The Past DOES Equal the Future

April 19th, 2010 by Steve Pavlina

The past does not equal the future is a favorite saying of Tony Robbins.

Unfortunately he’s dead wrong.

I can understand Tony’s intent in making such a statement. Sure it’s part of his overall sales pitch, but essentially he’s telling people that they have the power to break from the past and use their power to create a new future. In general that’s a positive message to convey. Unfortunately it seems to do more harm than good. Quite often it makes people all gung ho about changes that never quite materialize. The underlying idea that we can escape the past actually wastes a lot of people’s time.

I know it feels good to think about the idea that we can somehow break with the past and create a whole new future for ourselves, but how often do people actually pull that off when they attempt it? How often have you pulled it off?

So what’s the truth?

The truth is that past performance is in fact the best predictor of future performance, not just with individual human beings but with teams, companies, technology, political bodies, and other time-bound entities.

Even when it comes to personal growth and conscious living, for all intents and purposes, the past DOES equal the future.

Looking to the Past

If you want to know where your current path is taking you, look to your past. That’s the best way to predict where you’re headed.

Looking to your past is more reliable than looking at your goals and intentions.

If I want to know where someone is headed, I’ll take a look at their past, especially their recent past, and make a prediction based on that. I don’t need to hear about their goals and intentions — that information isn’t relevant. (I’ll explain why I say this a bit later in this article.) Just let me see what they’ve been up to for the past few months, and that will give me a pretty good idea of where they’ll be in a year or so.

Obviously there’s some randomness in life. There are chaotic events we can’t very well predict. Sometimes the unexpected happens, and it spins our lives in completely new directions.

But most of the time, our lives succumb to predictable patterns, especially in the long run. We may not be able to predict what will happen tomorrow or next week with much accuracy, but barring an unusually consequential chaotic change, our lives tend to be a lot more predictable over longer stretches of time than we usually care to admit.

Eat a little bit more than you burn in an average day, and you’ll be heavier a year from now. The result is fairly predictable, given the patterns observed in the past.

Is your expected future really so difficult to predict, at least in a general way?

If you go to college and major in a subject with little or no market demand in terms of jobs, isn’t it largely predictable that you may struggle to find paying work after graduating… and if you do find work, that it will likely be outside the field of your major?

If you linger in a relationship that you wouldn’t rate as a 9 or 10 on a scale of 1-10, isn’t it predictable that dissatisfaction or resentment or apathy will develop over time, as opposed to love and gratitude?

If you eat unhealthy foods and experience high stress levels, can you not make certain predictions about what kind of lifestyle problems you may experience down the road?

Looking to Others

Consider some of the people in your life — people you know pretty well.

Can you reasonably predict where they’ll be a year from now? Can you make a decent guess at where they’ll be in terms of their career, finances, relationships, health, daily habits, spiritual practices, etc?

I’m not asking you to predict with any sort of exactitude here.

I’m simply asking you to paint a general picture of what you expect each person’s life will look like in a year or so.

Pick one specific person for starters, someone you know well but not someone you’re in a romantic relationship with. (Pick someone where you don’t have too much of a vested interest in where they’re headed.)

What kind of career or job situation will this person be engaged in a year from now? Blue collar or white collar work? A job to pay the bills or a dedicated career path? What is this person’s attitude towards their work? How hard do they work? What kind of hours do they put in each week? Where will they be in a year?

What kind of income does this person earn? Make a ballpark guess. Are they making $50K a year? $500K? Millions? How much money does this person have? What assets does s/he own?

What kind of relationships does this person have? Is s/he married? Is there a significant other? Living together? Solo? Looking for someone? If this person is in and out of relationships all the time, don’t worry about predicting the exact relationship position at the end of a year since that could be a coin toss. Just predict what general relationship patterns you’ll expect to see play out over the course of that year. How many new partners will this person have during that year, and what will those partners be like?

How will this person do health-wise over the next year? What kinds of foods will they eat? What kinds of exercise, if any, will they do? Will they gain weight, lose weight, or stay the same weight this year? Will they diet or yo-yo at all?

What kinds of daily habits will this person have? When will they get up? When will they go to bed? Are they lazy? Super productive? Highly or minimally effective at getting things done?

What spiritual practices will this person have a year from now? Will they go to church regularly? Will they shun all spiritual practices? Will they meditate often? Will they put candles around their bathtub and label it spirituality?

See if you can get an overall picture of where each of a few people in your life will be a year from now.

