Leave the Past in the Past: A Lesson from Star Trek

Time Travel Complications

A question small business owners get asked a lot: “If you could go back in time to your first day in business, what would you tell yourself?”

In fact, it’s this month’s Word Carnival topic.

My answer might surprise you, but I would tell myself absolutely nothing.

See, in Star Trek, they have this rule called the Temporal Prime Directive. It says, should you ever find yourself in the past, you can do nothing to interfere with the natural course of history. To do otherwise would corrupt the timeline and irrevocably alter or destroy life as you knew it.

Geek appreciation aside, I think it’s a great rule to live by – even if you don’t travel the time-space continuum on a weekly basis. If you examine the underlying premise of the Temporal Prime Directive, you realize two things:

  1. You should regard the past with a certain amount of reverence
  2. No matter how much you might want to, you can’t change the past

The most dangerous thing in the world to small business owners is Monday-morning quarterbacking. “If only…” sometimes becomes “Next time…” without just cause, which becomes the excuse for some of the most destructive business behavior imaginable. From ignoring opportunities to creating unreasonable delays to falsely identifying cues of impending doom, second-guessing yourself in business yields nothing good.

Second-guessing yourself is the result of not respecting the past for what it is: the sum of making the best possible choices with the best information available at the time. Treating it like some fail-proof guidebook to dealing with the future is the sure path to ruin.

If you don’t respect the past, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the most painful experiences were also the greatest learning opportunities. Your biggest failures were also the turning points to some of your greatest successes. To go back and change the game would be to rob yourself of some of your most poignant moments. Moments that built character, moments that you learned from, moments that shaped the course of your future, taught you who your real friends are, and taught you what was really valuable.

All we can ever ask as small business owners is that we make the best decisions we know how with the information we have available. Sometimes that means we screw up, miss an opportunity, or misjudge a competitor.

Clarity rarely visits the present, but it’s great friends with the past. As one of my favorite bosses (Peter Sheahan) used to say, “Action precedes clarity.” That is, until you act, you can’t know the results.

So when the temptation hits to second-guess yourself, stop. Take a breath, and do the next natural step. Let the past become the result of you making the best choices you can, at that moment. Hindsight has a lot less sting when you can remind yourself that you could easily have done a lot worse.

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnival series of posts. This month, our carnies are exploring the theme of Time Travel, specifically: from where you are now, what one piece of advice would you go back in time to give yourself on your first day in business? Check out more of the Word Carnival series at WordCarnivals.com.

(Header photo: Time Travel Complication)