“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
An often repeated maxim regarding self-development is that you should learn from your past. I vigorously disagree. Your past experiences – and even those of others – are mere faded footprints on the sandy path to personal growth, not conclusive evidence of truth. In fact, I believe greatness comes from ignoring your past.
Il Deserto Dei Tartari
Giovanni Drogo is a protagonist soldier starring in a great novel written by Dino Buzzati. Just graduated from military academy, he has a promising career in front of him. His whole life he has longed for glory and respect from wartime achievement. Excited, he starts his first assignment in the Tartan Desert – but it turns out to be a deserted, abandoned and unmaintained fortress that has never been of any use in any war so far.
The fortress is located days away from the nearest town, and is surrounded by nothing but rock and sand. Day after day, he is forced to stare outside of the castle walls facing only dust and emptiness. There are no parties here, no woman to whoo, and little potential to earn wartime respect. Soon, the knowledge that this fort has always been useless compels him to ask for a transfer away from this unambitious quicksand.
Yet Drogo is young and full of optimism and positive energy. Just before he leaves the fort, he looks outside the castle window and feels an irrational, intuitive longing towards the promise of change. There is something about the potential of those remote hills no army has ever crossed before, the glory of a different future that he cannot ignore. He decides to stay and ignore the past.
From that point on, Drogo learns to slowly enjoy the gritty dunes surrounding this lonely fortress. He spends his life waiting for a war that just doesn’t seem to come. He bonds closely with his fellow soldiers that are also waiting perpetually on the isolated walls of the fortress – watching the desert with intense focus. Waiting for change. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade. His life silently watching the surrounding landscapes is spent dreaming about the glory that he will earn should the Tartan army finally come and attack the fort.
Yet after years and years of optimism and focus, he finally gives up. He yields once again to the tyranny of the past.
Indeed, he says, I suppose there is nothing to be found here after all except for sand, dust and empty promises of glory. At old age, he finally decides to leave the fortress and his now close friends behind in search for a different path through life. His dreams, he concludes, were based on an irrational longing for the future to be different from the past.
The novel ultimately ends when he dies lonely in a far-away roadside inn while the Tartan army advances on the fortress. He never achieves the honor and reputation he sought his whole life.
There are certain events in our life that are completely unexpected and cannot be calculated. History itself has been shaped by these “Black Swan” events that defy all previous logic. Consider any major historical event and the very fact that these events were so impactful since they completely abolished all earlier conclusions from the past. In fact, major disasters and great inventions alike are all impactful BECAUSE they defy the past.
And the same goes for any major impactful event in our own life. This counts as much for the unexpected disaster that crushes everything you have built so far as it does for meeting that significant other that brings countless blessings into your life when all hope seemed lost. In fact, just like an oasis in the desert, it’s the contrast that creates the beauty.
It is a very characteristic of the so called extremistan event that the impact is not at all linear with the amount of tries, days waiting for it, people met, goals achieved or tickets purchased. In the world of extremistan-type events, a single outlier will dramatically shift the status-quo. Thus it is for these very events that will drastically transform your life that the past cannot be used as a benchmark of progress, viability of strategy or measure of success.
The fact that a stock goes up for a 100 consecutive days does not imply that it will not crash 99% on the 101st day. The fact that a multitude of publishers refuse to publish the Harry Potter novel you wrote does not mean the 13th publisher won’t make it a global bestseller. The fact that the last 10 first-dates were terrible doesn’t mean the next one will not be with the love that will bring boundless joy into your life.
The Mirage of Luck
Imagine for a second that from when you were 18 years old, you bought a lottery ticket worth 20 dollar every single Sunday. Someday, you figure, this will finally pay off and you will win the grand slam jackpot worth an endless supply of burgers, private jets, swimming pools and gold-laced sneakers.
