3 Compelling Reasons to Look to the Past

personal growth May 23, 2017

I’ve noticed many high-achievers don’t spend much time thinking about the past.  I was recently catching up with a senior public-service leader who has been a mentor to me over the years. We kicked around this idea of ambitious people being forward-focused.  “Yeah, we just rip the rear-view mirror right off”, he quipped.  That visual struck home.

Often, ambitious people are so forward-focused we lose track of where we’ve come from.

I’m constantly catching grief for forgetting details of my past experiences. I’ll completely blank on vacation details, adventures, and conversations. Strangely, I can often recall people's names, occupations, and how they are connected to each other, with great clarity, without even working at it very hard.  I’ve concluded that my brain stores and files information I might be able to use in the future (for some unknown mission). I have a default setting of “purge" on almost everything else. Mercenary, I know.

There are many clear benefits to not living in the past.  We can leave behind our mistakes, not letting them define us.  We can also avoid the trap of resting on our laurels, congratulating ourselves for yesterday’s accomplishments and contributions.  And, certainly, we don’t want to fall into the trap of living in the past whistling Springsteen’s "Glory Days”.

That being said, ripping the rear-view mirror off has downside risks as well. Here are three reasons while a healthy dose of reflection will make us a more balanced and effective leader:

1. Our past shapes the lens through which we see the world.

In my book, Ambition: Leading with Gratitude, I kick off Chapter One describing how growing up in a commune contributed to a sense that I had to compete and prove myself in whatever I was doing.  Not taking an account of those past influences could have locked me into that cycle.  Our dysfunctions define us until dealt with.

2.  We can forget where we’ve come from.

Taking a good inventory of where we’ve come from, and expressing gratitude for the progress, is a great way to remind ourselves of all that we have been given.  Particularly when it comes to assessing the relationships and influence we’ve accumulated over the years.    A sense of progress in the areas that truly matter to us adds texture and meaning to our lives.  Furthermore, we will be more diligent to protect what we take the time to appreciate.

3. Our story matters to others. 

We learn a lot from the experiences of others, or at least we should.  If that’s true then we can also agree that people can learn from our story, as long as we’re willing to share it.  Sometimes we don’t like to relive our painful lessons, but there can be real utility in those lessons.  For ourselves first, but also for those we are coaching.  People can often identify a lot less with our successes than they can with our failures.  There’s also a great sense of redemption when we see that painful life and business lessons we walked through can encourage others on a better path.

Of course, the purpose of the rear-view-mirror analogy is to encourage a healthy balance in where we spend our focus.  Ambitious people are naturally forward-focused, so spending time reflecting on where we’ve traveled (while not forgetting to savor the moments we’re living) makes us healthier and safer.

Can you think of other compelling reasons why we need to spend time reflecting on the past?  I’d value your comments.


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