The Past Is Not Necessarily Prologue

Q: Dr. Hurd, numerous times you have written about how negative past events in our lives should not be a focus, regarding an excuse or justification for our current lives, correct?

I was just thinking about this. So to apply that same logic, then past positive events should be viewed the same way, correct? Wouldn’t it be illogical to say that past negative events shouldn’t affect our present decisions, but positive ones should? If we are to dismiss the past as not relevant to our psychological well being…then shouldn’t we be consistent and dismiss the positive as well?


A: Normally we think of negative events in the past as being fodder for excuses. However, positive past events can become excuses as well.

For example, people will sometimes ride on a past record of success. It’s called complacency. Have you ever watched the television show, “Restaurant Impossible?” A celebrity chef is hired to come in and make failing restaurants profitable again. He always asks restaurant owners why they haven’t changed their menu, their decor, or other things important to customers. The answer almost always boils down to, “We’ve done it this way for years. People love our Shrimp Diablo.” The chef asks, “But why is it that you don’t have any customers, then? Why are you losing money?” No answer is given.

This is because the restaurant owner has been riding on past success. Past profitability is supposed to result in present profitability, despite the fact that customer tastes (especially in the food business) are notorious for changing over time. Plus, quality can go down.

This could apply equally to any other business, or any area of life. Just because you’ve done well in the past doesn’t guarantee you’ll continue to do well in the present. Just because you exhibited strengths in the past doesn’t mean you’re exhibiting them now.

The White Star cruise line had many successful crossings on the Atlantic prior to the Titanic. Did the Titanic tragedy invalidate those prior successes? No way. Did those prior successes prevent the disaster that was the Titanic? Obviously not.

I’m not suggesting the past is irrelevant. Just as past negative experiences inform your present perspective, past positive experiences matter too. Somebody with a consistently good track record, in performance or character, is obviously preferable to someone with the opposite. At the same time, the past is no guarantee because it’s only in the present that you’re going to witness what will either thrill or disappoint you, about yourself or others.

I don’t suggest that we dismiss the past. However, the past should be treated as less important than the present, and the immediate future. You have absolutely no control over the past. You do have a lot of control over the present and into the future. It makes rational sense to treat the areas where you still have control as much more important than the areas where you do not.

I also maintain that the positive should be more important than the negative. “I made that mistake. I resolve to learn from it, and I take responsibility for it. But what’s more important is what I’ve done right, and what I still can do.” People who treat their mistakes or flaws as equally important, or more important, than their potentialities and strengths are the ones who accomplish the least. It’s so unfortunate, because many of them will never know what they were capable of since they were too busy making their (real or alleged) weaknesses all important.

I encourage people to be hard on themselves, to take responsibility and stop making excuses. However, I don’t encourage being hard on oneself in that way, of dwelling on one’s flaws or errors. The whole point of taking responsibility is to seize the moment that is your time to be alive and making it all that it can be. Sitting in the complacency of the minimal is not the way to be, not if you want to really grasp what true happiness is. Not if you’re seeking to do more than just merely survive.