That was a throwaway line in a TV show that I saw a long time ago. I don’t think it was meant to be a profound statement of truth, but it really resonated with me. Because it’s true, to some extent, at least for me. I think about my past quite a bit, especially the bad times. I try to draw lessons from those experiences, insight that will help me do better in the future. But it isn’t easy.
Today is a strange anniversary for me. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since I was pushed out of the nest. Ten years ago, I lost a job that I loved, at a place I had planned to stay for the rest of my working life. But the job ended, suddenly and without warning. As a result, I was forced to reevaluate myself, to move in a new direction. I had to to leave my comfort zone and reinvent myself. It was a painful period in my life. But I got through it. I have since moved on, and not only to a different job. In many ways, I have an even more meaningful and fulfilling life now. But of course at the time, I didn’t know how things would work out. At the time, it was devastating.
Having the rug suddenly, unexpectedly, and unceremoniously yanked out from under my feet left a mark. I won’t rehash the unfortunate circumstances that made me leave my job at the university (for context, you can read the open letter that I wrote). It was a life-changing experience. The process of adjusting to my new reality, trying to get back on track, looking for a job, was stressful and frightening. We had a mortgage. Our older son was just about to start college, and our younger son was still in high school. We didn’t know what would happen. We didn’t know if I would be able to get a job that would maintain our lifestyle, if we could keep our house, if we could keep our son in school. As we were trying to move forward through this scary time, my wife cried, more than once, out of worry for our financial stability, for our future. I lost a lot of sleep, too. It was a low point in our lives.
We’re in a good place now, but it took some time and effort to refocus and rebuild. It took some sacrifice, too. I had to take a job that was not nearly as prestigious. But it supported my family, and was a good bridge to my current career.
It’s easy to look to the past, and it can be useful to reflect, but you have to do it the right way.
My past is meaningful to me, but is my past more important than my future? Maybe it can be, but maybe it shouldn’t be. We carry memories of our past with us as we move through life. In that way, our past is always with us. For better, but more often, and too often, for worse. It should be that we use our happy memories, the memories of our successes, to prop ourselves up, make us believe in ourselves. That perfect test score, that time when we made someone smile, the time we won the foot race, the births of our children. Those memories should make us feel confident, give us inspiration and courage to take a chance or to be bold. But it doesn’t always work that way. Sure, the good memories are here, but the bad memories seem to have extra power. Stupid choices that we made, times when we made fools out of ourselves, when we did and said things that we are ashamed of. Those memories can dominate our thoughts, casting shadows of doubt on our confidence, sometimes on our self-esteem. Memories of bad times seem to be more vivid, more prominent. They’re the first things that pop into our minds, especially when we have a setback. Self-doubt and the resulting blow to our self-confidence make us our own worst enemies.
Yes, my past is important, and I try to learn from it. But right now, I choose to make my past less important than my future. A ten-year anniversary is also a good time to look to the future. This year I turned 56. My current career has a mandatory retirement age of 65. In ten years, I will have already retired. That reality might be stressful for some people. To me, it’s liberating. I know that my family will be financially stable after we retire. I don’t have to worry about money. I can focus on how I want to use the remaining time that I have in my career. On the experiences I want to have, on how I can help my coworkers, friends, and the people in the countries where I work. In ten years, when I am retired, I want to look back on the memories that I’m building now with a sense of satisfaction. I want to be lifted up by happy memories, not weighed down by regrets.
Rather than struggling with unhappy memories about the past, I’m focusing on my future. I’m doing everything I can to make my future memories as rich and uplifting as possible. The past is written, it can’t be changed. The future is full of possibilities, and that is where I’m putting my attention. My future is more important to me than my past.