How Much Power Does the Past Have Over Your Future?

Young businessman thinking about the past

By Roger Reid

I haven’t been back to my old hometown in years. The last few times I was there, I felt like I was visiting a graveyard—lots of buried memories and too many headstones. So it wasn’t long before I began to feel uncomfortable and knew it was time to leave.

A lot of it has to do with the recollection of things left unfinished—incomplete plans, broken dreams, and lost relationships.

Looking back, I know most of it was by choice. Like most young people, I lost interest, grew older, and simply moved on.


I’ll admit there was a lot more I could have done with my youth, more productive things, activities that would have allowed me to build on experience—small accomplishments that could have been used as stepping stones to an ultimate destination.

But at the time, I had no idea where I really wanted to go.

Like most of my generation, I followed the path of those who came before me. You know the drill . . . Get an education. Get a job. Buy a car. Buy a house. Find a wife.

Kids were optional but expected.

It worked for a while, until I realized every new day of my life was frighteningly similar to the one that preceded it. With each passing year, I noticed very little had changed in my life. And the things that used to peak my interest with curiosity had become vague, hazy reminders that life had not turned out the way I’d hoped.

I began to question the choices I’d made and what I was doing with my life. I kept asking myself three questions:

Where was my life headed? Who would I eventually become? Is that how I want to be remembered?

I was well into my forties before I realized the answers were in the past.

That’s where I’d often traveled, searching for those times when I was still excited about life and the possibilities it held.

I decided if I was going to break the “Groundhog Day” cycle my life had become, I would start by mining my memories for clues to creating a new life plan. I started with some of my earliest core interests, looking for new career possibilities and work alternatives. I finished by reminding myself of how I’d spent the last 15 years, letting those memories serve as a warning not to revisit meaningless and unrewarding activities.

Twenty-five years ago, I asked myself, “How can I use the past to make a better future?”

The answer eventually evolved into five guidelines, which ultimately became the design criteria for my future. Since then I’ve refined and tweaked them a little, but the same powerful core concepts remain unchanged, and when used with commitment, they can be the starting point to reshaping your life with choice, transition, and change.

  1. Count the cost. How much of your past was the result of living to please someone else? Admittedly, we often follow the suggestions and recommendations of others because our own plan is hazy, lacks detail, or seems risky. It’s difficult to say “no” to a well-meaning parent, family member, or friend who offers a plan that is organized, sensible, and represents a proven path to success. But if it’s a strategy that is missing your input, your intention, your values and needs, it’s a useless, time-wasting detour. Living someone else’s life plan is the fastest way to create a hollow, empty life that leaves you comfortably miserable. If the past was spent satisfying the needs of others, this is a good time to change.
  2. Use the past to motivate you to take action—now! Time never stops. And soon, each of us will arrive in a place called Old. It’s our common destination. No matter how we choose to live or what we decide to do with our lives, we will grow old. All routes end up there, it’s not optional, and the only by-pass is early death. How does that fact affect your goals and objectives? Does it make them more or less important? If what you want to do is physically demanding, and you don’t do it NOW, will it be possible to do later? Based on your current age, you have a quickly closing window of time to accomplish something requiring great physical exertion, rigorous training, or stamina. If you put it off another year, how will that affect the likelihood of accomplishment? More important, how will you feel if you arrive at a point and time in life when your goal is no longer possible? Approach this realistically, rather than with platitudes that promise, “It’s never too late to do what you want to do.” There are very few seventy-year-old ballet dancers, and even fewer 80-year-olds who have climbed Mount Everest (in fact, there’s only one.)
  3. There is no such thing as a completely wasted past. Many of our misdirected efforts were necessary to bring us to where we are now. Some were learning experiences, making us better prepared to take the next step into the future. Others were necessary to give us clarity about what we don’t want in our lives, making sure we can recognize the same red flags and steer clear of situations that are ultimately unrewarding or unproductive. Acknowledging your past accomplishments—even though they occurred in an environment or field in which you were not personally invested—is just as important as setting new goals. Most who commit to making a life transition rarely acknowledge their past milestones—especially the hidden ones. Take the time to appreciate what it means to have completed something important—so important that you dedicated time and resources to the exclusion of other pursuits. Look back and remember your circumstances when you first began your journey. Acknowledge what you’ve learned, and how much better prepared you are to move forward in life. As you begin to count your past achievements, you may find it’s not the completion of the goal that counts, but what you had to become to accomplish it.
  4. Goals change because life changes. Just because you change your priority or life’s direction along the way doesn’t mean you failed at becoming whatever it was you initially wanted to be. Our plans bend and reshape themselves. And yet, here’s what’s surprising . . . while new goals often look completely different than our original objectives, the outcome, the effect on our lives, whether measured in money, a great relationship, or a healthy mind and body, are often very similar to what we were trying to achieve initially—just dressed in a different outfit. Maybe we didn’t set out to be a corporate vice-president or the owner of an online business, because at the time we originally designed our goals, they weren’t considerations or may not have existed as possibilities. But in the end, we were still able to create the kind of life that allowed us to feel the way we wanted to feel and to have the experiences we wanted to have because we found an alternative route to get what we wanted.
  5. Some of the messages sent from our past have to be ignored. Especially those encouraging us to return to our old comfort zones. When the challenges come, it’s tempting to return to our former lives, when things were less stressful, more comfortable. But that’s only because we’ve forgotten how frustrating and empty we felt. We left our old life because we knew there had to be more, and remaining where we were—working at a dissatisfying job, living in a toxic or shadow relationship—was no longer acceptable. So we took action. We made changes. We ignored the pleas from friends and family who tried to coax us to stay the course because it was “good enough,” and if we just accepted our situation, we’d eventually get used to it. Leaving the comfort zone takes sacrifice, focus, and dedication. But the rewards can make the difference between a life of mediocrity and one filled with purpose and satisfaction.

Looking back, your past may reflect satisfying reminders of time well spent, or it may reveal years of virtual captivity, imprisoned in limbo, working at a job you didn’t like, living with a spouse or partner who left you drained and angry, or being manipulated into serving others whose values and beliefs were completely different than your own.

But good or bad, the past can be more than a collection of memories.

Let the past serve you. Especially as you begin to reshape your life and bring it into alignment with your true priorities and values.