“Don’t think about what you could have done differently.”
“Don’t beat yourself up.”
“Let the past go.”
Sayings we’ve all heard before. But are they valuable bits of wisdom, or valid, empty words?
Thats right! It’s time for more axiometry, my made-up word for examining common aphorisms and figuring out if they really make any sense:
Axiom: “A rule or principle that many people accept as true.”
–metry: “Art, process, or science of measuring.”
There are many variants of this particular axiom, but they all focus on the same thing: regret.
Ah, regret. A favorite topic of mine. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you should know how I feel about regret:
Carry around your past regrets, not as an anchor, but as a guide.
So you maybe you think you already know where I come down on this particular axiom.
But as with everything , we shall see.
This is nothing but an empty, feel-good platitude, not a crystallized bit of wisdom to live your life by.
Think about it: If you don’t “waste your time” thinking about what you could have done differently, you will consign yourself to endlessly repeating the same mistakes, ultimately moving nowhere.
Actually, that’s not true. You will move somewhere: backwards.
Regret is not your enemy. Regret is a powerful motivator. Remember how you felt after a failure? Don’t let that go. Most of your problems are your own fault anyhow, so might as well own them, analyze them, and use the results going forward. As one of my favorite bloggers Aedonis Bravo says, do beat yourself up.
“…do it differently now…”
Okay. How is one supposed to do this if they spend no time thinking about how they could have done it differently?!
This is a self-defeating axiom, containing within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
If you are going to give advice in an axiomatic format, the advice should be practical.
“Look before you leap.” Makes sense.
“Don’t defecate where you eat.” Logically–and biologically–sound.
“Don’t waste time thinking about what you could have done differently.” Weak and inconsistent.
There is another phrase floating around out there in the culture, one that I like because it makes sense and it rhymes:
“Analysis by paralysis.”
We all know people who fall prey to the trap encapsulated by this phrase. Maybe we are those people.
Let’s concoct a scenario: Someone asks you what you want on your pizza for lunch. “Pepperoni,” you say, without bothering to look at the menu.
“You sure?” the other person asks. “What about sausage? Or peppers and onions? Maybe some pineapple?”
All of a sudden, you’re not so sure. All of a sudden, you want to see the menu, all of a sudden, it’s tomorrow and you still haven’t ordered a pizza.
Now take that basic situation and apply it to momentous life choices.
In light of this, “Don’t waste time thinking about what you could have done” becomes sound, solid advice, an admonition against letting your autopsy of the past freeze you from taking meaningful action in the present.
By all means, explore options! Think about alternatives! Play out the long-term consequences of each decision!
But in the end, make a decision. Here’s one more little saying for you:
Fortune favors the bold.
Action begets action. Momentum is contagious. Look at the past, remember your past regrets, but don’t let these things dictate your life or prevent you from moving forward.
This axiom is about action. And action is, more often than not, far better than sitting around wallowing in self-pity.
Don’t beat yourself up–motivate yourself.
Now that the dust has settled and the sound of the gavel is ringing in our ears, let’s finish our axiometric analysis of this particular saying.
I deem “Don’t waste your time thinking about what you could have done differently” accurate but poorly written.
That’s right: It’s a great axiom. Very useful! But as commonly used it’s contradictory and unhelpful.
Final Recommendation: Use a variation, lest you fall into the twin pitfalls created by this axiom:
Endless introspection and no introspection.
Neither is good or productive. You need self-awareness and action.
As with most things in life, you need balance.
So while not as pithy or memorable, this axiom is better served reformulated as follows:
“Think about what you could have done differently, and then do it!”
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