In my mid to late teens, I was having an argument with my mother about cupcakes.
It’s not really important what the argument was about, but the gist of it is that, in response to her telling me not to eat another cupcake, I took one and shoved the entire thing in my mouth at once while maintaining eye contact with her.
You can call that what you will—rebellious, ridiculous, amusing, or just plain stupid—but I can’t deny that the cupcake still tasted delicious.
I knew then, and I still know now, that my mother was only looking out for me, that she had my best interests at heart, and that her goal was not to restrict or oppress me in any way, but merely to keep me healthy. And yet I still ate that cupcake in one bite. In public. At an event.
The reason for this was that, although we both agreed that health was important, I did not see it as much of a risk. Teenagers are known for being reckless; although I was never really one to flirt with danger, the part of my brain that motivates me to pursue more long-term goals was not (and is not) yet fully formed. I did not see the risks the same way she did.
The second reason I ate that cupcake is because I want to make my own mistakes.
It sounds kind of stupid. Who wants to make mistakes? But I can point out many times in my life when I was warned against something, did it anyway, and ended up with the exact consequences that had been predicted by the person (usually a parent) had warned me.
This may seem like straight-up insanity, but the truth of the matter is that the best way to learn is through your own experience, and not secondhand experience. I prefer to test my own limits and make my own mistakes, because then it’ll stick out in my head far more the next time I consider doing something stupid.
The right time to make mistakes is when you’re young. That’s when it’s socially acceptable and most easily reversible. That’s when you’re healthiest and most energetic. If you get injured, you’re more likely to recover fully, and you will also recover more quickly. If you stumble into a social error, well, your friends won’t be around for that much longer before you move onto the next stage of your life. (Also, everyone’s making mistakes constantly, so it’s chill.) All of the stupid, dramatic, risky things that you do are just learning experiences. (This is, of course, assuming they are not dangerous. My little adventures never were.)
When I make a mistake, I stop, reflect, and try again from a new angle. I’ve learned one more thing that I shouldn’t do. Mistakes are just a process of elimination; there’s nothing wrong with doing something wrong. It just means you tried something and it didn’t work, so you’ve successfully narrowed down the list of viable options for next time.
If I keep eating a lot of unhealthy food, I will gain weight. I’m currently at a healthy weight, so this is not a priority for me. If I see myself gaining weight as a result of my actions, and I dislike gaining weight more than I like eating unhealthy food, I will adjust my behavior accordingly based on the natural consequences I suffer.
Then, when I start eating healthy, I have something spurring me on, which is the vision of what would happen if I didn’t eat healthy. It’s a lot easier to give up when you don’t know the negative alternative. When I consider eating a donut and I decide not to, it’s because I have a vision in my head of what I don’t want my life to look like, and that vision involves the donut. I have something to be afraid of.
Firsthand experience is always more effective than learning through someone else. It’s more painful and uncomfortable, and depending on the severity of the mistake may not be worth it, but once you have that experience, it’s worth every awkward, embarrassing, and painful moment combined.