The Past Doesn’t Matter

I have a confession to make. I am a serial procrastinator. The fact this is being posted a few days after the first of the new year is a good indication that best intentions don’t always play out on time. But, one of my goals this year is to write more. More specifically, it’s a three part goal comprised of the following:

  1. Write 1 post per week. It’s good practice.

Do you see a theme?

I’m doing this because while I’ve had moderate success with structured programs in the past, I always seem to fall off the wagon after a while. Also, that novel? I’ve been working on it off and on for 18 years. It’s been halfway complete for the past 4 years. If it gets published, great. If not, great. I just want to finish the thing and move on to the next set of chapters.

Now I could beat myself up about what I haven’t accomplished in the past 20 years. I could spend my days daydreaming about what it would feel like to be an author. Or, I could just focus on what I can do today and over the next 12 months. One of those options is productive; the other two are not.

What follows are three facts:

  • The past doesn’t matter.

To me they are indisputable. To others they might be opinions — or even wrong.

The Past

The past is nothing more than footsteps in the sand. Those steps are reflections of events that have already happened and cannot be changed or altered. They have made us the person we are today, but they do not dictate who we are or what we can achieve. That is not to say that we should draw a line in the sand and forget about the past, although we do need to approach it with caution.

When getting to know someone else or establishing credentials, reminiscing and reviewing past projects, exploits, activities, or careers is an excellent way to establish common ground. Many great speeches have anecdotes strategically tossed in as a way to connect with the audience. Those anecdotes often relate back to events either in the speaker’s life or something meaningful in the life of another. But these things are snapshots, moments that have been plucked with a purpose. The idea is to use these as a way to forge a new path forward, either for ourselves or for the benefit of others. Their purpose is not for us to look back and dwell on what happened or what might have been.

This is my opinion, but one of the worst things a person can do is stop to think about “what might have been”. Doing it too often, or spending too much time thinking about it can cause a lot of problems. It’s often a sign that someone is unhappy with their current situation — whether it’s a relationship, a career, or life in general — and dwelling on the past can develop into depression or worse.

A couple examples:

If a person is unhappy in a relationship it becomes easy, often comforting, to imagine what might have been if they had stayed with a previous partner. Unfortunately what comes along with that fantasy is the sound of nails being pounded into a coffin and surely spells the end of that relationship. It widens the rift between partners or spouses until the day they realize they have become roommates and nothing more.

It can be exciting to think about those “what ifs” when it comes to a career. Instead of a business consultant, I could have been a doctor. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon when I graduated from High School. I started out on the premed path my first year of college. How different would my life be if I had stuck with that goal? And how different would my life be if all I did was dwell on what I could have been?

But everything that came before today is the past. And so in the grand scheme of things, it does not matter. The only things it affects is where we currently find ourselves. Unless there is some great misdeed that we’ve committed in the past, there is no reason to look over our shoulder.

The Future

The future is spread before us — an unlimited expanse without a horizon. As we look out across what might be, we may see opportunities and events that look enticing. I truly hope each of us does. Those are goals, things to be achieved. Depending on where we are in our lives, those goals could be a graduation, a promotion, a success after years of effort, a breakthrough that will benefit all mankind, one more day of life, one more waking hour, one more breath. The size and impact of the goal depends on who we are and what we aim to achieve — no goal is greater than another as long as there is movement forward.

In the outdoors there is an unspoken rule — don’t allow the summit to distract you from what is around you. If I’m hiking and I constantly keep my eyes on the summit of the mountain, I not only miss all of the beauty along the path, but I also put myself in danger. I make it to the summit by placing one foot ahead of the other and by dodging the roots and loose rocks along the way. Some sections are flat and open and allow the hiker to walk undeterred, using their peripheral vision to stay on the path. They are free to look around and admire the scenery. Some sections are extremely rocky and require the hiker to stare at their hands and feet as they scramble through it. And some sections require the hiker to turn around and find a new path, or attempt the hike again another day. But we don’t make those decisions by fixating on where we could be. Of course the summit can be what drives us, but it can’t be the only thing that drives us. If we are not happy during the hike, we will not be happy at the summit and the view will be wasted.

What we do today determines where we will be tomorrow. What we do tomorrow determines where we will be the next day. One foot in front of the other. But if all we do is stare at the mountain, we will never climb it.

The Present

The present is the only thing that counts, the only thing that matters, because it is the only thing we can control. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, or what the goal might be. It doesn’t matter what might have been or what occurred in the past. The only thing that matters is what we can do today.

My mother taught me an important lesson growing up. I decided when I was 10 years old that I wanted to play the saxophone. I was so excited the day I was able to get my first note — a C#. All keys wide open, no skill whatsoever. But I made that instrument do something more than squeak, and that meant the world to me. So I told her that I wanted that shiny Yamaha student model alto saxophone to be mine. No more renting from the school. Her reply was that we would buy it on one condition: I play it until I was good. I gave her my word. And so I practiced — 30 minutes per day, every day.

Ok, most days.

And I got better. Three years later I was introduced to the work of art that is the Julius Keilwerth SX90 tenor saxophone. Black nickel body, gold keys, gold etched scrollwork on the bell. Sleek, shiny, curvaceous — like nothing I had ever seen before. The upper register was clear as a bell while the lower register had a full brazen rumble to it. Needless to say, I wanted an upgrade. So my mother modified the agreement. I would no longer play the saxophone until I was good. The exit clause was removed immediately. I would promise to play the saxophone, period.

While I no longer practice 30 minutes per day, 30 years later I still play that tenor saxophone. It is a constant reminder of what I can achieve. I consider myself fortunate to have that reminder for many reasons. One of the most important is because of what it took to get there — thousands of hours of pushing my limitations. Hundreds of thoughts where I felt I wasn’t good enough. Dozens of moments where I wanted to quit. But each day I picked up where I left off the day before and kept moving forward.

Today? Today I love that I can create music wherever, whenever I please.

And so it is for all of us, regardless of our goals. What we want to achieve tomorrow, next week, next year, or 5 years from now — it all depends on what we do today. For me it’s writing this and exposing a small piece of my soul for the world to examine. Tomorrow I will spend most of my day as a business consultant and the only thing I will write are emails. But maybe I’ll be inspired by what I wrote today and will choose to set aside time to create a new story.

The possibilities are infinite. One step at a time.

Writer, business consultant, traveler, lover of cats

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