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Let The Past Be Your Guide

The other day I was on Facebook, scrolling through a mix of graduation pictures, reflections on a year of school completed, “it’s finally summer!” posts, and of course…inspirational quotes. You know the ones – the quotes written in a fun font over some stock image, posted by that person you haven’t talked to since high school but for some reason are still friends with on Facebook. I usually just keep scrolling past them without second thought, but that day there was one that actually caught my attention. It read, “If you want to move forward often look back, otherwise you’ll forget where you came from and where you need to go”. This struck me because it contradicts the common cliche saying of “never look back”. I’ve heard countless variations of this saying in my lifetime, all with the same overarching message that it’s better to focus on the future than think about the past. This Facebook quote captured everything I didn’t like about “never looking back”.  What’s so bad about that anyway? Looking back can provide perspective, clarity, and direction and can be extremely helpful in helping us move forward wisely. If we only look forward then sure, we’ll probably make progress, but by also looking backward we can ensure that we’re making the right kind of progress and doing so in the most efficient way.

I  just graduated with my undergraduate degree a few days ago, so I have been doing a lot of looking forward and back recently, and I’ve found a lot of value in both. In fact, I think they are more closely interconnected than we may realize. When we take the time to reminisce or reflect – I think that we are able to do four really important things that set us up for success in the future:


Life is meant to be enjoyed, and part of enjoying life comes from celebrating our accomplishments and milestones. Graduation was one of my biggest accomplishments, and if I didn’t look back at the 4-year journey that got me to that day I would have missed my opportunity to really celebrate it. Looking forward towards my post-grad life is exciting, but only by looking back at how far I had come could I really appreciate how meaningful that experience was. By recognizing my achievements before refocusing on what comes next, I am able to move into my next chapter energized and inspired. If I went straight from my graduation into my next undertaking without taking time to look back and celebrate, I would likely experience burnout. Remember to take time to look back and celebrate your accomplishments and milestones from time to time – you deserve it!


Looking back can also help you synthesize what you have experienced. When finishing a task, especially a challenging or time-consuming one, it can be easy to want to move on quickly. Students often joke about burning their textbooks at the end of a semester or throwing away their notes as they walk out of a final. But doing this denies you the opportunity to really synthesize what you have been through and what you have learned from it. Part of the final for some of my classes this semester was to answer some reflection questions about what our big takeaways from the class were and some of our favorite things we learned. This simple task allowed me to synthesize a semester’s worth of information into a more manageable and easy to remember format. It’s easy to forget aspects of what we learn or experience, but taking some time to reflect and synthesize the main points can make it easier to remember their significance in our lives.


Once we synthesize information from individual experiences, we want to be able to connect that information to our other experiences. One of the projects for my senior capstone class was to create a portfolio that collected all of the work I had done over the past four years in my major to demonstrate how I met the learning outcomes of the program. It forced me to look back to all the classes I had taken, remember what I learned, and think creatively about how it all connects to create what would ultimately become my Bachelor’s degree. This gave so much meaning to everything that I had learned and encouraged me to be excited about the opportunities and possibilities that can come next. Individual experiences and pieces of information may remind you where you came from, but looking back and connecting them in meaningful ways can give you a better idea of where you came from can get you to where you want to go.


Understanding where you came from is important. Knowing where you’re going is perhaps more important. But, utilizing where you came from to get you where you’re going is arguably the most important. Everything in your past – the good and the bad –  can be useful to you in some way because it got you to your present. But the past can be utilized further if you take the time to apply it before moving forward. Take past mistakes and past triumphs to avoid making the same mistakes again and to build upon your success. Use those lessons to push forward confidently and efficiently. This was the message of the commencement speaker at my graduation –  to remember what we learned in college and go out into the world and use it to make a better life for ourselves and for those around us. This is a powerful message for a time when I am leaving one chapter behind and entering the next, but it is just as applicable in any situation. Take the time to look back at what you’ve learned, then look forward and find the best way to utilize it to help you reach your own goals.

As I look back on my four years of college and look forward towards the next four, I really appreciate that Facebook quote. I think it captures a lot of wisdom, and I encourage all of you reading this to listen to what this quote is saying. The next time someone tells you to “never look back”, remember to often look back instead. Look back to celebrate what you’ve done, to to synthesize what you’ve experienced, to connect what you’ve learned, and to utilize your past to inform your future. Then, you’ll go on to do even more incredible things!

*Leadership Lesson*

Today, pause in your relentless pursuit of the future to appreciate the past. Use these questions to make the most of your reflection and to achieve the four outcomes we discussed above:

  1. What were the highs and lows of this last week? Month? Year?
  2. What is my most recent achievement? Most recent challenge?
  3. In what ways have those experienced changed or transformed me?
  4. What have I learned (or am I still learning) from those experiences?
  5. Knowing all of these things – what do I now want to start, stop, and continue to do that will help me better reach my short and long term goals?

*About the Author*

Morgan has been working with Leadership Inspirations for two years. He is a graduate of Chapman University with a B.A. in Integrated Educational Studies working towards his M.A. in Leadership Development. When he’s not at school, you can find him at Disneyland, at the beach, or hanging out with friends around LA and OC.