The Limitless Past

Within limits, the past—just like the future—is what we make of it.

Here’s a thought that seemed profound when I thought it but now almost eludes me as I write it: the past is not fixed.

Understand that the person who wrote those words is a trained engineer. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to avoid saying things like that. So allow me to unpack it a bit…

My business failed last year. It was and remains a horrible experience, and I can’t wait for it to be over. Have I learned things? Sure. Will they be useful in the future? Probably. But right now I’m just trying to stick my landing.

Sometime next year I’ll probably start another business… and will immediately discover that some lesson I learned out of the wreckage of my first real company will be the key to something ten times bigger. And I’m not even playing Polyanna! To the extent that I am capable of living in the future at all right now, this is my actual plan.

So fast-forward twelve months. Things are on the upswing. Ask me if I remember this dark period differently because of my subsequent experience. Has the past changed?

No, I respond, because events unfolded as they did. My apprehension and application of the lesson happened after those events, and did not change them.

And I’m not wrong… so long as the past means the chain of events from there to here, and only that. But is it fair to point out that there’s a lot more to the past than what happened?

The past is all the stuff that drives the present into the future. Very little of it is actually memorialized as a sequence of events, and even when it is, it is abstracted somehow. If we want to review the past we can watch a video, or look at a picture, or read a book, or listen to a verbal account, or experience a memory… but the one thing we can’t do is recapture the event itself.

Those only happen once.

So when we think of the past what we are really thinking about is the historical record. And the historical record changes all the time:

  • Media is created, destroyed, or revealed.
  • Memories are reinforced, altered, or fade.
  • Analysis creates new knowledge which is keyed to a past event.

So when I learn and apply this game-changing lesson out of the ashes of my company, in the most precise and ultimately trivial sense I am performing those tasks in the linear sequence of time. The past is safe, causality inviolate.

You nerds can relax.

But in a sense that matters a lot to me, I will only be able to learn and apply those lessons because they are indexed—attached—to events that occurred before those lessons were learned. Without the attachment, there is no lesson. And once that attachment occurs, I will never again confront that piece of history without also knowing where that dark path led.

We speak of the future as infinitely malleable: we can make of it what we will. Yet this isn’t true either: we are at every moment constrained by the laws of physics and the state of the universe in the previous moment.

The past is constrained by that sequence of events: what happened, happened. But within those constraints live an infinity of detail to be revealed or concealed, and a universe of interpretation to be applied or not.

So within limits, the past—just like the future—is what we make of it.

The difference is in the default approach. We humans (at least the lucky ones) are trained from birth to regard the future as a well of limitless potential, and the past as engraved in stone. So whereas we seek opportunities in the future, we rarely seek them in the past, certainly not in our own personal histories. We may wish to escape our past. We may decide to live with our past. But we rarely seek to exploit it… at least, not on purpose.

If I am a recent university graduate seeking my first job out of school, what do I want if not to exploit the past four years of my life? School is an exception: those experiences are designed to be exploited.

But what about these?

  • A woman recently divorced finds her next relationship in the negative space around her failed marriage.
  • A fat man suffers a heart attack and finds his internal marathon runner.
  • The failure of a business delivers the conceptual seeds of a better one.

These are not the sorts of lessons one simply learns from a negative experience. Instead they are the sorts of lessons one finds in a negative experience. And there is rarely only one: the more painfully negative the experience, the more likely it is to deliver numerous and valuable lessons, often years or decades after the original events unfolded.

But you have to look. That’s the point: the most valuable lessons of all don’t present themselves. You have to go looking for them. You have to dig. Which you are unlikely to make time for if you aren’t really convinced there is anything to be found.

For most purposes, your own past is a better than any university education, because…

  • Every day you wake, the tuition on yesterday’s lesson is already paid.
  • The more of a past you have, the more valuable it is.
  • The more effort you spend digging around in your past, the more valuable it becomes.
  • The lessons of your past are delivered by real people (i.e. you) solving real problems with their own skin in the game.

So next time things get horrible, take heart: if you look at this experience the right way, it’s a gift. And whatever its duration, you’ll have a lifetime to unpack it.

Tell me why I'm full of shit!