Every Sunday – when you go buy your lottery ticket – there is an old, wise and grey man sitting in the corner drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. He has warned you before that buying a lottery ticket is a foolish financial decision. The money is better spent buying experiences or investing wisely, he says. But every Sunday, you ignore him.
And one fine Sunday you wake up, check the news, and your jaw drops wide open. Is this the day? You check the numbers again, again and again. Your heart starts pounding faster and faster. Really? It’s true. You got the winning ticket! You won! Okay, it’s not the jackpot, but it’s absolutely a great prize. This will aid you for years to come!
As you go to the store and cash in your prize, you cannot help but gloat your success to the old man. He was wrong!
He calmly congratulates you for your winning ticket yet also says you are still a fool for having bought that ticket.
How can you be a fool?
You bought the winning ticket! It was a wise decision!
You simply got lucky, he says.
The cost-benefit analysis of buying the ticket was not in your favor. The fact that you won does not change that the original financial decision was a stupid decision.
You are stubborn, so you decide to prove him wrong. You spent all your winnings on new lottery tickets.
You lose all your money.
Outcome needs no judgement.
This story might sound like a obvious and stupid example. And yet turn this problem around and you see this everywhere.
The fact that you put your entire trust, life and soul into a significant other and yet ended up being betrayed does not mean you made a flawed decision. Trusting someone in full love is a beautiful and rewarding endeavor! You simply got unlucky with the person you decided to put your trust into. The cost-benefit was initially in your favor. It was a good decision regardless of the outcome.
The result does not change the wisdom of a decision.
The Grainy Sands of Time
The problems with using the past a tool for learning and drawing conclusion are many. Here are just a few reasons:
- Your past experiences are often too low in number to draw conclusions from. Consider your love life. If your decisions on trust and love were to be a sound, rational research topic in a university – it would need a far larger sample size to be statistically significant! There is simply not enough time in your life to reach this number. It’s an impossible task. Hence no conclusion can be drawn from this experience. None whatsoever. It’s a drop in the ocean in terms of statistical evidence.
- The Round Trip Fallacy cognitive bias is often in effect; Lack of evidence does not imply lack of existence. For example, the lack of evidence of trustworthy, kind, strong and glorious men in your life does not mean they do not exist.
- Learning from the past means you anchor your reality around the painful events in your life as these trigger more violent emotional memories then happy ones. This will trigger confirmation bias – perpetually drawing you towards the same situations over and over again.
- The Narrative Fallacy applies as well. Implicitly, drawing memories from the past will mean you abstract details of the story in your mind. You pick and choose specific aspects of your memory to form a shortened, abstract version of the real situation. However, the situations you are in now are different in so many ways. Even you – the only steady variable! – are a completely different person compared to back then. To make it worse, the aspects of the story are often chosen based on emotional impact instead of actual cause and effect. The comparison is flawed and once again subject to confirmation bias.
In the end, learning from the past will only spawn irrational fear based on cognitive bias and flaws in rationality. I’d dare say even – that all fears (except for those ingrained from evolutionary nature) are based upon the mistake of learning from past experience. Think about one of your fears. Most likely, it has been generated from a past experience that was – at that point – fearful.
Now contemplate on the conclusions you have drawn in your mind based on this fear. Are they really rational? Have you created faulty abstractions and committed rational errors from this? Aren’t the situations you encounter now totally different? Yes. I am sure.
So close your eyes to the past. Let the fictional Sandman from Scandinavian Folklore sprinkle the sands of time in your eyes and allow yourself to start dreaming. Forget the past. Dust it off, let it slip from your memory and replace this space in your mind with dreams for a future you want to see and attract that instead of confirming faulty lessons from the past.
Consider your past as a great expanse of sandy dunes. As you move through life, your time there has left clear footprints in the sand. However, your life and identity – your personal dunes – are constantly shifting and turning in the winds, never to be the same again.
Keep moving forward through the dunes, and let the winds of time wipe away all the shapes left there in the sand.
They are not the dreams in front of you. They are yet to be shaped.