This time last year there was no doubt that the album I had on repeat was Thomas Rhett’s ‘Tangled Up’. There were 2 songs on that album that grabbed me more than any other. Whilst the rockier anthems like T-Shirt were great singalongs, and Die A Happy Man spoke of such a content love (one that Mr and Mrs Rhett clearly truly have from their social network feeds!) that I couldn’t help but listen to it ALL the time, it was 2 hidden gems on the album that truly caught my attention. The sentiment in Learned It From The Radio (which talks of understanding how to walk through life thanks to music) was one that I could completely relate to – it’s the way I feel about music, and why I have ‘Music Has Value’ on a wristband. Then there’s ‘The Day You Stop Lookin’ Back’, a song I believe we can all learn a lesson from.
It’s in our human nature that we get obsessed by what’s gone on in the past. Our failures, our flaws, our successes, our achievements, we are taught to reflect, to analyse, to deconstruct and to learn from our mistakes. There’s certainly merit in this at times. In my racing and my work there are times where I’ve thought to myself ‘I’ll do that differently next time’. Times where I’ve realised I’ve made a mistake, not done as well as I could and that a change could bring real benefit. Occasions where I’ve seen something work brilliantly and made a mental note to repeat that in future.
We live in a culture where ‘reflection’ and ‘analysis’ are buzz words, and can even be a profession…analysing past performance is a full time job for some. And when analysis or reflection is done with the purpose of benefitting someone in future it truly can be very useful.
But I also believe that this culture can be harmful if we allow it to overtake our lives. Encouraging reflection can build a culture of looking back. Looking back isn’t always helpful, and can become dangerous. Whilst looking back in order to benefit us in future can sometimes do just that, it opens the risk of stewing on what we could have done differently. ‘What if I’d just done that?’ ‘What if I hadn’t said that?’ ‘What if I’d spotted that sooner?’ That sort of thinking doesn’t help anybody. And the reality is, it doesn’t change anything. No matter how much we look back at what happened in the past, we can’t change the past.
There’s a key difference between positive reflection which asks what can I do differently next time and negative reflection, which asks what if I’d done it differently last time. One can make a difference to your future, the other doesn’t. In fact the latter ensures you get stuck in the past.
If we return to one of those Thomas Rhett songs I became obsessed with, in a song that focusses on relationships Rhett observes:
The day that you stop lookin’ back girl, is the day you start moving on.
This sentiment I believe is true in all areas of life. I think when we get stuck in a cycle of negative reflection it’s difficult to move forward, to take the next step. As long as you’re hung up on what happened in the past then it’s difficult to focus on what comes next. In the example of this song the implication is that a girl is so busy thinking about a past relationship she can’t move on to the new one, that could work out. There’s no saying it will, but she won’t know if she doesn’t try.
It could be that you’re so busy getting frustrated about the last crushed dream that you can’t focus on the next. Too busy getting frustrated at the last failed attempt at a qualification that you don’t consider trying something new.
If reflection, or looking back, is something that I think is unhelpful, then the opposite, I believe, can be the answer: looking forwards.
At the school I work at we teach our children core values, and one of these values is ‘aspiration’. Understanding what you want to achieve, where you want your life to go next.
The very nature of the value is that it provides a focus that allows you to move forward. Aspiration doesn’t have to be about clearly defined targets, about running 100m in 12 seconds by next Wednesday. It can be about knowing vaguely the direction you want things to go next – for example that you know you want your next job to be in a certain sector, or you know you want to get fitter, or learn more about a particular topic.
By having this mindset, by knowing where you want to be, it can provide focus, meaning, even energy. I’ve regularly talked about when I first ended up in a wheelchair, and how I was just so consumed by it all. What turned my life around was finding out about the Great South Run, and giving myself a focus (which was simply to complete it). At the time it got me out the house, and truly got my life back on track. I never could have guessed where it could have taken me, although I’m not naive enough to suggest that this is how every optimistic ambition ends (and I can share plenty of my own stories to illustrate this).
I do know however that setting a focus gives you something to think about, to work towards. Having an aspiration, whether that’s a professional target, a physical ambition, a desire to see more gigs, or a plan to do some work to your house, is the first step in making plans to get it done. Knowing what you want to achieve allows you to think about how that will happen, and start to make changes. In contrast, thinking about what would have happened if you’d made changes in the past won’t actually change anything.
If we return to reflection, I mentioned earlier that I don’t think that’s it’s always a bad thing. I think reflection has a place, and it’s tied together with aspiration. See if we spend time looking back, it should be to help us move forward, to help us reach the goal we’re aspiring to. Professional footballers for example will watch back highlights of games, not to make them feel bad about mistakes they made, but to help them think about how they can play better in their next game. Even when they’re looking back, in reality they’re looking forwards to the next game.
If we’re looking backwards, wishing things could have been done differently, we don’t help ourselves, or others. We need to encourage a culture that looks forwards first, that knows what the next step is, and that knows that looking back in regret, or with a desire to ‘wind the clock back’ can only be destructive.
Looking backwards can’t change your life. Looking forwards can.