger in a way that you never could then. In one letter 17-year-old Scarlet writes to 19-year-old Scarlet and complains, “High school sucks. I only have four friends and my family to talk to.”
I don’t know about you, but 17-year-old Scarlet’s life sounds pretty rad. She has four close friends! Four of them! Her family is supportive and loves her! She doesn’t pay rent, doesn’t have to work, and can spend all day after school making art and writing. I’m having a lot of trouble feeling that bad for her. But knowing that, I have to remember to look through my life today through the same lens. I often joke that if 6 year old me knew that I would grow up to live in NYC, do standup at night, and be on the computer all day, she would think that I had grown up to be the coolest person in the whole wide world. I shouldn’t joke about it though, because it’s kind of true. Looking back on the good parts of your life can be a gentle reminder that even though you might not see it that way, things can be pretty awesome right now.
You’re going to make the same mistakes a lot. Be aware of your patterns
One of the weirdest parts about looking through all my letters is seeing what my mind is preoccupied with throughout the years. And although the details changed, the core problems seem to stay the same. As a shy person who wants to rock the world, from ages 13-22, social anxiety and (perceived) success are what permeate my letters. I say weird things like ‘if’ I get into college, or worry about my friendships and how awkward I come across to other people.
Now that I’m older I realize that I wasn’t alone, and everyone I knew back in the day was grappling with similar issues. I’d like to say I have gotten over my insecurities, but I haven’t really. I’m better at accepting success when it happens, and not getting down on myself when it doesn’t. I’m better at making friends, but I’m also no longer afraid of being alone or feeling awkward. But at the same time I know if I were to write another letter to my future self, it would probably echo the older letters in those respects. Although we grow and change it’s important to remember that we often come back to the same perceived hurdles. It’s good to be aware of them so they don’t trip us up in the future.
Your own wisdom will surprise you
I’ve got to hand it to my younger self, sometimes I would make observations or quips about the world that were so insightful that they impress me and feel relevant to my life years later. My favorite at the moment is from 17-year-old Scarlet: “If a guy breaks up with you and is mean to you, do not go out with them again. A career is more important than a guy, as is your family, you friends, and you self-respect. Never mess up your life for a guy. If you think what you’re doing isn’t messing up your life, think again. You deserve an amazing life, and millions of people throughout history have ruined it for a boyfriend or girlfriend. Remember that if you’re in a relationship right now, my judgment is better than yours, because being in a relationship is like being drunk, and I don’t drink.”
The quote was about a friend’s relationship (I didn’t really date in high school), but this would prove to be terribly relevant advice to several versions of future Scarlet. And even though I said it myself, guess who still messed up her life for a few guys here and there? Looking back on a quote from myself like this reminds me where I came from and what I truly believe in. It’s important to keep your own thoughts and wisdom in mind, no matter how far away you feel from it in the moment.
One of the sweetest things I came across in the box of letters was the most simple. It was one of those drug store brand Valentine’s Day cards with Barbie in princess regalia on the front. It says ‘Happy Valentine’s Day to a friend with lots of style!’ On the back it says ‘To: 23 year old Scarlet, From: 15 year old Scarlet.’ It makes me happy that at 15 I was prescient enough to know that that simple, goofy, gesture would be enough to cheer me up for years to come. It’s important to remember to practice self-love and not be so down on yourself all the time.
Stuff you worry about now might not even be a concern in the future
One of the biggest things I noticed was that all the problems I worried about so much in the past ended up working themselves out so well that I forgot that they had been problems in the first place. I hated having to be ‘trapped’ at school every day and write about it in excruciating detail. Now I barely remember the every day drudge of my K-12 education. What I remember is my friends, my hobbies, and the lessons I learned.
For years I was so worried about if I would be ‘good enough’ to get accepted to college, and I ended up getting an amazing education at my dream school. I was worried about what my life would be like, and the truth is that it’s better than I could have imagined in so many wild, crazy mysterious ways. Life is unpredictable we don’t know what’s going to be important tomorrow. What I will say is that following the love and focusing energy on the positive usually yields good results. Time makes all the past negative melt by the wayside. I try to keep this lesson in mind when living my life today. There will always be bad, but don’t focus on it, because the good is going to be what sticks out later in life.
I stopped writing letters to myself after I graduated college. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think maybe it’s because I’ve lived enough of my perceived ‘future’ to know that life is too crazy to put that much pressure on your future self. I no longer try to imagine future selves that are going to fix my problems today. Instead I try my best to work hard and live the life that I want to be living now, in the moment. In a way that makes me happy for past Scarlet, because I imagine that she’s finally satisfied, and I’m that cool capable person she imagined on the other side. I might not have all the answers, but I know that I will do well by myself.
[Image via MGM]