Future You: How to Leave the Past Behind

An email from a reader this week started by recognizing that I am always making “course corrections.” He is correct, but I prefer the word “iterate.” My willingness to confess to getting things wrong and making corrections is the measure I use to prove I am growing. If you are not changing your mind, I promise you are not growing up, waking up, or cleaning up. You have to leave the past behind, and build the person that comes after the person you are now.

The writer asks if I wish I had made adjustments sooner or done some things differently. He wishes both that he had done things sooner or differently. His note ends with this question:

“Do you wish you had done things differently? This question could be worded a variety of ways, but I’m trying to glean to the heart of how you process these thoughts and reflections…if you ever have them?”

The Podcast Question

A lot of podcasts on which I have been a guest have ended by asking what advice I would give to my 21-year old self. I used to answer the question with some guidance, but it never felt right to me. I was trying to provide an answer. I now answer this question the same way every time: “I wouldn’t offer him any advice at all. Every decision before and after that age brought him to this point, including all of his beautiful mistakes.”

There is an absolute power in acceptance that isn’t available to those who live in the past.

On Time Machines

There is nothing I can do about the things I might have done differently. Nor can I do anything about adjustments I might have made sooner. You and I are both deprived of the option to alter the past. The exercise in itself isn’t beneficial unless you have a time machine.

The way you process your experience tends to fall into one of two frames:

  • Regret (Negative): Looking to the past to review mistakes and missteps with a sense of regret, is to view the events as unfavorable. In many cases, you see the experience as negative because of your interpretation. It is to believe the experience was devoid of any value. Maybe you have noticed that people who make excuses tend to live in the past and use this negative lens?
  • Lessons (Positive): I’ve searched my memory while preparing to write this, and I am unable to find anything I wished I done differently or sooner without having derived some valuable lesson from it. The things I wished I’d done differently have provided me with the education to make better decisions now. The things I wished I had done sooner have taught me to take action instead of waiting. You might recognize that people who use this frame tend to use the lesson to improve their results in life?

The way I process these things is to value my mistakes like I value adversity. I am as grateful for the experiences others might see as unfavorable because the mistakes, unforced errors, and adversity was of as great a benefit as much as anything. You would not be who you are now without the path that brought you here. If you are grateful for who you are now, then you have to be thankful for the path.

Recently, my friend, Jeb Blount and I were talking, and he described his childhood as not being as difficult as mine. I stopped him to tell him that if I ever made him think I had a tough childhood, that is was not accurate. It’s true that I was (and still am) a feral cat as opposed to a domesticated, indoor, house cat. Of the two animals, one is free and the other a dependent.

What Is Your Temporal Address

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” – Lao Tzu

You have a temporal address that describes where you live. If your mind lives in either the past or the future, it is not available for the present. If your temporal address is in the past or the future, you need to fill out a change of address card and relocate to a better neighborhood.

Choosing Your Future Regrets

Christopher Hitchens, an intellectual and polemicist of the first order, and one the best writers in the history of the art died of esophageal cancer in 2011. In an article for Vanity Fair in the time leading up to his death, I remember him writing about “choosing your future regrets.” Not very many ideas have contained as much power or have struck me quite as hard. You are going to have them, so you should choose them carefully.

If you view that through the “negative lens,” you will not recognize the value. If you consider it through the “lessons lens,” you will realize the importance of answering the most prominent questions correctly. When an interviewer asked Hitch if he would have lived without drinking, smoking, and partying had he known he was going to get cancer, he replied that he would not have, but he might have stopped a little sooner. Those decisions were his path.

The Value of Lessons

“Life is about execution rather than purpose.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

You may have noticed that the way you perceive time is that it is always right now. If that is true for you, then maybe you make the present your temporal address, the place where you live. You are right now deciding what Future You is going to regret. In this regard, execution is purpose.

There is nothing you can do about the past. It is inaccessible to all modifications. You can, however, derive the lessons from the past that guide you now.

If you still have breath in your body, it is never too late to start. Stephen Covey published his first book when he was 54 years old. George Leonard started on the journey that ended with him becoming an Aikido master at an even later age. Instead of regretting something in the future, what do you need to start?

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