You hear quite often that “hindsight is always 20/20.” By this, people mean that things are often obvious when looking backward, but not so clear when looking ahead. That’s mostly true, but it doesn’t automatically follow that looking backward has no value.
People also commonly say: “It’s hard to drive forward by looking in your rear-view mirror.” That seems smart, too, but I would argue part of driving forward perceptively is being aware of what’s in your rear-view mirror.
In fact, I would argue there’s much wisdom available to those who regularly check where they’ve come from, and how they arrived at where they are now.
That’s one reason you should do this “looking backward” in an organized, systematic way.
To help you, here’s a series of questions you might ask yourself from time to time, the better to learn all you can from where you’ve been, and to discover how those lessons can help you move forward:
Question 1: Are there any themes or patterns to my past trajectory?
Living day to day and dealing with the obstacles and opportunities we encounter, it’s normally difficult to fully understand what we are going through. But looking backward offers opportunities to review larger perspectives and thereby makes it easier to see long-term trends and regularities:
- Do your relationships, jobs, and/or major efforts exhibit any common patterns?
- Do many of your close friends and family treat you largely the same way? How?
- What kinds of obstacles and opportunities are you encountering?
- What lessons are being offered to you about yourself and about the world?
The purpose of these questions is to probe for a clearer picture of who you are, and how you engage with the world. Whatever that picture may be, it’s important to be aware of it.
Question 2: In the past year, what successes have I achieved?
We often gloss over our triumphs and attainments, often because we focus too much on what we still want to achieve. To balance this tendency, it’s helpful to purposely remember and celebrate the milestones we have reached.
You can list as many successes as you like, as small or as large as you wish. It’s not a contest. It’s simply an exercise in itemizing what you’ve done well in the past 12 months. Then ask yourself:
- Is there any pattern to the kinds of successes you are amassing?
- What lessons are being offered to you about your abilities, skills, knowledge, and talents?
Question 3: In the past year, what have I learned?
This is an important question, because lessons from your past experience are among the most valuable rewards you will ever receive.
Too often, we get so caught up in the day-to-day details of navigating our environment, and ignore or forget some of the important lessons presented to us.
A friend of mine in the Army once told me that his unit didn’t have 12 years of experience at a particular base, it had one year of experience 12 times. Obviously, piling lessons on top of lessons is a better way to improve and grow.
Question 4: How has the past year figured in the overall themes and patterns of my life?
The answers to this question give you important opportunities to gain perspective on your most recent strivings, and to better recognize the directions you have been traveling. These directions may be continuations of your overall trajectory, or departures from it.
Having looked backward in these four ways, presumably with 20/20 hindsight, you can and should return your attention to the future. Among other things, you can consider:
- How satisfied am I with the themes and patterns of my life so far?
- How well do these themes and patterns reflect the values I hold most dear?
- What themes and patterns do I want to retain and possibly strengthen?
- What if any changes would I like to make for the future?
- How will I parlay my recent successes into more and better opportunities in the near future?
- How will my recently learned lessons help make me more productive and successful?
- What plans can I make, what steps can I take, to help my future develop more directly in the ways I want?
However your recent past relates to the larger picture of your work and your life, you’ll find there’s great value in studying where you’ve come from, and how you got to where you are now.
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