Past imperfect, future tensed

Dwelling in the past is risky and useless

Man looking in the car mirror

"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past"
Thomas Jefferson

I recognise the importance of the rear-view mirror in my car. As I drive, I often look into it—to help me navigate busy roads better. Driving without it is not only ill-advised, but downright dangerous. But, looking too much in the rear-view mirror is equally hazardous and can cause accidents, you will agree.

Now imagine the windshield and the rear view mirror with their sizes interchanged—the windshield as small as the rear view mirror and vice versa. Would driving become much, much more difficult? You bet it would! [Unless, you’re driving backwards]

Yet, when it comes to everyday living, this is how most of us live. By constantly looking back for benchmarks, we make our past much bigger than our present and future.

In the corporate world, for example, young professionals often set ambitious targets at the start of their careers. But if they miss these targets for some reason or another, the next time around they downgrade their targets to safe levels—in other words, lower than their past performance. In doing so, they enlarge their rear-view mirrors way beyond necessary.

It's not just failure but success of the past too, which imprisons us. We tend to recreate past success by trying to do things the way we did it then. But resting on past laurels often backfires. Those who believe that just because something worked in the past, it will work in the future too, are ignoring the ever-changing world where nothing stays the same. Situations change and factors that were once responsible for success may no longer be relevant or may have disappeared altogether. We live in a dynamic universe that is changing continuously. Greek Philosopher Heraclitus expressed this beautifully, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."

Those who believe that just because something worked in the past, it will work in the future too, are ignoring the ever-changing world where nothing stays the same

I am not saying that the past be totally abandoned. Certainly there are lessons that we can learn from it to improve our future attempts. Past is an important indicator—it tells you where you were—but it can never tell you where you can go and how soon you’ll reach there. For that, you have to look ahead. That's why you glance momentarily in the rear view mirror, while keeping your eyes focussed on the road in front of you.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a personal goal or a professional objective, relying on past performance as a yardstick for the future is simply not a sound strategy. The baggage from the past acts as a constraint and, in the process, you often get into the wrong lane or take the wrong turn—and end up some place you didn’t want to go.

It’s worthwhile to remember that no great invention was ever made by looking into the past for reference—it’s the future that is full of possibilities. And future is born from the womb of the present. Taking the car analogy further, we can have the perfect plan for the future, factoring precise lessons from the past, but we won't get anywhere unless the car moves. And for that, we need action in the now. Ultimately it's the energy we generate in the present moment that takes us forward. So thank the past for its lessons but don't dwell there too long. Live in the present moment and be ready for an unknown, exciting future.


This was first published in the December 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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