Carlin Glynn and Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles (Image: REX)


A letter to my teenage self: mess up more

Playing it safe doesn’t actually mean staying safe, and it can’t protect you from loss or pain. Author Robin Wasserman wishes she’d known that as a teenager

Added on

By Robin Wasserman on

Oh, Robin – and imagine here your older, wiser, in-the-inevitable-creeping-process-of-getting-wizened self, heaving a sigh of resigned pity – you’re wrong about so many things, where to even begin? 

Triage: there’s your hair, first of all. It’s not just that you’re doing everything wrong there (spoiler alert, neither crimpers nor straighteners nor copious glops of Frizz-Ease is the answer to your desperate, frizzy-headed prayers). It’s your misguided faith that if you could fix it, recruit Keri Russell’s personal stylist, or better yet wake up to discover your follicles had magically gone Katie Holmes in the night, your life would be transformed and, like a bad 80s movie, you would take off your glasses, shake out your glorious tresses, zoom from zero to hero and get a hot date to the prom. And, speaking of the prom, yes, it’s on your birthday, but don’t hold your breath expecting the universe to pull a karmic rabbit out of its hat, especially not a rabbit shaped like the object of your unrequited love. (You want to talk wrong? “Unrequited” is only reversible in the movies – stop it.) Wrong moves: that beaded vest, that fuzzy sweater, that Ace of Base CD, that lab partner, that ill-advised crush on that guy and that other one on his best friend, those acid-washed shorts, those overalls. (Seriously, those overalls.) Add it up and you have made – will make – so many mistakes that this is going to sound counter-intuitive, but: make more

Look, I’m not going to waste my breath telling you to take more risks of illegal or death-defying nature, because I know you. You’re not going to drink. You’re not going to do drugs. You’re not going to shoplift or speed or smoke or hitchhike or cut class or do anything that might smudge your Permanent Record. (You believe, very devoutly, in Permanent Records.) You are the daughter of risk-averse parents; on both sides of the family tree, you’re scion to centuries of risk-aversion. Neurotic self-preservation is in your blood. Fair enough. And not entirely foolish – you’re clumsy enough that walking down the stairs qualifies as death-defying endeavour. But has it occurred to you that getting the occasional bad grade won’t kill you? That no one’s going to arrest you for being a terrible dancer? 

Be afraid of inaction, instead of action. Of stasis, instead of change. Of easy success, rather than ambitious failure

Embarrassment is not a terminal condition. 

And, for the record, playing it safe doesn’t actually mean staying safe. (Or unembarrassed.) It won’t save you from loss or pain. It will just mean trying fewer things, having fewer adventures, loving fewer people – and, inexplicably, racking up just as many regrets. A warning from your future: regrets of the “road not travelled” variety are harder to shake. 

Look, I get it. You hate failure. You hate uncertainty. You hate having to figure things out for yourself, rather than just listening to authority and doing as you’re told. And yet, you claim, you want to be a writer. 

You like standardised tests. (Pro tip: learn to keep that one to yourself.) You like objective measures, surmountable challenges, knowing, before you begin, how things will end. You like having a track, and staying on it. And yet, you claim, you want to be a writer. 

You like to be liked (even though, let’s be honest, you’re an opinionated, awkward, blunt, delightfully overconfident weirdo, so that might be off the table ’til college). You’re afraid to offend; you’re afraid to be mocked; you’re afraid to say what you think unless you already know it’s right. And yet – well, you get the idea. 

You’ve never cared about being cool. You’d rather be wild and artistic and unique. But instead of making the effort, you attach yourself to girls who can do it for you, girls who seem fearless. Here’s a suggestion: stop being satisfied with fearless-adjacent. Stop waiting around to grow up, to suddenly and through no effort of your own turn into the person you want to be. Tell off that asshole teacher who’s dedicated her life to making yours miserable; buy those secondhand Doc Martens even though you worry you can’t pull them off; finish that story and that other one instead of just assuming they won’t be any good; try out for the college paper even though you’re afraid of talking to strangers and libel suits and the practical impossibilities of a career in journalism; do something. Do anything.  

Be afraid of inaction, instead of action. Of stasis, instead of change. Of easy success, rather than ambitious failure. That terrifying feeling? Like the bottom is dropping out? That’s how you know you’re on the right track. 

I say this to you with all the (self) love in the world – along with a hearty portion of exasperation: Please, stop wasting our time. Start screwing up. 


Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman is out now

Carlin Glynn and Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles (Image: REX)
Tagged in:

Tap below to add to your homescreen

Love The Pool? Support us and sign up to get your favourite stories straight to your inbox