Lynn and Doug Nodland

Doug and Lynn Nodland

When you hear the phrase “What is past is prologue”, what does it mean to you? Maybe you have some immediate thoughts about it. For us, we thought it might help to first define the word "prologue." Prologue, when used in this context, embraces the idea that history is a preview of what’s to come.

This phrase is not a new concept. Over 400 years ago William Shakespeare used the words, “What’s past is prologue” in his play, "The Tempest." In the play, several actors suggest that everything that has happened before (the past) has set the stage for what they felt the future should be. We don’t want to give away the whole story, but fortunately, the play has a good ending.

When talking about this phrase, it brings back a memory for me (Doug). It was my first year of law school at the University of Minnesota. Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas was going to be speaking at Northrup Auditorium. For law students, that’s a real opportunity. So, of course, a bunch of us went to hear him speak.

Justice Douglas told a story of riding in the back seat of a cab in Washington, D.C. As they were passing the National Archives Building, Justice Douglas noticed the words, “What is past is prologue” chiseled in the front of the building. Knowing that the cab drivers in D.C. had a reputation for having an opinion on everything, he asked the cab driver what he thought those words meant. The cab driver hesitated for a second, then replied, “We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

I’m sure Justice Douglas had many important things to say that day, but it’s only that story that stuck with me for some reason. Perhaps it was how the cab driver took what could be seen as a complex philosophical thought and turned it into simple, everyday language.

The phrase “What is past is prologue” also begs the question — the past is prologue for what? Perhaps your answer would tie in with your thoughts about a recent column we wrote where we explored the timeless question — is the glass half empty or half full?

If you think the glass is "half empty" you may feel that things in the past were not so good, therefore the future will only be more of the same, and maybe even get worse. If you feel the glass is "half full," you may think the past, with all its ups and downs, was still pretty good and the best is yet to come. It’s about perspective.

In life, there can be division going on in families at times and there’s definitely social unrest in our country and in the world. Some people want to tear everything down, erase the past and "start over." It’s not that easy! Walt Disney said, “The past can hurt. But how I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”

I (Lynn) am a psychologist and Doug and I are both success coaches. We believe that looking at the past can provide valuable lessons. It’s a way to see what we can do better and how we can personally strive to be better in the future. Ziad Abdelnour said, “Never erase the past. It shapes who you are today and will help you to be the person you’ll be tomorrow.”

We often talk about the fact that each moment is a new moment and that provides a road for positive change. We have all made mistakes. None of us are perfect and our country is not perfect. We hope that past learning can help us create a better future.

What about you? What is your takeaway from the saying, "What is past is prologue"? We wonder if the story Doug remembered will get you thinking about what you want in your life. What have you learned from the past and what changes do you want to see happen in the future?

Winston Churchill said, “Of this I am certain, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find we have lost the future.” Remember the cab driver’s words, “We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Let’s learn from the past, work together with care and understanding so we create the best future for all. We invite you to share your thoughts.


Chanhassen residents, Doug and Lynn Nodland are success coaches and owners of The Balance Center. Doug and Lynn can be contacted at More information and videos at



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