How to Turn Hindsight Into Insight

hindsight into insight

We have all heard the expression, “hindsight is 20-20,” but is that really the case? Well, it certainly can be, but only if we are paying attention to where we have been and what we have learned.

Experience has the potential to be our very best teacher, and hindsight plays a vital role. Unfortunately, many people go through life just repeating the same old mistakes over and over again. They somehow miss the connection between hindsight and insight.

Granted, we all make mistakes, but there are two important question for each of us to ask ourselves with regard to our mistakes.

1. “Do I really learn from my mistakes?” And, if so, then
2. “Do I make it a point to adjust my life accordingly?”

You see, the truth of the matter is, if we can’t say yes to both of those questions, then the answer to both is really no.

Hindsight lets us reflect and grow wise!

Wisdom and insight come to those who learn from their experiences, adjust their course, and continue in the direction of their goals and aspirations. Experience can teach us so many valuable lessons, but only if we are willing to adjust our lives accordingly.

That’s why it is so important that we continuously measure the results of our actions. If we don’t take the time to analyze our past performance, how can we expect to gain the insight to produce better results? If we don’t have the hindsight to see where we’ve been, how could we possibly have the insight to see where we are going?

Our performance is like a compass that keeps us moving in the direction we want to go. When we get a little off course, things don’t work out so well. If we are paying attention, we will analyze what we just did, and how we might have done it differently. Then we can try something a little different, and compare the results.

Hindsight benefits us in all areas!

You can apply this approach to every area of your life. Yes it works in business, but it also works in relationships of all kinds. If we accidentally do something that offends someone we care about, we need to take note, and try to avoid doing it again.

What this means is that we need to be fully involved in our own life. We need to pay attention, careful attention, to how our thoughts, actions, and words affect the quality of our life. We also need to pay attention to how our actions affect the lives of those around us.

When we contribute to the quality of other people’s lives, we reap personal benefits. The quality of our life is in direct proportion to the quality of our contribution. If we are not giving, then we are not living, we’re just going through the motions and missing the real essence of life.

The only way that hindsight can be 20-20 then, is if we take the time to notice what we did, how it turned out, and whether or not we need to make changes. This is how we develop insight.

Hindsight allows us to learn and adjust

There is a famous saying by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I think more than remembering is called for.  Insight requires more than just remembering. I would say that those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. And while this saying is often applied on a grand scale to nations and governments, I think it has it greatest application for us as individuals.

It’s always amazing to meet somebody that has no clue why their life is the way it is. They go through life doing the same things over and over again, and thinking that one of these days they are bound to produce a better result. Albert Einstein nailed this kind of thinking when he defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It really boils down to a complete lack of hindsight.

Personal change doesn’t need to be complicated

If we’re not happy with our life, we need to take some time to analyze the actions and decisions that got us where we are. What adjustments could we make to break our current cycle and produce a different result? As you look back on your past thinking and actions, can you identify things that could have been done differently? That’s hindsight.

Could you benefit from sharpening that hindsight a bit? Of course you could, just use what you have learned to help you make a few simple adjustments. You probably don’t need to turn your life upside down. Start out by making small adjustments, and pay careful attention to what happens.

Did things get better, or did they get worse? Either way, you can still use that information to make further adjustments. Before you know it, you will have turned your hindsight into insight.

How important do you think hindsight is?
How have the lessons from your past benefited you?
The lines are open and your thoughts really do matter!

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  1. Zuzanna May 13, 2010 Reply

    Hello Jonathan,

    Clear, explanatory article I have enjoyed reading. So much truth in your words about things a person can implement to improve life quality. To do so, the person needs motivation. No one is going to change for them if they are not willing to apply that change, and watch the effects improving slowly. This would apply in any situation, work place, or family matters as well. Just as if a master painter puts his brush to finish, his artistic work the same in life we need to have a picture in mind to start the process of making hindsight into insight.

    Thank you, Zuzanna

    • Jonathan May 20, 2010 Reply

      Hi Zuzanna, I love the analogy of a master painter. Thanks for sharing that.

  2. Farnoosh May 14, 2010 Reply

    Hindsight is 20-20, very true, Jonathan, but we don’t have to suffer through bad experience all the time. I like how you talked about listening and being present in our own life. I want to add about intuition and gut-feel. More often than not, those have led me to make the right choices when everything else pointed the other way. And then, my hindsight makes me look like a genius but I really try to listen to the inner voice…Do you have one too? :)

    • Jonathan May 20, 2010 Reply

      Hello Farnoosh, it really is important that we listen to that little. If we compare times when we did to times when we ignored it, we quickly realize how important our intuition is.

      I wrote a story about a good friend who ignored that little voice and paid the ultimate price for his decision. It’s called: When Your Inner Voice Speaks Do You Listen?

