You Don’t Need the Past to Learn

A few years ago, I called upon Bruce Lee to remind myself that it’s better to learn from my mistakes than to halfheartedly imitate what successful people are doing. What’s unfortunate about using mistakes as your primary source of data is that you have to, well, make them. Worse, you then have to stare at them until you learn your lesson.

Based on Bruce Lee’s parable of the butcher, in which a meat preparer follows “the line of the hard bone” so his knife may stay sharp, I concluded that you should “never learn the same lesson twice.” Whether it takes placing your hand on the hot stove, holding it over the open flame, or only reading about someone else getting burned, do whatever it takes to extract and remember the lesson. That was my conclusion.

With the hindsight of an additional four years of life experience, I would slightly amend this advice, based on yet another idea from Bruce Lee: “Knowledge is of the past; learning is in the present. A constant movement in relationship with the outward things, without the past.”

While it’s true that we should always learn from our mistakes, I doubt said analysis takes an entire college semester to perform, at least in most cases. For the big ones? Sure. If you get divorced, go bankrupt, or lose a million dollars, you should probably spend some serious time thinking about what went wrong and how you’ll change your behavior.

When it comes to most everyday mistakes, however, your memory won’t let you down. Like everything that happens in your life, they’ll wander right down into your subconscious, ready to reappear when needed. In that sense, most of the time, you don’t need to dwell on the past in order to learn from it. It is enough to continue your journey in the present – to focus on learning more so than on knowledge.

My mom once accidentally made “milk rice,” a sweet dish, with salt instead of sugar. I bet even to this day, whenever she makes it, she double-checks which container she takes off the shelf. I know I do. See how powerful a tiny lesson can be? No extensive rumination needed.

This is the marvel – and entire point – of the human mind: It’ll remind you of relevant memories when you most need them. There’s no need to neatly file and catalog every single thing.

Most of the time, the past only weighs us down. It distracts us from the present. It is a breeding ground not just for occasional nostalgia but lots of negative thoughts. Gather your lessons, sure, but don’t let them add to that weight.

Stay in the now. Keep moving. Learning. Dance with reality as it unfolds. Trust that your lessons will always be with you. Nothing you’ve experienced is ever lost. Have faith that it’ll all reveal itself whenever you need it. That is the true path of “independent inquiry,” as Bruce Lee called it. I hope he would agree.