Where Predictions Come From

Notice how you made your predictions.

If you’re like most people, you based your predictions on how each person has behaved in the past, particularly the recent past.

To predict the future, you simply projected the past into the future. You looked at the momentum of where this person is headed. You also looked at where they’re stagnant.

For example, if you know that someone got a 10% raise last year, you might predict another 10% raise this year. You might also predict that this person will still be in the same job.

If someone has been in a relationship for 10+ years, you might predict they’ll be in that same relationship next year.

If someone’s company has been downsizing like crazy, you might predict they’ll be out of work within a year and either unemployed or working at a similar job in a year.

If someone is late on their mortgage payments and is getting foreclosure notices, you might predict they’ll be out of that house within a year and maybe living in a smaller house, an apartment, or a condo somewhere.

Now you might say that we need to include the present as well as the past in making decisions, but since the present is just an instantaneous moment, that isn’t necessary. The past includes everything from the last microsecond back to the beginning of time, so that’s as much data as you really need. If you think you need to include something that really is happening in the present, wait one more second. Now it’s in the past.

If you can claim to know anything about a person, it’s from the past.

Recording Your Predictions

I suggest you write down some of your predictions about the people in your life. Record them in your journal.

Then put a note on your calendar a year from now that says something like, “Review journal entry on predictions from a year ago.” If you use an online calendar, this takes only seconds.

Then when your reminder pops up a year from now, review your predictions. How did they turn out?

If you were basically right about certain things, how did you know? Why was your prediction so accurate?

If you were wrong about anything, why did you miss? Did something unpredictable happen that you couldn’t have anticipated? Did you not have enough information to make an accurate prediction? Did you over-emphasize or under-emphasize the importance of certain factors?

What can you learn about this exercise to make better predictions?

You’re More Predictable Than You Realize

Sometimes it’s easier to make predictions about other people instead of ourselves. When we look at other people’s lives, our egos don’t get in the way as much.

It can be pretty tough to look at ourselves so objectively, especially when we don’t like what we see.

No one wants to predict that a year from now, they’ll have lost their home due to foreclosure, gained 20 pounds of fat, and endured a string of bad relationships.

If you’re fortunate to have some intelligent friends who are willing to make honest predictions about where you’re headed and share them with you, you’ll find it very eye-opening to have a candid discussion with them on this subject. However, this will require turning off your ego as much as possible and really listening, which isn’t easy for most people to do.

Try this: Make some predictions about where you’ll be in a year, but base your predictions only on hard factual evidence from the past 30 days of your life.

Take note of how you ate, slept, exercised, worked, communicated, related, created, etc. only during the past 30 days. Assume those same patterns in every area will continue for another 12 months.

If you feel the past 30 days were very atypical for you, such as if you were on vacation or traveling during that time, then use the past 90 days instead.

Use this time frame to predict where you’ll be in a year. Project those same patterns forward in time. Where will they lead if you largely repeated the patterns of the past 30-90 days for a full 12 months?

Aligning With Truth

A huge part of aligning yourself with Truth is being able to make honest, objective predictions about where you’re headed. How will different aspects of your life evolve over the coming year — or longer?

In order to make accurate predictions, you cannot look to your goals or intentions. For all intents and purposes, you can consider goals and intentions irrelevant.

Imagine that you’re in a court of law that’s trying to make a ruling based on the facts of the case. Goals and intentions for the future are inadmissible as evidence because they aren’t hard facts. They’re merely opinions or speculation about what may be.

In order to make accurate predictions of where you’re headed, you must look to your past and only your past.

This may be something you didn’t want to hear, but I’m playing it straight with you.

If you start getting emotional about your predictions (either positive or negative emotions), stop and take a break. This is an exercise that requires logical, left-brained thought. This isn’t the time or place for emotional or illogical thinking. Pretend you’re a Vulcan or an android, and have at it.

Review the questions I asked you earlier about your friend (under the subhead “Looking to Others”). Now ask those same questions of yourself. Look only to your recent past to predict the future, i.e. the past 30-90 days.

Pretend for a moment that you’re Mr. Spock or Mr. Data, and make your best determination as to where the person whose body you inhabit will be a year from now — in terms of your career, finances, relationships, health, daily habits, spiritual practices, etc.

Whichever parts of your life you consider important to you, make some predictions for those areas.

Then do the same thing with recording your predictions in your journal, and mark your calendar a year from now to review that entry.

