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No More Rotten Yesterdays



"Finish every day and be done with it. For manners and for wise living it is a vice to remember. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day for all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays."


Why today is spent on yesterday’s regrets?

Why do we only focus our fears and frets?

The moon, the stars, the night have gone.

And yet our thoughts still linger on.


A gift of new has come this morn.

But soon it too will be forlorn.

With every passing breath we take.

Another precious memory we make.


This time around we’ll spend it wise.

Not to ponder thought or guise.

We’ll never have this day again.

So spend it well and tell a friend.


I often like to spend a lot of time looking in the the rear view mirror. Weekly reviews, quarterly, annual. I find it to be so important to think about how we executed and what we can do to improve our next cycle. But there is definitely a dark side to the mirror too. We can often be paralyzed by the past. Sometimes we watch our game day tapes but we skip all the highlights and we instead only rewatch the plays that we botched. Not studying them with curiosity. Not trying to figure out what went wrong and how we can fix it. But simply dwelling on the fact that we royally screwed up. And wondering why the hell we even bother trying. We internalize our failures to the point of belief that our failures are actually who we are. We are a failure. We are “that” failure.


This kind of negative self-talk, is often so pervasive in our lives that we don’t even notice it anymore. We spend so much time dwelling on our mistakes and stressing about how others may perceive what we did or said. Our times of rest become times of self-reprimand. And our peaceful quiet becomes an intrusive bombardment of disappointment and stress.


What do you believe about yourself? When you are all alone, how do you describe yourself? When you mess up do you think “oh there i go again, i'm such a screw up. I need to fix this part of myself.”. Or do you think “ok, more focus needs to go into this area of improvement because that action is not me. That is not who i am or who i want to be”?


Identity

I have been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between identity and action. How each of our actions are tiny votes cast towards who we believe ourselves to be. And also, in turn, how our beliefs about who we are, internally mobilize us to act a certain way. Action drives identity. Identity drives action. it is a loop.


In a recent article i talked about the positive version of this cycle, Forming Habits of Identity. In it i discussed how our identity is the strongest motivator towards our actions. If we believe we are the type of person that does X, then, more often than not, we will find a way to prioritize X. The more we do it, the more we believe we are the kind of person that does that action. Therefore with small consistent action everyday, like eating healthy or waking up early, we can begin to shape our identity. Over time that action becomes effortless because, it's just who we are.


Action drives identity, which drives action.

Actions -> Identity -> Actions


The starting point doesn't necessarily matter. The cycle doesn't really need to start with actions, either way, they feed into each other in a loop. it can just as easily be written: Identity drives actions, which drives identity.

Identity -> Actions -> Identity


There is a negative version of this cycle too unfortunately. As we continue to make similar mistakes, those mistakes cast votes about who we are too. And as our mind starts to replay the fumble over and over again, we start to believe that we are the type of person that fumbles the ball. We are a fumbler. With this mindset, it is incredibly hard to focus on anything else when carrying the ball, thus we drop it again. Yesterday's mistakes ruin our ability to live in the present moment.


Action drives identity, which drives action.

Actions -> Identity -> Actions


So then what is the difference between the two cycles? How can we encourage one set of actions/identities, and discourage the other? As i thought more about this, especially in context of Emerson's letter, i realized that there is a third component in the middle. Thoughts. Our pervasive thoughts about our past are really what soak into our conscious and stain our beliefs about who we are.


Action drives thoughts, thoughts become our identity, which drives action.

Actions -> Thoughts -> Identity -> Actions


Again, order doesn't matter, so lemme write it like this:

Thoughts -> Identity -> Actions -> Thoughts


Perhaps this third element might be the place to start changing a negative cycle into a positive one. Just like how small positive action can reinforce positive identity, maybe blocking small negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones can also lead to a more positive identity.


"I am a fumbler, i don't want to be, but thats just who i am" -> "i am a great running back that occasionally makes mistakes." or not even that, just say "i am a great running back" and let the mistakes part be a footnote. Everyone is makes mistakes, so it's not even worth mentioning.


negative action -> negative thought || filter || positive thought -> positive identity -> positive action


Remember the question i asked at the beginning?


When you are all alone, how do you describe yourself? When you mess up do you think “oh there i go again, i'm such a screw up. I need to fix this part of myself.”. Or do you think “ok, more focus needs to go into this area of improvement because that action is not me. That is not who i am or who i want to be”?


The first phrase says that you ARE something negative. The second phrase says that you DID something negative. The first phrase actually reinforces the behavior because it accepts the behavior as part of your identity. To change the behavior then would mean to act out of alignment with your identity. The second phrase still acknowledges that a change needs to occur, but it says that your current action is misaligned with who are. Thus the change in behavior will actually put your actions in alignment with a your identity.


It is such a nuance, and It sort of sounds like a woo-hoo brain trick. Good vibes only maaaan. Maybe it is, but i think it's more than that. If we can audit our thoughts/actions knowing that they cast votes towards our identity, maybe we can "throw out" the bad votes, and instead craft good votes that align with who we want to believe we are. Then our actions can reflect that identity.


This new set of action or inaction will still take discipline, especially at the beginning. But over time as we continually take small positive actions, cast votes, and flag negative actions as misaligned with our identity, then slowly the cycle will shift in the right direction.


I guess i should note that there seems like there can be a dangerous side to this filtering as well. A lack of self awareness. We all probably immediately thought of someone who has a double standard for themselves. They can't stand it when others are late, but when they are late they have a great excuse and don't believe it to be such a big deal. As with all things i suppose awareness, balance, and good friends might be the key. if all your circle is telling you something bad about your behavior, then you should audit and decide whether or not it is worth changing. but with everything we are talking about today, i would guess that your circle would reiterate that you are NOT a fumbler, and it was just a mistake, that you should let it go, that you are being too hard on yourself. (there is a further rabbit hole about shitty friends that give you bad advice, but i'm sure you'd prefer i wrap this article up already)


Perspective

This also reminded of the analogy of the bronze medalist paradigm. The premise is that often the bronze medalist is actually much happier than the silver medalist. This is because the bronze medalist is so happy to be on the podium, so excited to have barely made it to the medal ceremony. They keep thinking about all the things that went right so that they could be here. Up one stair higher, The silver medalist cannot stop thinking about how they messed up. All the small mistakes that they made during the race. If only they had done xyz or abc, then they would have had gold.


Perspective and focus can change so much about how we experience the moment we are in. Sometimes in all our striving, we forget to take credit for all of the hard work that got us here.


Mistakes are ever present. I mean, this whole blog is centered on improvement. But we should never forget that our mistakes are not who we are, they are just part of the journey. Who we are, is how we move forward. Today is a new day, we shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with our old nonsense. No more rotten yesterdays.


Every champions falls, but we are not defined as those who falter. We are the ones who get back up. We are those that rise to the challenge.


Resources:

Thanks for listening to my ramblings, there is also so much better content around these topics than what i can write. I have left some breadcrumbs here to hopefully help any fellow travelers.


James Clear (Author of Atomic Habits) has quite a few articles on breaking bad habits and on the power of identity:



Kevin Sutardji over at Kurative Co has written quite a lot on this subject of fighting self sabotage. If this is something you struggle with often, i would encourage you to check out Kevin's work over there. He also speaks about the benefits of having a professional listener if you feel you cannot break these spirals by yourself. There is an unfortunate stigma still today around therapy that is both unhelpful and often dangerous. Perhaps one day we will live in a world where people treat therapy like they treat oil changes.


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