01/26/2013 10:53 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2013

Stars as My Guide

I sat in a training on decision making, daydreaming like I tend to.

"Eighty percent of conversations are about the past."

Say what? I sat up straight in my chair. A 6'4", former Green Beret with a pot-belly and a Mr. Clean sheen stood towering over me. He had one of those M&M dispositions -- hard shell, soft on the inside. He moved on without pause, as if he didn't just drop a bomb.

"Wait, what did you just say?" I blurted out. Couldn't keep those words inside. Didn't even try. This cat wasn't used to repeating himself. Didn't care for it. That much was clear. With veiled frustration and staccato punctuation, he said it once more.

This time it sunk in. Eighty percent. Of our conversations. Are about the past. I don't know if this is true but the notion that we spend far more time thinking on the past than the future resonated with me. It's important to honor and acknowledge your past, to tease lessons from the stories that make you, you. But at some point the past becomes a crutch, something to fall back on when you're uncomfortable in the present or fearful of the future. At some point, you're just stuck.

As kids, the future animates our thoughts and conversations. We wonder what high school will be like, what we'll be like as parents, as partners. As adults, we think on the past. We reflect on the path taken, the choices made, the friends lost and gained, the might-have-loved and the should-have-been. This evolution means there is a moment, an inflection point, when our predominant mode of thought moves from the future to the past. When wonder and imagination are overtaken by what went down. When "should have been" just is what it is, what it was.

When you think about who you are, does the past dictate the present? Part of the reason the past often reigns is that we let it. Our past emotions and thoughts tug on us in the present, whispering sweet nothings in our ear in case we forgot how things used to be, what we used to think, how we used to see. Past insecurities, memories from childhood, that last relationship. In these, we can see patterns or the past, pieces of who we are or who we once were, way back when.

But what about who we want to be? If we are a continual project, what's more important, where we've been or where we want to go? I don't mean to suggest it's clear-cut one way or the other, only that the past trumps more than it should. From time to time, let the future guide. Don't buy this "inflection point" business. Not even if it's on sale. This shit isn't inevitable. You don't have to go from a starry-eyed curious kid with big dreams to an adult with memories. You don't have to let the past dictate the present. But you do have to get a move on because we're like clay hardening, cement setting, our default dispositions making it more and more difficult to detach our thinking from the past and tie it to a mast moving forward. Choose today. And then tomorrow.

The other night I sat outside with a dear friend, stars sprinkled across the sky, bourbon in hand. One drink turned to four and before you know it we were plumbing the depths of identity, of who we are, of how we've changed, how we haven't. Friend by my side, past behind me, with the stars as my guide.

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