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The past is a horrible master but a great teacher

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The past is a horrible master but a great teacher

Scott Miker

Recently I heard someone say that the past is a horrible master.  They followed it up by saying that it is a great teacher.

At first I didn’t think much of this quote.  It seems like another cliché that tries to convince us to let go of the past and not let it control us.

But the more I thought about this quote, it actually did mean more than that.  The notion that the past is a horrible master certainly points to the fact that we can’t let the past control us.  The insightful part is being able to see the complexity by also stating that the past is a great teacher.

There is a distinct difference between those 2 sentences.  When looking at our past there is value in using it to shape our future.  But it shouldn’t control our future.

In other words, the past should certainly influence our future.  It should be used to grow and improve over time.  But we can’t let it get to a point where it becomes rigid and suffocating.  We have to take the value from the past without the restrictions that sometimes come with that value. 

When I was younger I made the mistake of building up credit card debt.  I was starting a business and using my credit card to finance much of the operations. 

This could be looked at as a lesson to be more careful with how I manage my money.  Or I could have looked at it as a huge mistake and to never take a risk like that again.

But there is valuable insight in both views.  Taking risks means that things don’t always work out 100%.  Starting a business meant that I had to take on this additional risk if I wanted to succeed. 

But it also taught me that when we take risks, we have to be even more diligent with factors that we can control.  Just because we are taking a risk and trying something new, that doesn’t mean that we should be reckless. 

In this case the lesson from the past could easily grab me and control how I view risk going forward.  Or I could learn from it and then put systems in place better handle this situation in the future.

The difference between the two paths is generally fear.  If we have enough fear it tells us to avoid anything resembling that painful experience.  But if we can reduce the fear around it, we can start to see the lessons for what they are – lessons that we can use to improve. 

For me the balance generally comes with how I view the past and how I incorporate systematic steps to improve in the future. 

If I can gain new insight and perspective and learn something, and then I can find ways to improve because of it, I am looking at the past as a teacher.

But if I let fear take hold of me and then I don’t continue to explore new things and improve then I am letting the past be my master. 

The key for me is to focus on the improve part.  Are we taking the past and working to improve over time based on our experiences?  Or are we scared to improve because of some past experience that didn’t work out?