The simple key to learning from the past and forging a more successful future
We have all had experiences in our past, that for whatever reason, we have chosen to dwell on. We routinely allow past mistakes to haunt us and ultimately ham-string future successes. There are moments that I will fret about the fact that I did not take school seriously enough, and dream up all sorts of advancements that I could have made. I will then allow my emotions to tell me where I would be if I had just focused on achieving results. I can get down-right angry and fill myself with regret about all of the mistakes I have made. Deep down, we all know that this is not productive.
Change your perspective on past mistakes
We should never forget about the mistakes we have made in the past. More importantly, however, we should never allow those mistakes to define us. A key skill we need to develop as human beings is to accept the mistakes of our pasts and use the knowledge gained to advance ourselves emotionally, intellectually, socially and perhaps physically. Understanding that we have control over many things in our lives is important. Moreover, understand what we do not have control over is critical to being able to progress and find happiness.
This is all contingent on deciding how you will view those past errors. There are some, and I certainly used to be just like them, that could spend years making themselves miserable as they thought about what they could have done differently. Over and over, they replay the incident in their heads and allow their emotions to take control and suck them into a spiral of self-loathing. What is worse is that when this is happening, it is incredibly easy to allow those emotions to paint a picture of ourselves which is unflattering, to say the least. On top of all of that, it is also easy to believe that the picture we have painted of ourselves, no matter how unflattering, is our true self. This is dangerous as it can be self-fulfilling. The more we tell ourselves that we are worthless because of that mistake we made 5, 10 or 30 years ago, the more we will act under that self-deprecating bias. When we act upon that bias, we are choosing to poison the future. We are choosing to believe that the error we had made in our past has defined us and is perpetual.
We can not control what has already happened. We can choose to accept the past. We can choose to digest what that means for our present selves and decide how we will proceed with our future lives. How someone manages their past failures, directing impacts their future successes. People who cannot get over their poor choices in the past will struggle at making positive and smart choices in the future. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam is well-known for his interpretation of the Hindi philosophy of failure. He believes, as I do, that looking at the word itself answers the fundamental perspective that we, as humans, seek for acceptance. Fail is not some evil, four-letter word that we should all fear and despise. Rather, “fail” is an anagram; First attempt in learning.
Let’s look at the learning process of infants, to toddlers, to children. When an infant first tries to sit up, it is often unsuccessful. This is not because they are unable to ever do it. This is simply the first attempt. The infant will instinctively try again, and keep trying until it is successful. Then it becomes time to learn how to crawl. Invariably, the first attempts are a little rough, but in time, they get moving. What about walking? If a toddler were to give up the first time they fell down, they may never take the second step. Yet they do not give up. They keep pushing and, unless there is a real reason that they cannot, they will walk.
The examples above repeat themselves, countless times, as we learn to walk, communicate, get potty trained, learn to read, etc. If as infants, toddlers and children, we were to act as we do in our adult lives, we would likely look back upon the attempts to walk and never try again. We would never be able to move forward and we would likely die.
Why is an infant better at this than me?
Simple. The infant has a desire to achieve. They have a set goal and really, nothing better to do than to get there. An infant does not compare its successes and failures to other infants. An infant does not judge itself harshly for not achieving the goal on the first try. That is not to say that an infant cannot get frustrated, discouraged, or even angry while trying to advance. Sure they can. But the assumption, because there is no data to tell them otherwise, is that all of this is normal and a part of growing up.
Our problem is that we love to compare ourselves to others. We need to be better than the other guy/gal. We need to show that we can do anything they can. NOW! We can’t. More importantly, we need to stop beating ourselves up if we do not achieve greatness on the first attempt.
What about the things I can never take back?
There are always going to be decisions we have made in our past, that we wish we could have changed. There will always be moments in our lives where we wish that we had taken a different action. The thing is, we didn’t take that different action. Because of the choice that we made at that critical moment in our respective histories, our present and future have been changed. The thing to remember is, that even though we cannot change that past decision or action, we can change how we choose to take the knowledge gained from that moment and use it to build our future. Every mistake, failure, misplaced emotional response, broken promise, poorly thought through decision, was an opportunity. Even if we did not see it at the time. The opportunity is not forever lost, however. The opportunity that we missed in our past remains an opportunity. It just changes a bit.
That past opportunity, in the passage of time, changes from the immediate opportunity of the time to a more rewarding one. The opportunity of learning and knowledge. Every failure is valuable to our present selves as well as our future selves. If we choose to allow those failures to be an opportunity to learn and adapt. If we can allow acceptance of our past failures, without allowing them to define us, we are given the opportunity to transcend those failures.
Yes. There are some biggies. I never completed my college degree. I told myself that I could not afford it and that I needed to go get a job and work. I told myself this because I was trying to justify what I now know was really a lack of drive and determination. It was a simple matter of my not wanting it enough. Why would I do that to myself? Simple. I didn’t think about the consequences of that choice on my future self.
Sure. I could beat myself up for this. I did, for years. Believe me. But during all of those years, I never once, corrected the decision and went back to school to complete the degree. Instead, I chose to repeatedly berate my past self. I screamed at my past self about how he ruined me. I hated my past self because he made me a loser who would never amount to anything. I allowed my present self to fully believe that all of that was true. Bottom line, I did not learn from my past self. I complained about him.
Accept, retain, learn and act
We need to learn to accept that which we cannot control. I had to accept that I could not go back and slap my 18-year-old self and push him to do what I needed him to do those many years ago. I simply could not make that decision go away. So I accepted it. I made the conscious decision to understand that I could not change it. I decided that even though the decision I made years ago, was ultimately the wrong one, that it did not mean that I was any less of a person. I decided that I had the ability to do more with my life, so I had to problem-solve.
That day, I decided to go back to school. I researched financial aid options and signed up for classes. It was terrifying. But I learned from the past and acted in the present. I stayed in school for a couple of years and learned everything that I could. While in school, I decided to marry and had a family. That decision meant that I would again, walk away from my degree. This time, I felt great about the decision. I had learned many of the skills that I had hoped to learn in school. I had made additional time for my family. I had started myself on a path of learning, which would simply transition to a more self-guided process and I was great with it. I still am.
At 45, I have played out the “what if” scenarios in my mind. I could have completed a bachelor’s degree in about two more years. At that time I would have been 40. I was already making a living which, while modest, was about what I would have expected someone of my skill-set would earn, even with the degree. So I would have to go for my master’s as well. Part-time, this would probably take another 4 years. A fresh master’s in the hands of a 44-year-old, would probably not make the same difference in my life that the master’s would have made at 25. I realized that the cost of completing the two degrees would not result in a strong enough return on the investment.
So I continue to find new ways to solve the problems that I created for myself in the past. I read. A lot. I try to build more relevant knowledge by learning from those that do the things that I want to be able to do. I have found that the skills that I learn in this way are far more relevant in real life. I have used the skills that I have learned to become a far better manager, trainer, mentor, friend, husband, and father than I had ever imagined that I would have become. The best part is that I would not be the man I am today without making the mistakes that I had. I value the learning that I have been able to get by making those mistakes. I cherish the choices that I have been forced to make in my later life, as opportunities to make right all of those “missed opportunities.”
If I had not been a screw up back then. I would not be who I am. Yes. Those mistakes changed me forever. But, they changed me into someone who is more thoughtful, well read and emotionally intelligent, than I would have been otherwise.
Your past doesn’t have to hold you back. You can decide to make your past the very thing that propels you into prosperity. But only you can decide that. You have to choose to win.