Hindsight and Our Personal Life Lessons

by Greatness HQ

There are literally dozens of famous quotes that begin with “If I knew then what I know now…” In fact, there is even a book by that name.

What are we really talking about when we start a sentence with: If I knew then what I know now? Think about that for a moment. What kind of perception and feelings would prompt us to use that phrase?

* The perception. Anytime we compare the present to the past we are doing so with the advantage of hindsight. We are looking back on our life course with knowledge that we did not have at the time and speculating how that knowledge would have altered our situation or outcome.

* The feelings. If we are pleased with some part of our personal history we generally don’t think about how having more knowledge at the time would have made it better. So, I think it is a fare assumption to say that the feelings behind the phrase “If I knew then what I know now” are rooted in regret or dissatisfaction. In some way we wish things had been different, right?

There will always be hindsight

The fact is, hindsight can only benefit us in the present, it has no application to the past. You can never change what has already happened and thinking about it is a complete waste of time. You can, however, use the knowledge you’ve gained to make better decisions right now. That’s what hindsight is for!

Now, here’s the kicker. In the future, when you look back on the decisions you make today you will have new knowledge that you don’t possess right now. That means that from that vantage point you will probably see possibilities that you do not see at present.

Life lessons are cumulative

If we are paying attention, life becomes a continuous learning experience. At any given point, the life lessons we learn are exactly what we need to learn to keep the process going. Admittedly, some of those lessons are painful and costly. The higher the price of a life lesson the more likely we are to remember it and to benefit from it in the future. Every experience has value if we learn from it.

With that in mind, we see that wishing we had acquired certain knowledge earlier than we actually did is unrealistic. One life lesson leads to the next and we can’t skip ahead. But we can, and should, learn from the experiences of others, especially from their mistakes. If we allow it, their life lessons will put us way ahead of the curve, but it still doesn’t change the process.

Is hindsight really 20-20?

We have all heard that hindsight is 20-20, but is that really true? Yes, but only for a moment because continued learning updates everything. Remember, the whole process is cumulative and knowledge is ever changing. We keep building on what we know and as long as we are alive the process never stops (hopefully).

How can understanding and accepting this process help us now and in the future?

3 Ways to make practical application

1. Don’t waste time thinking about “if only.” Your life is busy unfolding right now, that’s where the majority of your focus needs to be. Instead of fretting over how the past might have been “if only,” think about all the valuable life lessons you have learned.

2. Apply what you have learned. Use those life lessons to help you make wiser decisions now and in the future. Knowledge becomes wisdom only through application. You have spent years learning. Always strive to put what you’ve learned to good use.

3. Turn hindsight into foresight. As you look back on your decisions and outcomes you should begin to notice patterns. When you did things one way you produced a certain type of result. When you did them differently, what kind of result did you get? Identifying the patterns that led to good results will improve the quality of your decisions. This is how hindsight becomes insight.

What led me to write this?

This article is my response to an “Invitation to Write about Stuff that You Wish You Had Known Earlier in Your Life” which is a brilliant series organized by Abubakar Jamil and Farnoosh Brock. My problem with the premise of this series is that I don’t relate to it. I understand it and wanted to participate in it, but I don’t relate to it in my personal life.

Are there painful and costly life lessons from my past that could have been avoided by knowing then what I know now? Absolutely! Super heavy lifting has caused me more chronic back pain than I care to think about. Foolish investment decisions have cost me more money than I am willing to talk about. And the list goes on.

Speculation is worthless

Sure, I can see plenty of ways that my life might have been more comfortable if I’d had the knowledge to make better decisions in the past. But who is to say that one of those uncomfortable situations didn’t save my life somehow? Maybe my life would have been better on some level, but that is just speculation. I love my life and every experience has contributed to making it what it is, even the painful ones.

Life is an individual journey and we all experience different things and learn different life lessons right on schedule. I believe that experience is the greatest teacher. Even when academic knowledge initiates a profound life change, it is usually because our journey led us to a situation that made us receptive to that kind of learning.

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