  3. Louise Altman May 14, 2010 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,
    I think that the 20-20 idea is just one of those conditioned collective sayings that become a cultural belief. Does 20-20 mean our perspective of the past is always perfect – and clear? Hmmm, I wonder.
    Surely those who understand the value of self-reflection can gain enormous insights into their experience by re-examining past history. But as history is a “living thing,” they can also reshape their understanding of the what and why of their experiences to truly benefit themselves (and those around them).
    The Buddhist concept of non-resistance and non-attachment is valuable in the consideration of the past. Extract what is true (even if it’s tough to do) learn the value of it, understand the emotions associated with it (usually they are still around), practice self-empathy and let it go.
    Best, Louise

    • Jonathan May 20, 2010 Reply

      Hello Louise and thanks for sharing those thoughts with us. Our perception is definitely a valuable tool when it comes to assigning value to any experience. So is learning to let go of baggage.

      The concept that all suffering comes from attachment may well be true, but I think the same could be said of all passion. While I believe that we can separate ourselves from anticipated outcomes to some degree, there is still plenty of reason to let past experience teach us to make better choices.

      Will we be perfect at it (20/20)? No, but like any skill we tend to improve with practice. Personal development is an ongoing process.

  4. Sandra Hendricks May 16, 2010 Reply

    “If we’re not happy with our life, we need to take some time to analyze the actions and decisions that got us where we are.”

    I think this may be more accurate: If we’re not satisfied with our life, we need to take some time to analyze the actions and decisions that got us where we are.

    We can be happy no matter what :)

    • Jonathan May 20, 2010 Reply

      Hi Sandra, satisfied works! Then again, if we are not happy can we truly be satisfied with that? Certainly we can be happy in almost any situation because happiness is a choice. But why couldn’t we say the same thing about being satisfied?

  5. Lance May 16, 2010 Reply

    Hi Jonathan,
    I love this concept of turning hindsight into insight. It certainly one thing to just notice what our past has been like – and another to make adjustments so we don’t continue repeating that which we don’t want to. There’s a certain level of awareness – of being aware of what has happened in our past – and how changes can make a difference. And then – it’s actually making those changes!

    • Jonathan May 20, 2010 Reply

      Hey Lance, yes my friend, awareness is required. Perhaps that’s why some people learn from their experiences and make positive adjustment, while others never connect the dots.

      This is the 2nd time I’ve replied to these comments because my site crashes an erased all the comments and replies for a whole day. I’m trying to turn that hindsight into insight right now. It would help if I had some idea of what caused it to happen. A clear case of lacking awareness!

  6. Frank May 19, 2010 Reply

    This is a very important piece that will greatly benefit me in my personal development. I have on several occasions tried to grow and change from my mistakes, but I never made a plan of action and actually used them to make me better. I am so grateful for this post. Thank you.

    • Jonathan May 20, 2010 Reply

      Hey Frank, I can’t tell you how good it feels to get such positive feedback. I am truly pleased that I was able to help. Thanks for the encouragement.

  7. Steve October 19, 2010 Reply

    Jonathan, I love this post, because it absolutely underlines the importance of preparing ourselves to make positive changes by asking what personal lessons and guidelines we can learn from both our achievements and disappointments.

    • Jonathan February 1, 2012 Reply

      Hi Steve, thanks for mentioning the value of learning from both our achievements and disappointments. that is such a vital point.

  8. Curtis F. January 31, 2012 Reply

    So I’ve long since known (ironic opening statement) that people including myself have made the same mistakes once or twice in my life thus far and sometimes it can be extremely depressing. Thinking about how you should have known from the first time you made the mistake that the outcome would be very similar.

    One thing i do often is ask relatives and sometimes complete strangers what sounds like completely random questions about everything. From what they believe the drawback is living in a certain city (usually one i would like to move to) is, to what the best and worst thing about being a programmer is and would they have still pursued that career if they could do it all over again. These answers that I gather may hold little bearing but when I receive the same answer 20 or 50 times .

    (i.e. so far 25 people in the mortgage industry said they love the money but get burnt out all of the time, and would have gone into opening their own mortgage company rather then staying as a loan officer)

    This is where I start to seriously consider becoming a loan officer as a temporary thing with a new goal in mind instead of becoming a loan officer, making money, having kids then being stuck in the transition of trying to start my own company because now I can no longer take the risk of being completely self employed and dumb money into a company.

    There are tons of situations and plenty of people who have already lived the lives (or similar lives) that other youthful people are in the same path of living.

    • Jonathan February 1, 2012 Reply

      Hi Curtis, it is wise to recognize that we can learn important life lessons from almost anyone. That realization certainly has real world value. But it is also important to always consider the source of the advice we choose to follow. While wisdom is wherever we find it, there is also a lot of worthless and unfounded nonsense parading around as wisdom. Only by developing discernment will we be able to distinguish between the two.

