The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.
— Winston Churchill
On Monday, I did a bit of reflection about my university life and a Japanese friend I met there who spoke English so fluently I thought he was born in America (the Japanese are not typically known for their amazing English skills or dedication to learn English in the first place). Additionally, I’ve received some questions lately about how I came to end up in Korea.
Why reflect on the past?
A lot of people seem to say that this is an exercise in futility. After all, the past is past. Decisions you’ve made before can’t be unmade and we all need to learn how to live with the (positive and negative) consequences of our actions.
However, I feel that reflecting on my previous steps is a good exercise in learning more about myself and modifying my future course of action. Too often we just take ourselves and our choices for granted. Certainly, we may think long and hard about things before we make decisions, but once the decision is made we rarely reflect and ask ourselves why we made that decision in the first place.
Rating your past decisions
Decisions we make generally fall within a certain range. We can chart our decisions with a 5-star rating system:
- ★★★★★ Great: I’m proud of myself for making that decision. It’s one of my best ever.
- ★★★★☆ Good: I learned or grew from it, but it wasn’t perfect.
- ★★★☆☆ Average: That decision might prove to be a good one, but it isn’t clear yet.
- ★★☆☆☆ So-so: I’m not really sure why I chose that option. I’m not much better off.
- ★☆☆☆☆ Bad: I’ve lost something because of that decision.
- ☆☆☆☆☆ Terrible: I’m never, ever doing that again. And, I’m going to tell everyone else not to do it too.
Why reflecting on your past decisions is beneficial
1. It enables us to take responsibility for our own life paths.
Too often we blame someone or something else for getting us into the pickle we’re in. But it’s important to remember that all of our choices have been our choices. We were never forced into one or the other – we chose them all.
2. It helps us to remember our mindset and thinking when we made a decision.
Present circumstances can cause us to look at things only subjectively. When we get emotional about something, it can hinder our better judgement so that we make worse decisions for the future.
Additionally, sometimes we get either too comfortable or too uncomfortable in a certain situation so that we lose sight of our previous goals and the why of our decisions.
Reflection can bring us back to the same mindset we were in at the time we chose something and it will enable us to see things more objectively. That enables us to more appropriately set a direction for the future – either to change something or to buckle down and work harder.
3. It helps us look into the heart of our decisions and the motives behind those.
- Was this an emotional decision or a purely logical decision?
- Was this an intuitive decision or one born out of experience?
- Was this a decision born out of necessity or desire?
- Was this a decision born of curiosity or opportunity?
- Was this something influenced or spurred on by someone else or something that I chose on my own?
Where reflection leads you
Good reflection on the past should lead to changes in the present that will alter your future. (People don’t often reflect deeply on past decisions unless something about their current situation is unpleasant. If everything is going smoothly, most people are content to just keep puttering along down the same path.)
- Reflection helps you see new options where you’d previously not seen any.
- It helps you reconsider previous non-negotiables.
- It helps you notice patterns in your decision-making so that you can be aware of them in the future.
Basically, good reflection should open your eyes in a variety of ways to make better decisions about the future. Rather than getting stuck with perpetual tunnel-vision in your present, reflection takes the blinders off your eyes so you can see multiple viable options for your future.