Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 18

Grow­ing up, many of us assume that every adult can, by def­i­n­i­tion, give us life advice. When we grow up a lit­tle more, we real­ize that, like every­thing else, it isn’t quite that sim­ple: though old­er peo­ple do, on the whole, seem eager and some­times even des­per­ate to dole out words of wis­dom, whether those words apply in our own cas­es, or even make sense, falls to us to deter­mine. And so we’d do bet­ter not to ask our elders to give us advice, but to give their younger selves advice: what, we might ask, do you wish you’d known before, say at the age of eigh­teen? Writer, come­di­an, and all-around man of the page and screen Stephen Fry answers in the clip above.

“The worst thing you can ever do in life is set your­self goals,” Fry says. “Two things hap­pen: one is you don’t meet your goals so you call your­self a fail­ure. Sec­ond­ly, you meet your goal and go, ‘Well, I’m here, now what? I’m not hap­py I’ve got this car, this job, I’m liv­ing in this address which I always thought was the place I want­ed to be.’ Because you’re going for some­thing out­side your­self, and that’s no good.” The obser­va­tion that you can’t derive last­ing sat­is­fac­tion from exter­nal cir­cum­stances may date back at least to the Sto­ics, who rec­om­mend focus­ing only on your own actions and reac­tions, but it bears repeat­ing more often than ever in the exter­nal cir­cum­stance-rich 21st cen­tu­ry.

But that does­n’t mean that you can sim­ply turn inward: “Let’s for­get what suc­cess­ful peo­ple have in com­mon. If there’s a thing that unsuc­cess­ful peo­ple have in com­mon, it’s that they talk about them­selves all the time. ‘I need to do this, I need’ — their first two words are usu­al­ly ‘I need.’ That’s why nobody likes them, and that’s why they’ll nev­er get where they want to be.” But “if you use your eyes to look out, not to be looked into, then you con­nect, then you’re inter­est­ing, then peo­ple want to be around you. It’s about the warmth and the charm you can radi­ate that is real because of your pos­i­tive inter­est in oth­ers.”

I myself have thought about these words of Fry’s often since first watch­ing this inter­view with him half a decade ago. Clear­ly these pieces of advice to his eigh­teen-year-old self have wider applic­a­bil­i­ty, and he has much more to offer besides: Spend a few extra moments and a few extra words con­nect­ing with oth­ers. Efface your­self. Delib­er­ate­ly pur­sue expe­ri­ences dif­fer­ent from the ones you “know you like.” Trav­el and read. Have heroes and men­tors, and keep learn­ing from them. Shar­ing the ben­e­fits of life is the ben­e­fit of life. Under­stand the dual pull of being a part of and apart from the “tribe.” Test things out instead of tak­ing them on trust. Nev­er read the com­ments. Kind­ness counts more than virtue, jus­tice, truth, or any­thing else.

And, we might add, make sure to ask the right ques­tions when seek­ing advice — but make even more sure to ask the right peo­ple.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stephen Fry on Cop­ing with Depres­sion: It’s Rain­ing, But the Sun Will Come Out Again

How to Live a Good Life? Watch Phi­los­o­phy Ani­ma­tions Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry on Aris­to­tle, Ayn Rand, Max Weber & More

What Ques­tions Would Stephen Fry Ask God at the Pearly Gates?

Stephen King Writes A Let­ter to His 16-Year-Old Self: “Stay Away from Recre­ation­al Drugs”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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