See, What Had Happened Was…
We’re sure you’ve heard some variation of the phrase,
Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.
It comes from writer and philosopher Georges Santayana. In its original form, it read,
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
It seems wise. And it is wise. But there’s a wrinkle there that’s a little troublesome: what if what happened in history was totally epic? Wouldn’t we be lucky to repeat it?
Food for thought.
Anyway, this post isn’t about history history, it’s about your personal history. Your recent personal history. As in the past year. The past school year, to be specific. Which took up roughly the last nine to ten months of your life, depending on which state you live in.
To the point: your school year is basically over. It’s likely the biggest things on your mind right now are getting through exams, finishing your final semester projects, and figuring out what you’re going to do this summer. Maybe you still have a prom or big end-of-year school event coming up. Maybe you’re graduating. If so – congrats.
All that is in the future.
Right now – in keeping with that opening quote – we want you to look at the past.
We want you to take a few minutes to look back over your school year, think about what happened, and decide whether you had a good year, a bad year, or a so-so, in-between type year. Right now, in this moment, it may be hard to remember exactly what happened.
Forgetting stuff is not just something old people do: it happens to everyone.
For example, you may not even remember what you had for breakfast this morning. Or if you even had breakfast this morning.
You know how you sometimes get to the end of a long day, look back to the morning, and think,
“Wow, that was this morning? It seems like days ago.”
The same thing happens with weeks, months, and especially years.
Think back to the first day of school this year. It probably seems like forever ago. But it wasn’t. It was less than a year – not forever. If you take a moment, you’ll remember it.
Take a moment right now.
See? You can remember.
What we want you to do has an official name: it’s called a debrief. Yup, just like spies, FBI agents, and soldiers do after an assignment. They sit across from their superiors, and answer pointed questions about what happened. A debrief has two goals. The first is to find out what went right, what went wrong, and identify any lingering, unresolved questions or issues. The second is to take this information and act on it. Actually, there’s a third goal, too: in those official contexts, debriefs happen so the spies, cops, and soldiers can avoid making the same mistakes in the future. In other words, so they can do better next time.
That’s what we want for you: if you had a good year, we want you to have another good year. If you had a bad year, we don’t want you to repeat it. So, how can make sure you have another good year and avoid having another bad year?
How to Debrief Your Year
In this situation, you’re debriefing yourself. There’s not a superior sitting across from you giving you the third degree. It’s just you and your thoughts. You don’t have to tell anyone about it, so there’s no reason to gloss over the bad and only focus on the good. This is totally self-contained. It’s all about you, so there’s no chance of embarrassment or ridicule. It’s all about learning and moving forward.
So, set aside some time – like maybe half an hour tops – and get ready to ask yourself some questions.
What actually happened this year?
Tip: grab a calendar, go back to August or September, and go through your year month by month. It may be helpful to go online and look at your school calendar. They list school dances, sports events, and all that. Once you have your calendar, start at the beginning of the year and run it all back.
What went well?
Tip: remember, this is for you, not anyone else. What went well could mean you made new friends, finally got a date with that person you’ve had your eye on since middle school, or anything. It does not have to be official stuff, like getting good grades or making the football team. But it can be, if that stuff was good for you.
What went not-so-well?
Tip: again, this is all about you. It could be personal disappointments that no one knows anything about but you, or it could be things obvious to everyone. You’re the expert.
How could I have avoided the things that went wrong?
Tip: for this one, think creatively. For instance, if there was a day you skipped school, got busted, and got suspended, clearly the way you could have avoided it was not skipping school. What we’re about to say may seem ridiculous, but another way to avoid it would have been simply staying in bed. Right? Absurd, but true. When you think of how you could have avoided things or what you could have done differently, think in the macro as well as the micro – meaning big picture as well as the daily detail.
How can I repeat the things that went well?
Tip: it’s a fact that the past is in the past – obviously. What we mean is more like this: if you got good grades, and you want that to happen again, then think back to why and how it happened. Did you have a tutor? A study group with friends where you actually studied? Or like this: did you play a sport, get in great shape, and feel like savage? What were the details of how that happened? Did you do pushups every morning? Go for a run every evening? Take time with your calendar, think of the details that led to your successes, and make plans to do them again.
Next Year is In Your Hands
Good, bad, or in between, what happened last year does not determine what will happen next year. If everything fell apart and you felt like you were on a runaway train and only made it through by the skin of your teeth, then look back over your year and identify what went wrong, when it went wrong, and why it went wrong. Take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen next year. And if everything went well, don’t expect that just to magically happen all over. Increase your chances of repeating a good year by remembering everything that went into making it good. Focus on the small, daily details, because those things are easy to forget – that’s why it helps to do a good debrief – and those things usually have more to do with successes than most people realize.
We’ll end with our positive new twist on the saying we opened with:
Those who study the good parts of their past will be blessed to repeat them.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.