A girl I knew from college emailed me recently with a question. She's trying to get a number of different answers for a project she's working on. This was my response to her:
I hope you're doing well. Your writing project sounds fascinating. I'll try to answer your question(s) but I'm not sure if my thoughts will help. Guess I'll leave that for you to decide.
The big question: I you could do one thing in your life differently (redo something) what would it be?
In all honesty, this is hard to answer. I blame it in part on age. I'm 24 years old. I feel like everything is beginning still. If you discount childhood in these considerations (which I do, since as a child I never really got to make the decisions that determined my fate, and your question focuses specifically on what I would choose or do for myself), that leaves barely over a decade of time to consider.
I've always been intrigued by the notion of being born as someone else, or of leading a life entirely different than my own. It's not that I dislike my own; I just wonder. What if one thing was different - would that change everything? If I were born in India instead of the U.S. If I were a boy instead of a girl. If I were gay instead of straight, a child prodigy instead of a person of average intelligence or ability, born in 1968 instead of 1986. One thing changes and your whole life is radically different.
I'm sorry about that rabbit trail, but it kind of explains my conclusion: right now, with my limited experience and a (hopefully) long life ahead of me, I don't think I would change anything. Ask me in thirty years and my answer may be quite different. That's not to say I haven't done stupid things. But those stupid things may have been the right things, because they brought me to where I'm at right now. For example, when I studied abroad in London I had the opportunity to intern at a London publishing company, but anyone who interned could only take a limited number of classes. There were some boring courses I had to take to fulfill my degree, and some that I really wanted to take though they wouldn't "count" for anything. It was too many credit hours; I couldn't do both. In the end, I sacrificed the internship to take the art and theatre classes. Instead, one of my flatmates got placed in that position and I heard all her stories of what the internship would have been like. I missed out on some valuable experiences (responding to query letters would have given me an excellent idea of mistakes to avoid when writing my own someday) and cool opportunities (she got to read "Skulduggery Pleasant," a children's novel by Derek Landy, before it was even published). Not to mention the fact that several employers I interviewed with after college seemed to regard the lack of an internship on my resume as some kind of laziness or deficiency on my part.
But--BUT--I learned more about art in three months just by seeing and discussing the pieces in person than I think I could have learned in ten years of squinting at reproductions in art textbooks. The shows I watched, the art I experienced, all of it really impacted me, to the point that I'll be working on a short story nowadays and I'll find an idea slips in or a description or phrase that I can trace back to those classes I took and the things I learned. Part of me hates that I missed out on that internship and wishes I could go back and do it, but another part of me has seen what I would have missed if I'd taken that other path and doesn't want to sacrifice it.
In answer to some of your other questions: I do think about this kind of thing from time to time (it's probably obvious from my way-too-long answer here!). Sometimes it'll be when I'm watching a television program like "Doctor Who" that involves time travel and rewriting timelines. Or it could be when reading books that deal with alternate histories or coexisting universes. Or sometimes it's at a big crossroads in life - graduation, a funeral, a new job, a birth. It's usually not tinged with regret, just with curiosity, and maybe a little bit of an itch to understand what it would be like to live outside my skin for a bit, to see the world from a completely different set of circumstances.
I think my answer is fairly boring because my life is fairly calm. I haven't taken huge risks or done daring things that could have gone terribly awry. I've been following a path... high school, college, job, dot dot dot... this is the point in life where I'll probably start making some of the bigger choices that I may one day regret. I think other people who have already faced bigger life choices may have very different answers to your question.
I would feel free to talk to anyone about this, I think. So, to recap: this seems like a boring answer, but it's the truth - I wouldn't change a thing. Maybe that's because I'm utterly convinced that we are never truly imprisoned in our current situation. If I'm thinking about the past and wishing I could change something, it's probably because I'm unhappy with my present lot in life and imagine that if I'd done something differently I wouldn't be stuck here today. But I don't think I am "stuck here today." And if I ever do feel like that, I'd much rather spend my present thoughts and energy and actions on changing my future instead of longing fruitlessly to change my past. You don't like your life? Change it. Feel like you should have gotten that degree in biology instead of creative writing? Go back to school and learn biology. Wish you'd lived in another country at least once? Move to Switzerland for a year. I feel like people's perspectives on this get skewed sometimes, so they think that once they arrive where they're "supposed to be" in life (secure, settled, with a place to live and a job to do) there's no escaping it. But that is such a lie. Nothing is written in stone until they're carving it on your tomb. Until then, live, make mistakes, but don't dwell on them. Move forward. Grow. Change.
So, not only is that really long but it probably comes across like a sermon or something. Sorry. Like I said, it's a fascinating question and I'm really intrigued by how you'll use these answers. If you ever want to share your project one day, sign me up!
P.S. I owe you an apology of monumental proportions. After graduation, I kind of fell off the map. Struggled a bit with depression. Wasn't very good at making the effort to reach out to people and keep in touch. I loved reading your emails and letters, and always intended to write back - and the fact that I never did is so embarrassing to me. So maybe I would change one thing after all: maybe I'd have written you back. Sorry.