How much time do you spend thinking about the past?
Not just your mistakes, but the things that happened to you, the random chaos the comes your way, all of it?
How many of us suffer almost solely due to the way we focus on and interpret the past?
The past can be many things. It can be a prison, a teacher, a source of pride, shame, guilt, happiness, joy, fear, motivation, depression, almost any emotion you can think of.
Just like perception dictates how you see reality, the way you deal with time, especially the past, dictates your life.
Let’s talk about the right, or at least less wrong, way to use the past to your benefit.
None of the things that have happened in the past predict how you’ll end up in the future. The reason it seems this way? Since you continue to use your past self as a reference and stay stuck in that identity, you do end up creating that self-fulfilling prophecy.
You’re stuck in the paradigm of “this is the way things have always been.” If you stay stuck there, your life will continue to go in the same direction, especially if that direction is nowhere in particular.
You could decide to change your life right now, change who you are right now, and move your life in an entirely different direction right now, but of course, few people work this way.
I prefer the process of gradual improvement and slowly changing your identity because you have less of a burden on yourself to make that switch instantly. But when the switch does kick in fully, you’ll realize that you could’ve made it the entire time.
I’ve talked about what I did from ages 20-25 ad absurdum, but if you’re new to my story the cliff notes are:
The process was gradual, but over that gradual period of time, I decided my life was going to change.
I didn’t know exactly how, but I figured if I just worked on myself, good things will happen.
Throughout the process, I used some of the following strategies to kill my old self and create a new one.
My characterization of a loser is someone who, after making a mistake, doesn’t introspect, doesn’t exploit it, feels embarrassed and defensive rather than enriched with a new piece of information, and tries to explain why he made the mistake rather than moving on. These types often consider themselves the “victims” of some large plot, a bad boss, or bad weather. – Nassim Taleb
Have you ever had a moment where you thought to yourself, “How did I end up here?”
I’ve had many. Take back when I was fresh from dropping out of college. Looking back at all the decisions I made, I felt like an idiot. College isn’t hard. If I would’ve had a basic level of motivation and conscientiousness at the time, I could’ve easily graduated.
But no, my dumb ass dropped out of college while accumulating $70,000 worth of debt in the process. While on probation for selling drugs, I continued to sell drugs. They put a warrant out for my arrest when I decided to skip my probation meeting and spend the day hallucinating on 2cb. I once punched my entire arm through a glass window after drinking two bottles of vodka and needed 35 stitches. I once paid a friend to wash my dishes for me because I was too lazy and high to do them myself. It was bad.
Right around the age of 25, when I finally had a sense of maturity, I took the time to really analyze the headspace I was coming from that led to me making those decisions:
I could go on, but the process of both analyzing my past and realizing there was nothing I could do about it was the key.
Many people do it the wrong way, the way Nassim describes in the quote.
You dwell, stew, pout, wish things were different, replay the mental movies in your head over and over — that last one really sucks…you just keep imagining that ‘one thing’ going differently then you snap back to reality and it hits you like a gut punch.
The past can serve you if you use it as a dispassionate tool for analysis.
Being honest with yourself and having that brutal self-assessment is hard to do because owning up to the fact that you screwed up your own life creates a ton of dissonance. How could you take horrible care of you, right?
But it happens. A mistake here or there, a circumstance that isn’t our fault but we react to poorly, mixed with the mental ingredients of rationalization, repression of memories, and distortion of worldview, and you have the cocktail that keeps people stuck.
I can’t give you the magic pill for being real with yourself, I can only tell you that it’s likely to work.
After you analyze the past to see where you truly went astray and what you can do moving forward to avoid the same mistakes, you can use another process to give you more fuel to build a better future.
Reframe the past.
You can’t change the events of the past, but you can change what they mean to you.
Often, I look back and I’m thankful I didn’t coast through college and get a good corporate job. Half the reason I started working on side hustles is that it was going to be harder to get a job with a record.
I also look back and realize my story adds authenticity to the message. Sure, I was the one that screwed up my own life, but I still had to bounce back from that. Giving people a window into how my life used to be gives them hope.
There are several examples of reframes, even tragic ones. Take someone like Oprah who was abused as a child. Do you think suffering from that abuse helped her have a caring and empathetic nature toward others? I can’t know for sure, but I’m guessing it did.
What moments in your past can you reframe as opportunities for growth?
Where are you not seeing the hidden benefits of your mistakes, obstacles, challenges, and unfair situations that just seemed to happen to you?
Some situations are truly so bad that you can’t really draw anything from them. I have no panacea for every issue. It’s on you to examine and reframe.
Think about it, deeply. Journal about it. Take some time.
We all have a tendency to never really face anything head on — past, present, or even future. We substitute real thinking with mental chatter, rationalizations, and looking at problems on the surface level even though we know there’s something deeper.
None of this is easy, but it isn’t supposed to be.
Life is hard, but reframing can teach you the hidden beauties of hardship.
Ugh. Why is it so hard to let go?
I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are moments from middle school I’m still holding onto. Actually, found one — kids used to make fun of me for being bug-eyed. As much as I try to convince myself that my big brown eyes are sexy, there’s still a little bit of that pain there.
Not much though.
And the true practice of letting go teaches you that you’ll never be perfect at it. You’ll never be perfect at anything when it comes to self-improvement. For the most part, you’ll get marginally better, but that’s enough to create room for new and better situations in your life
First, you fully analyze and audit your past, then you reframe what it means to you, last you come to the understanding that the present moment is all there really is.
My favorite phrase:
“This is where I’m at.”
I’ve used it so many times. Sometimes it’s hard to even remember how deep the hole I dug myself in was. But I do. Broke, stuck in a dump college town, no real opportunities. Ugh. But there was a ‘day 1’ of getting my shit together. Roughly 2,000 days later, life is different.
8 months ago I was overweight. Ugh. But there was ‘day 1’ at the gym. 50 pounds lighter, I barely remember what it was like to be overweight.
If you are someone able to just accept the fact that what’s done is done, you can change.
Again, easy for me to say. I know.
But you gotta let it go. Whatever ‘it’ is.
As time moves on, I’m working on letting go of trying to control anything.
There are just too many variables in life to…know how life is going to end up.
“Focus on the journey” is so super corny. And as a future driven, outcome-driven, ambitious person with remnants of a chip still left on his shoulder, I try to remember this.
But it’s true.
We spend so much time mulling a past we can’t change and daydreaming about a future we can’t predict that we waste time doing what could be done right now.
Do what you can with your ‘now’ as often as possible. That’s as close as you can get to living a perfect life.