Relying On the Past

I like to plan things out.

While I’m not rigid to the point where I schedule every little step of my day, I do try to pick a handful of big things to accomplish each week. Generally, these projects help to push some longer-term goal forward. When these plans get interrupted by forks in the road, I tend to get frustrated. This week, I saw the bulk of my big projects get pushed to the wayside by unexpected obligations.

While some of the situations I encountered were absolutely unavoidable (and not necessarily bad)—rescheduled meetings, a much-welcomed request to speak at an event—others happened on my own accord. Earlier mistakes coming back to haunt me, losing focus due to anger and frustration, and trying to force ideals onto things (and people) that I can’t control. Combined, all of this resulted in a fairly stressful week that—while busy—shouldn’t have been stressful at all.

Upon reflection, the common thread that stood out in all of the unwanted forks in the road were rooted in earlier decisions. Things like taking on work that I knew would cause headaches later, or starting projects much later than their scope called for. Like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond, each problem hit like a wave echoing from the epicenter. Each of these decisions were founded in short-term thinking. Something that seemed like a solution then actually ended up being a problem now.

All of this got me thinking. Why did I do that? Why wasn’t I more prescient? Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but shouldn’t there have been some clear reason? Nothing came to mind. In reality, each of those earlier decisions that led to a negative outcome in the future were simply me thinking I was acting on the best information that I had then.

What I failed to consider in those calculations, though, was the past. While I didn’t know what would happen in these particular situations, I did know what happened in situations like them in the past. When I realized this, the mistake was clear: not relying on the lessons of past mistakes.

While the past isn’t always an accurate representation of the future (e.g. stock market performance), it’s a better tool than nothing when considering which paths to take. From Seeking Wisdom:

How can we understand what is happening to us without any reference to the past? We conveniently forget to record our mistakes. But they should be highlighted. We should confess our errors and learn from them. We should look into their causes and take steps to prevent them from happening again.

The idea is simple: pay attention to mistakes. Study them. Record them. Don’t ignore them because their memory makes you feel bad. Utilize them. When faced with a decision, take into full consideration any past outcome that’s similar to the current one. How did that end up? How did you respond? Did you feel better or worse afterward?

Avoid unnecessarily quick decisions. Don’t just assume that something will go well because you think it will help you to solve a problem now (like making a quick buck). Consider how you’ve felt about the thing up until this point. If anything made you uncomfortable: examine it. Chances are that you have that feeling because the scenario in question reflects a past decision that resulted in a less-than-favorable outcome. Don’t ignore it. That feeling could save you a lot of trouble down the road.