What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?
- Vincent Van Gogh
Consider the last time you looked back at your life or your career. Did you ever question the choices you made or had to make? Did you ever wish that outcomes experienced had been better or different?
Hopefully you are able to look at the past and consider it to be old news or something that is beyond your ability to control now. However, many people cannot let go of the past - even knowing that it cannot be undone or changed. As a career coach and educator, I have had heard many negative statements made about past decisions during self-reflection exercises and many of these comments can be summarized as follows.
If I only had the courage to:
Take a Stand
Listen to Reason, Instead of Act on Impulse
Follow My Heart Despite the Odds
Take a Logical Approach and Weigh the Options
Be Courageous, Instead of Fearful
Have Confidence in My Own Abilities
Trust My Instincts, Instead of Give into Doubt
Believe in the Possibilities, Not the Improbabilities
Without question, life teaches us many lessons. Some of these lessons we remember, especially when there are strong, positive or negative emotions associated with particular events. We learn more about who we are, what we could have or should have been, what we are capable of and afraid of, what brings out the best and worst in us, and what we still need to learn.
While those lessons can be hard to accept, especially when there are negative emotions associated with past circumstances and events, it is possible to use what was learned to your advantage - especially if it is related to your career. By doing so, you will find that you have the courage necessary to make different, and possibly better, decisions the next time you are given choices or options to select from.
Hindsight: A Natural Perspective
Looking back and making an assessment about past events, and considering how wisdom gained over time could have helped to make better choices and actions, is known as hindsight. It is often a matter of looking back and stating to yourself that you "should have known better" or something similar. This frequently happens whenever someone feels unfulfilled in their career and unable to advance despite their best efforts. The challenge in hindsight, which is a natural response when present circumstances are less than desirable, is that it can lead to feelings of regret - and that can create a pattern of becoming stuck or focused in the past. Hindsight can either work for or against you, depending upon your mindset and frame of reference. If you use it to confirm that you have failed at something, you will find it only perpetuates a negative mindset and feelings of self-doubt.
Strategies to Learn from Life's Lessons
The lessons that life provides and the perspectives that hindsight offers can make a person better, rather than continue to hold them back and focused on the past, with the use of any one or all of the strategies provided.
#1. Turn a life lesson into an action plan:
The next time you feel regret or strong negative emotion because of hindsight or thinking about past events, ask yourself what was learned, what you can do now differently, and how this can make you a better person. That begins a change in your approach to self-reflection as you can now develop a plan of action, building from your strengths to address areas of needed development. You may also find it helpful to consider how to make better informed decisions, whether it means taking more time (if possible), finding more resources or conducting additional research, or simply knowing that you can trust your ability to make the best decision when needed.
#2. Address and manage natural challenges:
What trips people up, when trying to work through past events that continue to be replayed in their mind from a negative perspective are as follows:
The "what if" questions. This can lead to analysis paralysis where making any decision is difficult. For example: What if I try this new approach and I fail? To help clients and students I will ask them to answer those questions and imagine the worst possible scenario or outcome. Why? To help take the uncertainty and fear out of the questions. That is when someone can begin to truly prepare for making decisions and minimize any natural fear.
Trying to get to the bottom of a particular situation and why a decision led to a particular outcome is another natural challenge. Consider this perspective: It happened and cannot be changed. This sounds very simplistic; however, the reason I state this is that there may never be a valid reason for the outcomes of past events - and trying to figure it out can lead to frustration and remaining focused on the past. If you feel strongly enough about something that occurred, now is the time to change course, set new goals, and even make amends if applicable.
#3. Develop resolutions that can strengthen and renew your purpose:
Some people find the use of resolutions helpful as it is making a statement that from today forward they are going to hold a different view of an event or make a change in their mindset or attitude. Below are some resolutions you can use now.
Resolve that today is a new day and a new start. You can make today, and every day after, whatever you want it to be. There is one thing you can control every day, even if everything else around you may seem to feel uncontrollable right now, and that is the attitude you hold.
Resolve to be better in some manner, whether making better decisions, learning not to make emotional or quick decisions, or something that helps you feel better about yourself. For people who continually put themselves down, this can create a sense of relief - even if it is slight to begin with now.
Resolve to use what was learned from a life lesson or hindsight in some manner so that you can begin to change your focus. This may lessen the fear of looking at the past and help you begin to develop a productive approach towards evaluating past choices, events, or circumstances.
#4. Learn to develop forward thinking:
Memories keep incidents alive and for some people, the more they think about the past - the more those memories are kept active. How do you address memories that never seem to go away? You need forward thinking to change your perspective. Whenever I am reminded of a past event, and I have already considered what was learned, I understand there is a reason for the reminder and it is often due to strong feelings attached to it. Instead of replaying the memory again, I immediately think about the future and something I am working to accomplish. This allows me to switch to a productive frame of reference. What you may also find with this approach is that when you can be positive about the past, any frustration or anger that you may be holding now subsides.
#5. Change your frame of mind to change how you feel:
Ask yourself these questions as you start a new day:
How do you want to feel today?
Does it feel better not to carry the past with you every day?
Of course there are positive past events that you may want to continue to cultivate and remember - and anything positive can help to conquer negative thoughts, along with negative self-talk. If you can shift your focus from a negative to a positive perspective, you will begin to feel better about yourself in general and your ability to address anything that comes along. If you are working on your career plans you will begin to make a shift and consider how you are in control and able to work towards specific new goals.
What It Means to Have Courage
Courage itself is often associated with heroic actions or facing and overcoming adversity. Having courage for most people can also mean having a strong sense of self, which means you are willing to accept outcomes in life - both positive and negative. More importantly, it also means that you are willing to learn from life's lessons. For example, if you believe or hold a perception that a mistake was made, you also realize that your future outcomes can be changed through the development of new plans and goals. This is how I have helped many people change careers or even feel better about their current jobs. For students it translates into improved self-confidence and a feeling of self-empowerment; such as realizing that grades don't happen to them and what their role is in the learning process. Overall, being courageous is having the courage necessary to face the past without judgement and fear, while maintaining a productive, positive, and future focused mindset.