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The Power of Your PastThe Art of Recalling, Reclaiming, and Recasting
By John P. Schuster
Berrett-Koehler Publisher, Inc.Copyright © 2011 John P. Schuster
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Underused Past: The Price of Forgotten Yesterdays The movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind revolves around a clever variation on the amnesia theme. The central characters, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, willfully induce a partial amnesia to erase the painful memories of a relationship gone bad. It works but has mixed results. At one point, Carrey, sensing his memories disappearing, the good along with the bad, pleads with the doctor inducing the amnesia—"Pl-e-a-s-e, let me keep this memory, just this one!" They are drawn to each other a second time, experiencing an unconscious attraction even with the conscious memories gone. Memories or no, even with spotless minds, their destinies are woven together as they get a second chance to go after love. We are all those two characters. We have forgotten why we are pulled toward and pushed away from certain people and events. We attempt to have fresh, spotless minds when we move into our lifework, but a vague familiarity reminds us that we erase memories at our peril. Forgetting dooms us to repeating. We are destined to return to that which we must encounter until we fully absorb our core lessons.
Underusing the Past: The First Hurdle Is the Norm of Mediocrity
We all know that our yesterdays have value. When we hire someone with "lots of experience," what we want is the knowledge that comes from past experiences. We know that older people teach younger people and elders provide wisdom to later generations. Many of us seek mentors. But as useful and common as it is to use others' pasts at work and in life, it is just as common to neither truly understand nor fully value the power of our own yesterdays.
Because of this devaluating amnesia, we rarely attempt to fully harvest the rich lessons of our own lives. The common discounting, forgetting, underuse, and misuse of our past deprive us of our truest stories.
With roots not anchored in the deep and fertile soil of our true identity, we don't know who we are, why we think the way we do, what gives us joy and repels us, or how to sow the seeds and harvest the fruit of our talents and dreams.
With a half-complete history in mind, the level that the world around us accepts and promotes, we misjudge who we are, what we can do, and how to do it (identity, potential, and self-direction). Instead, we channel our talents into the narrow confines of what society offers us, such as the many jobs that are either too small or not designed for the people that fill them. Seeing minimal connection from formative times in youth and early work events to our current reality, we are left to the culture's advice. A misinformed boss, a columnist from Rock-Hard Abs Forever Magazine, and bloggers in love with their opinions are all happy to tell us what to do. This is the mediocre norm that we suffer without knowing it and which we have to escape if we want things large and soul-resonant to happen in our life.
We are trained to make this mistake: listen to the following statements about the past from a few 20th- and 21st-century sources, both pop and highbrow.
If you delve into the past it will become a bottomless pit. —Eckhart Tolle
I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes. I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down, —Carl Sandburg, "Prairie"
Is it any wonder that we don't think much of our past? Countless other statements about the past have this identical drift: get over it, don't think about your past. There is nothing really there to pay attention to. Don't waste your time.
Misjudging Our History: Our Common Errors
Here is a list of the common errors that prevent us from having an optimal relationship with our yesterdays for navigating our journey. Some are more obvious than others. All are damaging. You get to be the judge of your favorite tactics and the degree of ballast and drag you absorbed on your journey. (You enjoyed some smooth sailing as well, of course, but here we are talking about our errors.)
Avoid/numb out: When we don't explore the painful parts because they are negative. "I never go there."
Ignore: When we don't use the positive parts for their power to define, inform, and inspire. "Why think about that?"
Erase: When we flat-out regress, forgetting what we once knew, and need a wake-up call that goes like "Wow, how did I get so out of touch with that part of me?"
Pathologize: Having a clinical view of our history, sucking the passion out of it, and giving it a dry, clinical diagnosis. "My mom was a basket case, perhaps even a borderline personality, and that is why I ..."
Romanticize/sentimentalize: Having a Pollyannaish, sanitized view of everything we encountered. This is often the result of our heads' opinion that to admit any suffering or heart pain is a sign of weakness, so we suppress. "You know, I can't think of a single downside to my perfect past."
Demonize/victimize: When the villains from our past take center stage and we stay helpless or unforgiving or otherwise stuck. If we emphasize the villains, it is demonizing: "The good-for-nothings set me back for a lifetime."