And don’t give me that pathetic eye-roll. So what if it takes a year to complete this exercise? The time is going to pass anyway, and a year from now you’ll find this data very valuable. Would you rather be feeling intrigued when you see that message on your calendar a year from now, and open up that tremendous gift of growth, or would you rather have another “normal” day instead?

The Gung Ho Dufus

When you study and learn from your past, you’ll notice certain patterns that come up repeatedly in your life. Many of these patterns are ineffective for you. Based on your own history, the results are predictably bad. But how easily we forget and repeat those same mistakes…

One of those bunk patterns I’ve seen in my own past — and you may recognize this in your past as well — is what I call the Gung Ho Dufus approach to personal growth.

This is when someone gets all amped up about a change they’re going to make. They feel a surge of something — adrenaline maybe… sometimes caffeine — and decide that finally things will be different. They usually believe it too.

They make some new decisions and start taking some actions, but their actions are inconsistent and chaotic. Most of their actions are one-offs, meaning that they never get integrated as permanent habits. For example, they’ll tell a bunch of people about their desire to change, and maybe they’ll ask for advice to get started, but that’s often as far as it goes.

Eventually the excitement over the new direction fizzles, and the person gets sucked back into their usual behavior patterns from the past. No real lasting change occurs.

If you look to your past, especially if you’ve been journaling, you may have seen yourself cycle through this pattern, along with some other patterns that you can see have never worked for you. Armed with that knowledge, you can intelligently reject such strategies. You can see evidence that they don’t create lasting change in your future. Those approaches haven’t worked in the past, so there’s no reason to suspect they’ll suddenly start working in the future. If you repeat them, you’ll get a result that looks strikingly similar to what you’ve seen in the past. Journaling is a great way to become aware of some of those patterns and avoid repeating them; otherwise it’s too easy to forget and remain stuck in dufus-land.

What other patterns do you observe in your past that haven’t worked?

What patterns actually have worked? When you experienced your biggest breakthroughs, how did they happen? Can you reverse-engineer and re-apply those same general strategies today?

Change the Past, Change the Prediction

My next suggestion may sound a bit odd, but I think it will give you a fresh perspective on how to create lasting change.

Instead of trying to change your present or your future, focus on changing your past.

In other words, if you want to improve some part of your life, your must inject evidence of change into your past.

Obviously you can only do that by taking action in the present, but not just any action.

If you take haphazard action, such as was mentioned in the Gung Ho Dufus approach, then what are you injecting into your past? Not success. We could say you’re injecting failure and even stupidity into your past because you’re simply repeating a strategy that’s a known failure. And that leads to a perpetuation of the past in your future.

Instead what you need to do is inject some form of consistency into your past. You need to establish a new pattern of behavior. That new recent past, if it looks consistent enough, will alter your predictions about the future.

Like I said, this may seem an odd way of looking at things, but it can get you thinking in new directions, and that’s what we want.

What kinds of actions will you need to take that will inject a fresh chain of consistency into your past, thereby giving you enough certainty to alter your predictions about the future?

As you might guess, the best kinds of actions — in terms of their predictive value — are those that are done regularly and that can be sustained for at least a year or more.

Those are the kinds of actions that we base our predictions on when we make predictions about other people.

What kinds of meals have we seen this person eat? What sorts of partners does this person hang out with regularly? Where does this person go to work each weekday? What kind of paychecks does this person bring home each month? How does this person spend their Sunday mornings?

These sorts of actions have a name of course.

They’re called habits.

Evidence, Not Wishful Thinking

You’ll cross the threshold of being able to predict success instead of failure once you establish certain habits. But until that happens, the perpetuation of the status quo (i.e. failure to change) will remain the dominant prediction.

If you don’t establish new habits, your goals and intentions are toast. They will not come to pass.

Those habits could be new ways of thinking, but even if they’re thought-based, they’re going to surface in the form of new behaviors too.

No new behaviors means no new predictions.

If you want change, you must create evidence of change. Evidence of change equals new habits. No new habits equals no change in prediction.

Predictable Change vs. Changing Predictions

Now it’s possible that your existing habits are serving you well. Maybe your predictions for the future are very positive already, and you expect them to remain good for a while.

This is a great place to be. I enjoy this situation in many parts of my life. It’s nice to observe that if I just keep doing what I’ve been doing, some parts of my life will probably keep getting better and better.

That’s predictable change — the good kind. That’s an easy situation to manage because if you simply maintain the status quo in terms of your habits, you’re golden.

