Ok, time for some brutal honesty. Answer truthfully, how many times in the past week did you catch yourself saying something along the lines of, "If only I had done X back then, I'd be so much better off now."?
We've all been there, the temptation to go back and take another shot at reigniting something that we failed at. From a business, to a relationship, to an investment, our lives are littered with things that we'd love to have another try at. That's especially true for those of us who have more ideas than we have time, because we end constantly watching as others innovate things that we'd already thought of.
While I'm the last person in the world to tell you to give up on anything that's truly important to you, when it comes to reigniting old flames, rekindling old failures, or grieving over old ideas my advise is unequivocally simple and blunt, don't.
While we'd love to believe that the knowledge we've gained since our follies would have been invaluable in playing our hand differently--had we known then what we know now--it's closer to the truth to say that what we've learned from our mistakes is better applied to building something new than resurrecting something old just to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Memories Lie, Great Memories Lie Brilliantly
It reminds me of the plot line for the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which two lovers have their memories erased only to find each other once again. It's a familiar story that tugs at our deepest desires to reshape the past.
In the movie things end well, in real life not so much; because in real life if we were to erase our minds we'd just repeat the same damn mistakes over and over and over. Some might say that's not a bad thing; like a pet goldfish with every lap of the tank the world is forever new. No Thanks. Growth comes from the pain of banging up against the glass enough times that you finally figure a way out of the bowl.
Psychologists have known for well over 100 years that humans have an amazing ability to rewrite their memories in ways that can create false representations of the past, which are just as believable as a real memory.
Salvador Dali put it much more prosaically when he said: "The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant."
The notion of "if only I knew then what I know now" is fatally flawed because what it fails to recognize is that we've also forgotten a lot of what we knew back then. That's why we're so drawn to the want to relive the past. We've rewritten it in such a way that we've convinced ourselves that we could, and should, easily right all of our mistakes, failures, and missed opportunities.
A Grateful Failure
Here's the rub. Your past mistakes are what shaped you into who you are today. Without those failures you'd be far less equipped to take on the challenges ahead. Taking away those failures would be like taking away every scrape and bruise you earned learning to ride a bike. Without them you'd still be riding on training wheels. To take the analogy even farther. If you're riding in the Tour De France you it's highly unlikely you'll still be bemoaning your scraped knees.
My point is that if you are content, happy, joyful about who, what, and where you are today then you have those failures to thank for it. Not only can't you go back and rewrite them, but more importantly, you don't want to. These are what I call "grateful failures," because without them I wouldn't be where I am today--and I'm pretty grateful for who and where I am.
It's normal to look backwards every now and then. All of us do it. Nostalgia is woven into our DNA. But looking backwards constantly, to either relive old glories or rekindle old mistakes, is one of the best indicators of how unhappy someone is with who, what, and where they are now. People who find themselves constantly replaying the past are unhappy with themselves and not with the past.
In the process they mortgage their future to the past. There's only one antidote for that, move forward and construct a version of yourself that will be happy with.
Rather than giving up your future to reignite the past, how about igniting the future that your past has prepared you for?