Your Past Can Be Your Greatest Teacher... If You Become The Student

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"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."–Chinese Proverb

We reflect on the past and think, "I wish…”.

That’s bad.

When we do this, we let frustration and regret seep into the present, which is unnecessary and not useful. Sure, some of us can reflect on our past in a way that is useful because it motivates us and teaches us how to be better in the now, but that is the few.

Many think about the past in a way that is not useful. For them, the past is more often a haunting ghost than an encouraging coach.

Let’s consider an important fact about the past: you cannot change it. The past is the past and there’s nothing you can do about it… ever. Now let’s consider an important fact about the mind: you can control your mind to feel anything you want. Put these two together and you have this: change your mind so that your past is useful.

There are always two ways to view everything

“I wish” are two words that haunt us all. It is almost never productive to think about the past this way. If you find yourself thinking about the past this way, try to use it to your advantage. Think: “I’m not going to make that mistake again,” or “I learned something.”

If you can use your past to learn, you have access to one of the most powerful tools in your personal developmental arsenal. On the flip side, if you let the past infect the present by bringing on fear, regret, or anxiety, then your past will become your greatest threat to living the good life.

Reflecting on the past can be your greatest source of learning and inspiration if you are able to set aside the pain and ego that often comes with reflection.

Your past can be a path to wisdom or a path to misery—your choice.

When reflecting on the past, you must be careful because there is a fine line between productive and destructive reflection. You have to squash the feelings of regret that tug at you when reflecting on your past so you can focus on the lessons that are hiding in plain sight.

Using the past to your advantage

Sometimes a missed opportunity can serve as a wake-up call. It can spur you to action.

Hitting rock bottom, losing a loved one, getting laid off, and making any of the major life mistakes that we all make can serve as your greatest teacher.

  • You didn’t mean to hurt his or her feelings. You are now wiser and more careful with your words.
  • You failed at something. You learned how not to do it.
  • You were cheated. You now know not to trust that person, and you are more selective with your trust in general.
  • You lose someone you love. You learn to not take life for granted.

Think about your past… what are some lessons you have learned or could learn?

  • Have trouble sticking to your gym membership? Sign up for a membership tomorrow.
  • Failed with your diet? Empty your pantry today and order a Paleo cookbook right now.
  • Trouble finishing projects? Set a timer for 20 minutes and start working on it. Get 20 minutes done, then another.
  • Failed relationship? Stop blaming the other person and ask yourself, “What did I do wrong?” Also, stop viewing your relationship as a waste: every person that has ever come into your life has served a purpose. Be grateful.
  • Lose a loved one? Remember this person the next time you let anger and negativity seep into your life over things that don’t matter.

The past can be a library of wisdom or a lifetime of hell on earth. It all depends on how you think about it.

Never let your past drag you down. Use your past productively or not at all.

Action: Forgive and let go of blame. Ask yourself hard questions and admit mistakes so you can learn. Forgive yourself. Turn your “I wish” into “I’m content, and I’ve learned.”

Your past is your greatest teacher. It’s up to you to become its greatest student.