If we emphasize ourselves, it is victimizing: "I wish I would have had the right family—who knows what I might have become."
We all do some of the above. We have our own variations of these statements and many more particular ones, since our lives are singular and our brains are uniquely organized around the constellation of experiences and interpretations that are ours alone. The errors are both the sloppy habits that divert us and the protective mechanisms we put in play to help us understand the events we could not put into perspective at the time they happened. They become problems when we stick with the errors for the long term and don't claim our own truth.
The Upshot: Yesterday's Lessons Lost
Most people make their idiosyncratic mix of mistakes because they don't assess their past as full of value anchors, energy sources, and practical lessons for how to work and live. Hardly anyone reviews his or her yesterdays systematically with a view toward growth. Our collective amnesia makes it so. Most people I encounter consider their personal history to be mixed and less than perfect. It is somewhere between "sorta good" and "sorta bad"—not useless, but not particularly useful either. (There are exceptions, of course, and they will show up throughout the book.) These people have decided that their less-than-ideal past, since it is over, has little more to teach them about making today's decisions for tomorrow's life chapters.
One Venezuelan-born entrepreneur I interviewed, Rosanna Figuera, who has an executive search and coaching business in Manhattan, talked about her former thinking: "I used to think the past should stay in the past ... that the past was baggage." Some of us still think of our yesterdays in this negative mode. We may work on our self-awareness but are in the now-is-all-that-matters camp, intentionally ignoring our past.
Skimming over your rich life history with its challenges and resources is a major error. I see this skimming frequently. As a coach, I see people with big events in their yesterdays, perhaps a teacher who changed their life for the good, or an early boss whose negativity they fought to overcome. They barely acknowledge the event as worth revisiting and therefore miss the developmental significance of their own experience. This leaves them with blind spots for which they pay a price and unaware of how to proceed in accepting the tasks of their own growth.
Leaders and professionals busily attack their tasks but often fall short in the crucial act of extending their unique humanity, one based on a thorough knowledge of self, into their role. This is the identity problem at work. When I interview leaders' teams to give them actionable feedback, I often find that the leaders have only partially found their own voice. This lack of self-authorship stems from the leaders' not claiming the singular voice that is theirs to claim, the one that emerges from their unique history. These leaders can use the Harvard Business Review article they read on the way to the board retreat to get by in some instances. But such tactics won't work for the long term or in the real clinches, when character counts and a crisp leadership identity is the primary fallback asset.
The director of INSEAD's Global Leadership Centre, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, puts it this way: "Plenty of executives refuse to consider the possibility there may be issues in their work and life that originate in the area beyond ... their immediate awareness." In my work, I see large numbers of partially successful leaders suffering from this accepted blind spot of under-use and amnesia. I get to regularly view, close up and very personal, the enormous difference it makes to use our past well.
Without knowledge of our past, we do not have a primary guiding light to help us walk creatively and bravely into our future. We won't make the changes we need to propel us into new and more enriching lifework.
Seeing the Errors at Play
The notion of making full use of our yesterdays is for people who care about best practices for their work and life, and who deeply desire to discover their most authentic and ever-emergent voice. They want more than to accept the hazy, lazy, mediocre middle of thinking about a life path that matters but not walking on that path.
Perhaps the biggest reason why we settle for mediocrity is that we are used to seeing it. I have seen the mediocre middle in accessing the power of our yesterdays with hundreds, probably more like thousands, of people, both individually and in groups. Conversely, when we come across people whose work is a natural extension of their essence, we are drawn to their personal power and can even be moved by their presence. These self-defined people are ordinary, too, of course, and as humans they suffer from the usual feet of clay, but they have done their homework and know the power embedded in their yesterdays.
One reason we use to justify the amnesia and not work with our yesterdays is the well-known fact that we don't recall our yesterdays with accuracy. An extreme example is how some self-proclaimed victims of abuse eventually realize that they fabricated the stories that had become so real to them. So if our memories are faulty, why use them? Because most of us naturally review our memories and have a set of yesterdays we ponder. The past we have is as much or more about the interpretation of the events as it is about the events themselves. Our job, therefore, is to look at that interpretation, the "truth" upon which our belief systems have settled. Not to look at those "truths" is to reside in that mediocre middle.
