July 30, 2019 – Joseph Feibel

It is not a good idea to dwell on your past mistakes, especially older mistakes.

This is very good advice, but most people find that it is difficult to follow. We tend to focus on our bigger mistakes.

On the other hand, I do not think I have ever heard professional advice from somebody who said that you should not focus on your great victories in life. I do not think I’ve ever heard anybody say that you should spend a whole lot of time focusing on your successes, but at least I have never heard anybody recommend that is detrimental to a career when you focus on the success.

When making a major decision, I think it is a good idea to get out a piece of paper and draw a large T-square. On the left hand you write “pro.” On the right, you write “con.” Then you spend an day or longer filling in the T-square.

This is rational analysis. We tend to fall into a pattern when we make the decisions, and it’s hard to get out of the pattern. Making the T-square comforts us to know that we have gone to the effort of making a rational decision. I think it is legitimate to do this with our past lives. It is legitimate to make a T-square of our good and bad decisions. It lets us know that life is a series of decisions, and a lot of them are bad decisions. The question is this: How did we get out of the consequences of those bad decisions? In other words, what were the negative sanctions, and how many of them did we pay? For how long?

If we can see patterns in both our good and bad decisions, it is legitimate to look at both sets of decisions. I don’t think it is a good idea to look at the bad decisions and ignore the good decisions. That can be paralyzing. But if we can see a pattern in either the good or the bad decisions, we may be able to get a little edge on our internal program that tends to make bad decisions.

The experts tell us to make a lot of starts, and get rid of the ones that don’t work. The phrase is this: “Fail often, and fail fast.” In other words, start a project, but then quit when you see that it’s a bad project.

The problem with this is that we’re also told we ought to be tenacious. So, it’s one of those cases where you have two sets of recommendations which are not consistent with each other.

After many years of thinking about this, I would follow this strategy. If you are in a situation that reflects badly on those giving orders, you have to get out. In other words, if the overall setting is either immoral or obviously self-destructive, you have to get out. Do not be tenacious in trying to make a bad situation better, if the reason why the situation is bad is inherent in the organization you are working for. If a policy is a bad policy, you have to get out.

Now let’s look at the other side of the T-square. If the general setting is not inherently immoral or self-destructive, and you see a series of failures, I suggest that you don’t quit. The problem is not the organization; the problem is your poor performance. You should attempt to improve your performance. Learn why you’re making the mistakes. Work on those aspects of your habits or mentality which seem to be the causes of your mistakes. This is really difficult. But if the problem is inside you, then moving out of your present condition to a new set of conditions probably is not going to help. I think this is what those people have in mind to tell you that you should be tenacious. They assume that the problem is with you, not with your setting. If it is the setting, then you better get out rapidly.

I think it is probably a good idea once in a while to sit down with the T-square and list your failures and successes. What you probably will find is that with your successes, you have stuck with the program that gave you the success. In other words, the positive consequences of life tend to reinforce themselves. Positive consequences compound over time. Negative consequences tend to wipe you out, so out of self-defense, you stop doing whatever it is that brought the negative consequences into your life.

If you can see that the negative consequences did not change your behavior, then you had better work very seriously on changing your behavior. You are looking for patterns. If you have a mindset that keeps leading you into dead ends, work on the mindset.

What you are looking for is behavior in the past that led to a series of dead ends, which you changed, which in turn enabled you to begin a series of successes. We do nothave many of those cases in life, and when we locate them, we should think about them very clearly. We should try to figure out how we were able to change our behavior.

You have to get an answer to this question: “Am I the problem, or is the organization the problem?” We tend to believe that the organization is the problem, because the alternative is to blame ourselves. We should resist this approach to our analysis. I use as my example Alcoholics Anonymous. Step 4 is crucial: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

If you are tempted to dwell on your past mistakes, here’s a way to stop it. Every time you think about a mistake, get out a sheet of paper. Write down on a sheet of paper what it was that led you to make this mistake. Keep reminding yourself of the background to the mistake. Keep looking for a pattern. If you do this, you will finally get tired of dwelling on your past mistake. You will see it doesn’t get you anywhere. Also, it is a lot of work to go over the details. It takes too much time. It takes too much emotional effort. It doesn’t begin and end with self-pity. It begins with self-pity, but it leads to self-awareness. The shock of self-awareness, if repeated over and over, will finally become boring. When dwelling on a past mistake becomes boring, you will probably stop doing it.

You also may discover the pattern, and you will stop making similar mistakes. That is certainly worthwhile. So, either boredom or self-discovery will persuade you to stop dwelling on your past mistake.

So, get out a piece of paper, get out a pencil, and make that T-square. Then fill it in. See what you can find.