Learning from the Past: How to Use Past Mistakes to Make Better Decisions in Your Future

Throughout our lives we will make mistakes. Some of us will make more than others, and still others will feel like all they make is one mistake after another. We are human. It is our nature to be imperfect, and as such, we cannot be flawless in our decision-making. What we can do, however, is learn from those mistakes so that we make better decisions in the future.

Before being able to learn from the mistakes in your past, you have to be able to honestly and non-defensively look back and examine instances in your past when you made self-sabotaging and self-esteem-lowering life choices because

1.    Your choices weren’t well thought out;

2.    Your emotions clouded your best judgment; or

3.    There was some other decision-making breakdown or flaw.

Once you acknowledge the mistakes you have made, you can move on to learning valuable life lessons from them. In preparation for a future life-choice opportunity, review and think through what went awry the last time you made a self-defeating or self-destructive life-choice!  Take time to decide on what will be a more constructive or beneficial way to handle a similar choice the next time around. Essentially, you will be creating some inner conversations that acknowledge a flawed life choice was made in the past and identify a more effectively thought out strategy for your future.

To illustrate, let’s consider an example. Suppose you had made a past decision to drive under the influence of alcohol, which resulted in you getting a DUI. The inner dialogue for a better future decision might go something like this:

“The last time I was offered too much alcohol at a party/dinner, I continued drinking because I wanted to be social and it seemed harmless at the time. The lapse in judgment resulted in my getting a DUI and I lost my license. It was awful and devastating in many ways.

Next time, after one drink, I will resolutely say, ‘No thanks!’  I don’t want to risk the unthinkable consequences should I lose my license again, and this time, permanently!  Nor do I want to risk the far worse consequence of injuring my children, myself, or someone else should I get into an accident while driving drunk!”

The key to learning from your mistakes is to acknowledge the mistake in the past and develop a revised and significantly more beneficial game plan to implement in the future. The aim of these steps is to secure a far more desirable result the next time a life choice involving a particular stimulus is presented.

Fear: The Highly Potent Affect Fear Has on Decision Making

A few years ago a friend of mine, Danielle, came to me for help about a problem she was having. She had become separated from her husband due in large part to his destructive and unsavory behavior that had caused him to be out of work for over five years. The couple’s savings were severely drained and they were living primarily on Danielle’s income as a real-estate broker.

The recession hit and had a huge impact on Danielle’s business. Her father implored her to get out of real estate and into a job with steady income and security. Danielle was scared and panicked. She was totally responsible for her son’s financial support and she was in real trouble, but the thought of working at a boring corporate job made her cringe. She had worked so hard to build up her real-estate business and hated to walk away from it. For the first time in her life, she felt like she was being forced to make a snap decision and she was terrified.

When you are overcome with fear or panic and have to make a decision, one of two things happen:

1.    You’re frozen by your fear, so you can’t or don’t think or act rationally; or

2.    You react without thinking clearly and take an inappropriate or, worse, a self-sabotaging action.

I am told that many years ago an experiment was conducted with mice in a cage in order to learn how they would react to facing the unknown. As I understand it, one-half of the cage floor on which the mice were standing was electrified. At various intervals, the feet of the mice were shocked, which made them jump and squeal in pain. After the mice received a series of shocks, the middle of the cage was opened so that the mice could flee to the other side of the cage, with the possibility that they could escape the shocks. The incredible result of this experiment was that not one mouse went over to the other side of the cage in order to avoid the shocks.

For our purposes, at least two conclusions can be drawn from this study:

1.    The fear of physical pain was preferred by or less daunting to the mice than was the fear of the unknown or the fear of change; and

2.    The fear of the unknown seemed to be intellectually crippling to the mice, as it appears to have caused them not to think or act rationally. This may be one reason why not one mouse ventured over to the other side of the cage to see if “life” over there would be less painful.

When Danielle contacted me, she was virtually paralyzed by her fear and unable to think, reason, choose, or act productively. I encouraged her to slow down, relax, and think things out rationally and clearly. She eventually was able to decide on a career path that would meet her financial and personal requirements and was able to continue supporting herself and her son, her most potent Gold.

When you are filled with fear and are panicked, avoid making life decisions.  The fear will get in the way of making the best choice, which could have a lasting impact on your life.

Intellect and Emotions: Often at Odds when Decision Making

Many years ago I had the pleasure of meeting one of Oprah’s producers after a presentation I gave on the “Components of Constructive Decision Making.”  He approached me and basically said, “All of the decision-making theories that I’ve heard in the past focus on the intellectual component of decision making. But you deal with the emotions. And, while most of us intellectually know what we should do in a given situation, when strong emotions come into play, we often make terrible decisions. If you can show people how to separate their emotions from their decision-making processes, you will be able to help a great many people and thus make a real contribution!”

His words not only offered some much-appreciated encouragement, they also highlighted the fact that two distinctly different influences can play major roles when you make life choices:

  1. Your intellect, or what you know and think; and
  2. Your emotions, urges, and impulses, as well as what you feel.

These two influences can be at odds with one another when a person is faced with an important life choice, and I discuss these components of decision making throughout my book, Your Killer Emotions. What you will learn and begin to practice is the ability to allow your intellect and your emotions to act in concert. When they do, you are able to attain your most dearly beloved goals and live the life you dream about.

Let . What you will learn and begin to practice is the ability to allow your intellect and your emotions to act in concert. When they do, you are able to attain your most dearly beloved goals and live the life you dream about.

Let me illustrate this point with an example that most of us can relate to. Many of us are faced with the daily challenge of making healthy or unhealthy choices. From the moment we get up, we begin making a series of decisions that can be heavily influenced by our emotions even when our intellect tries to lead us in the better direction.

  • Do I get in some exercise before starting my day or blow it off?
  • At lunch, do I go for the roasted turkey half sandwich or the double cheeseburger?
  • I’m feeling hungry and tired in the late afternoon. Do I grab a cup of coffee and a candy bar or take a quick walk around the office and eat some fruit and mixed nuts?

When making these decisions throughout your day, you will often receive conflicting information from your intellect and your emotions. Your intellect knows that getting daily morning exercise benefits your body, helps you have more energy throughout the day, and improves your mood. However, when the alarm rings early in the morning, your emotions are begging you to skip all of that sweating and sleep in!

Harmonious collaboration of your intellect and emotions is the goal. Your Killer Emotions will teach you how to come to a place where your intellect and your emotions lead you to the same decision through diligent practice and performance of the skill sets presented.