Michelle Obama. Mark Cuban. Jessica Alba. Bill Gates. Get just about any icon in front of a reporter and they'll be asked what advice they wish they could give their younger self. And every single one of them has an answer ready.

That's because we all (even billionaires) have regrets and lessons learned the hard way. But, while the idea that our mature selves have wisdom to share with younger selves is commonplace, no one ever thought to scientifically investigate the phenomenon. Until now.

Our younger selves screw up in a lot of the same ways

To get a more scientific sense of what we wish we could tell our younger selves, two Clemson University psychologists, Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord, created a questionnaire about pivotal life moments and the advice we wish we could give ourselves looking back. Hundreds of Americans over 30 took the survey via Amazon Turk.

When the psychologists analyzed the data, they discovered that the responses tended to cluster around five broad categories of advice. 

  1. Relationships ("Don't marry her. Do. Not. Marry. Her.")

  2. Education ("Finish college the first time around.")

  3. Selfhood ("Follow your own path and not try to please everyone around you.")

  4. Direction and goals ("Be more adventurous. Travel more. Live different places.")

  5. Money ("SAVE! Not just short-term for that guitar, but for early retirement.")

The curious can even read through all the original answers on the scientists' website.

If all the answers look vaguely familiar to you that may be because they closely mirror both anecdotal evidence of what people regret most and scientific research on the topic. For instance, Kowalski and McCord's work is littered with people urging their younger selves to trust themselves more and listen less to what others thought they should do with their lives. Similarly, a hospice nurse who cared for dying patients reports their most common regret is wishing they'd been more true to their own vision for their lives.

A pair of takeaways

All of which is interesting for academics, but what can you take away from this research for your own life? First, the fact that the same themes come up again and again (I cannot emphasize enough how often people talk about saving more in the original data) suggests that we have a tendency to make similar mistakes when we're young and inexperienced. By flagging these areas, this research should nudge younger readers to take a longer and more thoughtful look at these parts of their lives.

But even if you've already stumbled into many of the pitfalls this research highlights, it still offers hope. Some errors, of course, can never be undone. But many can, even if belatedly. Taking your own advice even years later than would have been ideal has significant upsides.

Study subjects agreed that following their own advice would bring them closer to the kind of person they want to be. And those who actually took their own advice said it had helped them become the kind of person their younger self would admire. This jibes with earlier research on the best way to get over regret. Forget beating yourself up or trying to ignore regrets, the research concluded, Instead, take action, however small, to try to become more like the person you want to be.  

This latest Clemson study is only preliminary, but the findings already suggest at least two key takeaways. If you're just starting out in life, beware these common areas where people so often wish they could have a redo. Or, if you've already stumbled plenty in your life, don't marinate in regret. Instead, take your own advice to your younger self. You can't fix every mistake, but doing what you can, even years later, will help you feel more comfortable in your own skin.