Don’t Forget the Past. Learn from It.


“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” ― Edmund Burke

There is a popular adage in our society that goes something like this: Forget the past, don’t worry about the future, live in the present.

There is truth to this statement. Far too many of us live defined by the choices we made in the past. This shouldn’t be the case. After all, each new day presents opportunity to become a new person on a new road destined for a new future.

But those who choose to simply forget the past miss out on its fullest potential. There are valuable lessons to be learned from it. And those who choose to ask the right questions about their past are most prepared to live life to the fullest in the present.

Consider the lessons we can learn from our past. By simply asking the right questions, we can discover…

• Strengths that define us. The talents and abilities we use to navigate and provide value to this world define the lives we live and the change we can offer. And by recalling our strengths in the past, we can better recognize our opportunities in the present.

• Weaknesses that frustrate us. We all have weaknesses in personality and competence. When left unaddressed, these weaknesses limit our potential for impact and significance. Discover them. Recognize them. And learn to overcome them by seeking the help of others.

• Causes that energize us. Our lives find the greatest joy when we help others discover theirs. Which social causes have energized you in the past? What role were you able to fulfill in helping others? And how can similar pursuits bring new energy into your life today?

• Relationships that inspire us. Over the course of our lives, there are, no doubt, a number of people who have inspired us to become better versions of ourselves. What traits do they have in common? And can you surround yourself with more people like them today?

• Environments that derail us. The company we keep and the cultures we function in either bring us inspiration or derail our progress. Are there relationships in your past that continually brought you down and resulted in destructive decisions? If so, learn from your past to avoid them.

• Habits that invigorate us. Over the course of our lives, we employ a variety of disciplines to make the most of it. We discover a new diet, a new fitness practice, or a new morning routine. We experiment with them–some work, some don’t. Eventually, these new disciplines either become habits or they fade from our memory. Look back. Recognize the habits that brought energy, health, and invigoration into your life. And embrace them again.

• Affections that bring joy to us. Various matters of our mind and affections of our heart bring different amounts of joy, meaning, and fulfillment into our lives. What affections during life brought you the most joy? And have you gotten away from them? If so, return. And in so doing, recognize what distracted you from them in the first place.

• Pursuits that distract us. Ultimately, the decisions we make with the resources we’ve been given determine the life we end up living. Most of the resources we have at our personal disposal are finite and limited (money, time, energy). By definition, the allocation of them towards one pursuit limits the amount of resources we have available towards others. It is wise to recognize the subtle pursuits that routinely distract you from the truest desires of your heart.

• Addictions that control us. We are a people that too often give control of our most precious asset to another. We fall under the influence of substances, possessions, or entertainment. And when we do, our life is no longer our own. Identify the recurring controlling substances (addictions) in your life and humbly seek the help needed to remove their influence over you.

• Temptations that trip us. Similar to addictions, we each have unique weaknesses to temptation. These temptations may vary in nature, but each detract from the fullest life possible. But they do not need to define us. We can begin anew. However, only those who can identify and admit their mistakes in the past have opportunity to learn from them.

• Learning styles that suit us. We all learn differently. Some are visual learners, some are verbal, some learn best in a group setting, while others learn best alone. Your learning style is as unique to you as your fingerprint. The important thing is to recognize and understand what style suits you best. This life ought to be filled with constant learning… and the sooner we recognize how we learn best, the sooner we’ll begin to grow in it.

• Motivations that compel us. Deep in our heart, our motivation runs supreme. It determines the decisions we make, the use of our time, and the words we choose to use. Understanding our deepest motivations is a difficult task. It requires stillness, patience, and consistent self-evaluation. But the more we discover why we do the things we do, the easier it is for us to make the most of the present we are living in today.

If we start asking the right questions, there are countless life-giving lessons we can learn from our past. Never feel that you have to be defined by it. But it would be equally foolish to forget it completely when it offers so much potential for the present.

Image: blmurch

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. says

    Thanks for the great post Joshua. The past is definitely one of the best, most personal, teachers we can ever have. Looking back with the right frame of mind – positive and looking for patterns and inspiration – can definitely help direct our future in a much more thoughtful way. Thanks again for your consistently fabulous writing.

    • says

      If I would forget my past I would not cherish, enjoy and be as thankful for how my life made a turn. As painful, hard and almost deadly it was I would do myself a great disservice to forget it, which I think is an illusion itself to believe the possibilty of it. Therefore I am not talking to others but a few times about it, but I am reminding myself of the significance of the great change numerours times. I talked about it so much and really needed about 8 years to get over and through it, but it is now right where it belongs….in the past.

  2. says

    Well hello Joshua, thanks for sharing this. Pursuits that distract us is one that I and I guess many others have and will continue to suffer from. Having taken the time to return to the basics and write down what I love doing, I cannot really understand what I have been doing for the last year but hey ho, put it behind me and this year I fully intend to stick to what I love doing and using this to help others in anyway that I can.

  3. says

    I totally agree – I was thinking about my early twenties and so much of who I am is defined by those years. I wouldn’t be the person I am without those definitive years. I made a lot of mistakes in those years. So much so, that I was labeled the black sheep of the family. Despite that, I’m here and ready to go on a 1 year road trip down to the southern-most tip of South America. It is amazing how things work out, if you listen and learn from your mistakes.

  4. says

    Great case for remembering the past. Several years ago I would say that I wish a certain chapter of my life had never occurred, but I never realized how important that part was. The struggles, the sadness, and all else had shaped me into becoming much stronger today. Maybe I wouldn’t have developed such a good mental filter if it hadn’t been for a few darker chapters. Forgetting or failing to acknowledge the impact it had is wasting the experiences that are already over.

  5. says

    I agree with you Joshua that looking into our past in intentional doses can be beneficial and appreciate all the benefits you’ve outlined here. I don’t find the adage about living in the present moment applied much in modern life though! It seems like most people spend the majority of their time in the past or future, but mostly in unhelpful thoughts like worry and expectations. If only people would live more in the present with calculated visits to the past, I think we would all be far better off!

  6. says

    Good stuff. We really do learn from our mistakes. If we don’t remember the lesson, then we’ve wasted the benefit of the mistake.

  7. says

    If we don’t learn from our past, we’re doomed to repeat it. Reflecting on our past reveals who we are and how we got here. Great post.

  8. says

    I agree. Many times over the last few years I’ve reminded myself of past bad times and how I got through those. It’s so helpful to me to remember being in despair years ago and how well things managed to turn out.

  9. says

    It’s interesting when you say ‘there is truth to the statement’. I think quotes in general always contain a truth, but not necessarly the whole truth as you’ve pointed out.

    Great post. I have only recently made an active attempt to accept past mistakes and most importantly to go in a different direction. Just in the last few years – I think I’m a slow learner. So I am beginning with the bigger pictures things. In this post you have given such a comprehensive list of areas that we can all look to and learn from though. It’s inspiring.

  10. says

    Well, once again I love your point of view. I find myself surrounded by some people in my life, who I love dearly, but they insist on trying to get me to forget the past. It’s simply not who I am. I don’t dwell there, but I feel it is crucial to look back on the path behind us to make sure we didn’t leave any footprints that we might be tempted to go back and retrace. In other cases, so we can see how far we’ve come when we need the encouragement to keep going. The past provides the only perspective worth looking both forward and backwards at. Great read Josh! Thank you for your valuable perspective. Your insight continues to make me think in ways I might not have, so your work here defines for me, a part of how I am becoming better in both the present and future. Very rare to find real fresh inspiration!

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