The focus of this article, however, is on the situation where you dislike some or all of your predictions. You don’t feel good about what you see coming up. Maybe your predictions are negative or neutral. Or maybe they just aren’t positive enough for you. In that case you want to change the predictions.

You can’t just fudge your numbers because that means falling out of alignment with Truth, which is a great way to bring your personal growth to a halt. Don’t lie to yourself or exaggerate where your current habits are taking you. Remember — this is for posterity, so be honest!

Again, forget about your intentions, and focus on making predictions from reliable past data. Don’t predict that you’ll double your income this year if last year you saw less than a 10% increase — unless some reliable indicators have shifted to make that prediction likely from an objective standpoint, and you can name other people who’d agree with your predictions.

If you can’t fudge your numbers, the only way you can change your predictions without losing accuracy is to change the past. Ironically, that will take time, but it can be done.

You can change the past by installing a new habit or breaking an existing habit. Really these are the same thing, since you can’t break an old habit without installing a new one to replace it.

So this is where to focus your efforts of personal growth. Focus on changing the consistent patterns in your life, and begin injecting new consistent patterns into your past by performing them in the present (which instantly becomes the past). If you can’t do that, your honest predictions won’t change. You’ll just continue to head in the same direction as before.

Breaking the Past

Look at the elements from your past that are contributing to your predictions. Which habits are causing you to make negative predictions about your future?

Do you feel miffed about your patterns of eating or sleeping? Are your dating habits letting you down? What results are you getting from your work routine and productivity habits? Where are your current spiritual practices leading you? Are your spending habits leading you astray?

Habit change can be tough, but a great place to start is to use the 30-day trial method. There’s also a whole chapter on habits in my book, so I recommend that you review that as well. This will get you off to a good start with tools that have worked well for large numbers of people.

If you really want to create some serious changes, another perspective I can share is that you want to think about breaking your past. Shatter those past patterns, so they absolutely cannot continue in their current form. Deliberately create a disconnect with your past which — at the very least — makes your previous predictions impossible… even if it means trading the comfort of certainty for the discomfort of unpredictability.

For example, break off a disempowering relationship that contributes to too many negative predictions. Drop the lazy friends from your life, and start befriending the most productive and organized people you know. Move to a new city where you can expect more career and financial opportunities. Drop the most health-destroying foods from your life, and offer $100 cash to anyone who catches you eating them within the next year. Make it impossible to continue the same past patterns for another 30 days.

If you can’t break the past by injecting a discontinuity into it, then the past will essentially be your future.

To Change the Future, Change the Past

Consider two scenarios.

Bill and Ted both want to have written a book within the next year. Neither has written a book before.

Bill has no habit of daily writing. But he has a clear written goal/intention for his book. He knows what kind of book he wants to write. When people ask him what he’s working on, he tells them he’s writing a book. In the past 30 days, he has spent a lot of time thinking about his book. He’s even jotted down some ideas for it, but mostly at random intervals.

Ted has no written goals, intentions, or plans for his book. He hasn’t told anyone he’s writing it. He’s not even sure what the chapters will be. But for the past 30 days, he’s gotten out of bed every morning at 5am, and he’s worked on his book till 7am before having breakfast. He has averaged about 2 pages of potentially usable content per day. He’s been working only on his book during that time and nothing else. He’s done this every day without fail. Nothing has come up in his life during that time that would disrupt this habit or indicate that it’s likely to be disrupted.

If I told you that only one of these two gentlemen finished their book within that year, which one would you bet on? Which approach do you believe is more likely to lead to a completed book within a year?

Which approach are you betting on in your life right now?

How’s that approach working for you?

Is your success predictable? Is your lack of success predictable?

Goals and Predictions

Now don’t get me wrong. Goals and intentions are awesome. Having clarity about what you’re going to do next is certainly important. But deciding what you want is only the first step. And if that’s all you do, then I predict some occasional spotty successes for you against a far more consistent backdrop of long-term mediocrity. I’ve seen that pattern play out enough times across enough people’s lives that I consider such results fairly predictable.

Eventually you must inject your goals and intentions into your past to create the evidence that will alter your predictions about where you’re headed. This is how you change course.

Setting a new goal is like punching in a new course at the helm of the Enterprise.

Creating a new habit is the act of saying, “Engage!”

The ship doesn’t move until you say that word. Wesley Crusher will just give you a blank stare, and no one wants that.

Sorry, Tony.

… and Wesley. :(

For more on this topic, especially the how-to aspects, read Goals Into Habits.


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