3 Steps to Avoid Repeating History

Whenever I think of the word regret, I think of one human trying to drag all of her bad decisions and missed opportunities up a gigantic mountain. It seems like a lot of baggage, and work, and sorrow, and to be honest, I think there’s enough sorrow in life — I don’t want to unnecessarily add regret on top of the mix.

Don’t get me wrong — I already have regrets, and I know there’ll be more to come. But I do know that in order to avoid certain kinds of regret, we must make good decisions. And making good decisions requires that we recognize situations, either from past experience or from the experiences of others, and knowing what to do and how to act, even when circumstances are difficult and uncertain.

Oftentimes, though, what I think holds people back — particularly people my age — from making the right decisions is A) the lack of life experience, and B) the lack of willingness to learn from other people. The first option we can’t help, because we can’t control how many years we’ve lived or what kind of things we’ve gone through, but we can control how much we seek out from others. Are we actively trying to learn from people who are wiser than we are? Do we have hearts and heads that are willing to learn?

We won’t be able to completely avoid repeating history. We’ll keep making mistakes. But the best way to get ahead in life is to avoid the potholes and pitfalls that others have fallen into, and in order to avoid them, we must know what they are.

Therefore, we must learn.

Sit down, be humble.

I love a good coming-of-age story, mostly because I’m still coming of age myself. It’s fascinating to see if movies accurately portray the teenage experience, since most of the time they’re written by people who are well past that stage of life. How well are they going to represent me? I thought to myself before heading in to see Lady Bird or Edge of Seventeen or Breakfast Club. Obviously one’s adolescent experience depends a lot on the time and place it happens, but there are always several traits that all teenagers have in common. One of these is insecurity; another is angst; another is pride.

Adolescence, my dad likes to say, is the time when you realize that adults aren’t perfect, and it’s when you start to think that you know better than them. That’s why we do dumb stuff, like texting while driving. We think we’re above the law; we think we’re invincible; we’re not, but we think we are, and I think this is why a lot of us make the same mistakes people before us have made.

The first step to not repeating history is recognizing that we don’t want to repeat it, and to realize that we’re not fully equipped to answer the questions that we grapple with. We have to humble ourselves before we learn. Why do we take biology class? Because we know we don’t know biology. Why do we take calculus? Because we know we don’t know calculus. Whenever you learn something consciously, it’s almost always with the mentality that you’re starting from square one. We don’t like to admit that we’re on square one. But in order to intentionally learn, we must.

Ask questions.

In college, as a freshman, I’m one of the youngest on campus — which is awesome, because everyone has more life experience than I do. Whenever I hang out with people who are older than I am, I constantly ask them questions. How did your freshman year differ from your sophomore year? What would you do differently if you could go back? What’s one regret that you have about your freshman year? What should I take advantage of during this year? Whenever I sense that I might get along with a professor or a TA, I make sure to go up to them after class or to go to office hours and ask them questions — about the subject, at first, and how it ties to life.

And if you’re thinking, What a tryhard, or wondering why on earth I would do anything like that, let me ask you this: Why shouldn’t I do it? Why shouldn’t I learn? The point of college, and of being young, is to learn, and to grow, and to mature. I understand that even if I don’t intentionally seek out growth, I’ll probably still grow, just because there are so many lessons to be learned unconsciously, but intentionality accelerates the entire process and increases self-awareness.

So, seek. Seek out stories; seek out answers; seek out perspectives. You won’t get all the answers by asking questions, and the answers you get might even make you ask more questions — but isn’t that the point? We’ll never understand all of life’s facets — no one can — but even catching a glimpse of a few of them is invaluable.

Analyze, reflect, act.

Once you’ve got the information, what are you going to do with it?

Let it incubate in your head? Sit there, roll it around, and then toss it out?

Or use it?

I took European history and U.S. history in high school. It was fascinating. I learned how to stage a coup, the names of the U.S. presidents, and — perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ll ever learn — that the human nature doesn’t change.

We do stupid stuff, over and over and over again.

We often have a general sense of the consequences of our actions, yet we stubbornly persist in believing that we’ll be the exceptions.

In a sense, you could say that I’m fighting a losing battle, because regardless of how much “self-awareness” I might try to have, I’m going to make the same mistakes people before me have made. I’m going to repeat history. I’m going to try not to, but I’m going to do it anyway, just because I can’t help it. I’m human.

But that doesn’t mean I should stop trying to get ahead, or that I should give up on learning. I’m not trying to fight against myself or take my destiny into my own hands, because ultimately, I’m not in control of that. What I’m trying to do is take my ability to interact with people, to understand them, and to apply that to my own life.

So no, I can’t just let all those conversations and answered questions (and unanswered questions) sit in my head. I’ve got to think about the answers, figure out if what they’re saying aligns with my own beliefs and goals, and take action.

Which is part of the reason why I’m writing this here, and now. I’ve read countless interviews of people who say that in order to become a good writer, you have to write a million words.

It might be an exaggeration, but then again, it might not.

Learn, improve, grow.