      • Curtis February 2, 2012 Reply

        Completely understood, but just as most people on this website dont know you personally or know (without a doubt) if there is merit to the advice you’re giving. People have a sense of weather advice that is given is good or not, especially if the same or similar advice is given from 10, 20, or even 100 people.

        • Jonathan February 3, 2012 Reply

          That’s a good point and I appreciate you pointing it out. Well done!

  9. Nancy January 31, 2012 Reply

    Hello Jonathan,

    Hindsight/Insight – both very good words – very strong words.

    The key is to learn from our past and change our NOW so the past does not get repeated. This means to examine our lives very closely. Didn’t Socrates states, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” That took insight…didn’t it?

    In gratitude,

    • Jonathan February 1, 2012 Reply

      Hi Nancy, it’s interesting that even in the examination of our life there is a need for balance. What Socrates said is very true because that’s how we learn what works and what doesn’t. Someone else once said that “an over-examined life is a bore.” Analysis takes place in our head, but the value of analytical thinking must be expressed in our actions for us to benefit from it. Great quote Nancy, thanks for sharing it. :)

  10. Ken Wert February 1, 2012 Reply

    Hi Jonathan! You asked a couple powerful questions at the beginning of this wonderful article. Do we learn from our mistakes? And then the more powerful of the two: Do we adjust our lives to the lessons learned? I think we often chalk up a lesson learned from life’s twists and turns, but store the lesson in our mind or even heart, but don’t always allow the lesson settle down into our feet. But a lesson learned is not worth much if it doesn’t affect the way we walk through life. Thanks for that insightful reminder!

    • Jonathan February 1, 2012 Reply

      Hey Ken, so true! We can analyze the daylights out of a situation, extract the valuable lessons it has taught us, talk about and write about them, but if we don’t personally incorporate them into our life, it’ just a lot of noise. In many ways life is like a dance, all the dance lessons in the world won’t change our performance unless we get out on the dance floor and put what we have learned to practical use.

  11. Hey Jonathan, I just wanted to say that this is a lovely article and I especially love the simple and succinct title, it really caught my attention! :-)

    • Jonathan February 1, 2012 Reply

      Thanks Amit, I really appreciate your kind words. As far as I am concerned, you add value just by being here. Thanks for your support my friend.

  12. Sandra February 2, 2012 Reply

    Those are two incredibly important questions, Jonathan. I’ve been writing a monthly review since last September and it’s been incredibly helpful in looking at what I’ve accomplished in any given month. With your encouragement via this article, I can see how useful it would be to also consider if there are any mistakes I have made and any adjustments I need to make in my course. Thank you!

    • Jonathan February 3, 2012 Reply

      Hi Sandra, Life is such a great teacher for those who actually pay attention, and such a mystery for those who don’t. I feel very grateful to be able to interact with so many who are constantly learning and then applying what they learn.

  13. Hiten Vyas February 5, 2012 Reply

    “If we are not giving, then we are not living”.

    What a great sentence this is Jonathan! :-)

    I believe our experiences and hindsight can be great teachers for us. Too often though, people look back at experiences as failures and automatically assume they will failure again. By developing a level of consciousness that ‘stays above the details’, one can then truely use a previous experience as something to learn from.

    • Jonathan February 5, 2012 Reply

      Hi Hiten, another effective way to be more objective about the results we produce is to assume the role of an unbiased observer. If we watch our results unfold without attaching too much emotional significance, it puts us in a great place to analyze why we ended up getting the results we did and then tweak our approach accordingly.

  14. Meri April 23, 2013 Reply

    I read this part over & over like 15 times:

    Experience can teach us so many valuable lessons, but only if we are willing to adjust our lives accordingly

    Jonathan, for some odd reason I am not “willing to adjust to my past experiences”. I have these “negative life lessons” that I’m sure is comparable to winning the emotional lottery…. But I just don’t “get it”.

    I appreciate this article, because although I’m still feeling stuck…at least I’ve learned what it is I am not doing. Now I just need to learn to adjust my views to an accountable way of thinking on a daily basis.

    I have 3 major issues bothering me right now. Over the past 10yrs… I’ve managed to repeat them all. I just don’t get how to learn the lesson in it :(

  15. CJ March 24, 2014 Reply

    Learning from experience is so important in creating the kind of life we want. This post is really a coincidence for me because I just wrote a post last week about gaining wisdom, and one of my major points was the necessity of learning from our experiences. I fully agree that we have to be very intentional in assessing our past actions and we have to want to learn from them.

    I think that one of the great benefits of paying attention to hindsight is that we get to know ourselves better, which can only help us on our journey toward self-knowledge and happiness.

    Thanks for these great insights, Jonathan!

  16. lynne April 1, 2014 Reply

    This is absolutely true, ” those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it” . People tend to commit the same mistakes over and over again, unless we stay firm and determined on what we really wanted to achieve, then turning hindsight into insight is a great article to help us start analyzing what we did wrong and making adjustments to gain a different result .

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