If you’re interested in personal development (making a conscious effort to get better at life), you’ll eventually encounter an excellent piece of advice:
“If you want to be happy, focus on what you can control.”
Many great thinkers have paraphrased this idea:
You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Proactive people focus their efforts on their Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about.
— Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
As we’ve discussed, much of what affects our lives is outside our control: the actions of others, random events, and our past mistakes. We can’t control this stuff; we can only control how we react.
We don’t usually think of our past mistakes as “out of our control,” exactly. That doesn’t sound quite right. Isn’t it more accurate to say “no longer in our control”?
Yes, “no longer in our control” is more accurate. But I’m here to tell you that once we’ve learned from our mistakes, it’s more useful to think of them as “out of our control.”
Sounds a little hokey, I know. Here’s why it’s valuable, though. I’ll give it to you in one word:
“Now, we’ll add just a tiny pinch of guilt . . . whoops.”
Look, guilt is useful.
Guilt keeps us from fooling ourselves. Guilt alerts us to our mistakes so we can correct them. Guilt helps us amend our errors and make things right with others.
But guilt is a single-use item. It should be used once and discarded. We tend, though, to use guilt over and over again, like a dull, rusty, disposable razor. We learn our lessons, we right our wrongs, and we still feel guilty about our missteps.
Once we’ve learned our lesson and moved on, guilt is no longer useful. It’s distracting. Self-flagellation may feel noble, but it’s a vice.
Learn from your mistakes, then let them go
Once you’ve learned from your mistakes, think of them as the actions of another person: Past You.
Past You is another person, by the way. Past You was younger and a little foolhardy. Past You didn’t have the life experience you have now, and Past You made some bad calls. Present You can’t do anything about Past You’s mistakes other than learn from them, so that’s all you need to do.
Once you’ve done that, let them go.