I’ll be really upfront about the fact that I’ve made some mistakes in life. Except for a couple years in late grade school, my parents homeschooled me all the way up through high school graduation, and I decided to go to college too early. I dropped out of a couple of colleges before finding the right one. I took out too many loans for undergrad and then for grad school. I got married at age twenty-three and then divorced at twenty-eight.
Yeah, that’s right, I got married when I was twenty-three. Generally, I would advise against getting married that young. But everyone is different, so if you’re thinking about it, you do you.
The point is, I’ve made some mistakes, and those mistakes have led to consequences that have set me back some. Fortunately, there is one personal maxim that I’ve tried to incorporate into my life as much as possible — often not enough. It’s basically this.
Always listen to older people when they say they would have done something different.
I’m not talking about just sitting back and passively taking every suggestion of anyone older than you. Older people can be wrong about all kinds of stuff. You don’t have to listen to your weird uncle give you life advice about racism. But dollars to donuts, even your weird uncle has interesting life experience that might be useful to you.
While I haven’t always followed my own advice here, the times that I have generally have worked out for me in very favorable ways. A case in point is my wedding.
When my ex and I got engaged, we spent a lot of time talking to various family members on and off about it, planning what we would do for the wedding, how we would get everyone to the venue, how far in the future we wanted to have the celebration, and so on. Amidst this somewhat chaotic shuffling of life prospects, I remember distinctly having a conversation with my ex’s father, whom I’ll call ‘Ben’, to preserve his anonymity.
Ben was a tall and formidable midwestern man with a collection of hunting rifles and a no-nonsense attitude when it came to life’s practicalities. He had worked in just about every rough and tumble job you can imagine, had sustained various scary injuries working them, and had survived to tell the tales in his booming, jocular way. Probably because of some of the hard learned life experience he had, the man took an extremely pragmatic approach to many things, especially if they involved other people and formalities. He knew what was really important in life, at its very raw core.
When I brought up the topic of marriage to Ben, he looked me dead in the eye and gave me one of the most useful pieces of advice. “Whatever you do,” he told me, “make this wedding about you guys. Don’t do it for other people. Do what you guys want to do. If I were to do it over, I would have a smaller wedding, have just the people I wanted there. You don’t have to do something big just because that’s what most people do or just because a lot of people will want to attend.”
I told my ex about the conversation, and we listened to him.
My wedding was really small. There were probably only twenty people at the actual ceremony, though we invited more for the after party. We were married in a bookstore, and we did the reception in the cafe where we both worked, which was all part of the same business. (For those of you thinking it was weird to get married at work, let me point out that we were both super literature nerds, and this was a super cute local bookstore that we loved and was very personally meaningful to both of us. Also, we got featured in Forbes for it, so that’s cool.)
We kept it small, and we only invited who we wanted. My own grandparents weren’t even there. It was just immediate family and a very small handful of friends. It was a fantastic little party, and it was really meaningful.
In the end, our relationship lasted for about seven years before we decided we wanted different things in life, and we moved on. There were innumerable indiscretions on both sides that led to the breakup five years later and legal divorce about a year after that. I regret a lot of things about being married. But there is one thing I definitely don’t regret: the wedding.
The wedding was awesome, and besides the whole getting married to my ex part (!), I would do it over again. I don’t regret anything about it, except maybe that I shaved my beard for the occasion.
Ben was right, and I’m glad I listened to him.
I’ve learned it’s a good idea to pay attention to the life experience of people that are older than you when it comes to practical life decision making. Usually, when someone older than you remarks that they wish they had done something differently or pontificates about how they would do things now, it is often actionable advice that can be really useful and save you a headache. (I wish I’d listened to my professor when he told me not to get married so young, for example.)
What was important about Ben’s message to me wasn’t the suggestion that we keep our wedding small. It was that we should make the day about one thing alone: us. And if you’re planning on getting married and I can give you one piece of advice, it’s that.