Avoid/Numb Out: Not Exploring the Painful Parts
This one is common. You hear it all the time, sometimes stated, "Let's not go there." Just as often, you hear numbing and avoiding between the lines, as in the anxious language of men when they make their jokes about "touchy-feely, kumbaya" moments at work.
A few years back, I had a remarkable interaction with a group of business owners. As I have done a few hundred times, I presented a topic to CEOs on personal and professional change. We gathered at the clubhouse of a golf course on a warm spring day. The stag energy in the group was powerful as the guys chortled and harrumphed, teased, and laced the morning's conversation with swearing and off-color jokes. I was in an element I knew well: men without women around and without the accompanying social constraints.
Their facilitator told me, in preparation for the meeting, that several of the men had been divorced in the past year. The following exchange occurred:
"I would rather pull out my fingernails one at a time than have my wife look at me and say, 'We need to have a talk.' Man, I hate that!" declared the handsome 40-year-old CEO on the outdoor deck of the clubhouse.
His buddy chimed in, "Yeah, I know what you mean. I especially hate it when she says it in the morning, and then I have to think about it al-l-l da-a-ay!!"
Groans of understanding and nods of empathy issued from most of the others. You could hear their collective yesterdays and the intimate conversations that petrified them clawing back to the surface of their awareness. Their numbing and avoiding tactics were only Band-Aids and could not work in the long term.
My job with this group became quickly apparent as I picked up the spirit of their sharing: to coax them into considering that, while their business lives were successful, their growing edge for happiness rested on the side of understanding intimacy and investing in relationships. They were lopsided executives, skilled professionally and financially, and underdeveloped in how to love. They barely allowed themselves to consider what they were missing.
We had a powerful exchange that day. Who knows what one day with them accomplished? But they had a permanent facilitator/coach for the group, the person who brought me in, so my hope was to let the wisdom of the group and the skill of this coach ease them into new heart space with these demanding women who had the audacity to want to "talk."
Ignore: Not Using the Positives to Define and Inspire
An error in learning from our yesterdays occurs when we become frozen in patterns that stunt growth by keeping us busy using only secondary gifts. This holds for all people, even those enjoying some worldly success. We all know people who are bored with work and locked into the paycheck, and this may be us now or not so long ago. To stay with work patterns that are "OK" but not an expression of an essential part of us is a slow poison. It may be imperceptible at first, but over time the ignoring becomes more toxic.
A colleague from my Omaha youth, Joe Vacanti, is an accountant. He rose to the top of his profession, training other accountants. But as the years went by, he began to suffer as he faced the same processes and the same crazy tax season. Like many a successful professional, Joe had gotten crispy around the edges from the routine of a career gone stale. He suffered from a common pattern—he had made a career decision at age 18 that he would have to live out for the next 40-plus years. For him, this work was not close enough to the parts of him that were theatrical and fun, that had liked to participate in the school plays and musicals.
Joe suffered well (yes, there is such a thing—see chapter 7). He stayed aware of the price, searching and experimenting without burdening others and complaining. While still connected to his profession today and not fully jettisoning his enormous quantitative-thinking gifts, he has moved into more creative work. He teaches in hospitals with a board game and works as an extra in movies, and feeds his soul with these pursuits and more that may come.
To ignore our essential gifts, the ones revealed to us in our yesterdays, is a slow slide into misery.
Our history is a source of our originality and creativity. When we act on it and don't ignore it, our history can enliven our career, even if it has gone as stale as yesterday's beer.
Erase: When We Flat-Out Go Backward, Forgetting What We Once Knew
Not all misuses of our history are easy to read, however, and the subtle, trickier kinds are often the ones that hold us back the most, precisely because they sound so reasonable. It does not have to be a big outrageous falsehood that is limiting your life's work and ways to contribute; it can even be a lesson that you forgot and distorted.
The Executive Who Turned from Learning to Telling
"One of my favorite long-term clients has made a request: "We have this executive by the name of Bill, with this great track record for four years, but his stress level or something has him way off base, and he is annoying about everyone—his team and boss and customers, even his close supporters. Do you want to work with him for a while, John? Because if he keeps this up, he will get fired. And we think that is a last option, because we know he can do better—we have seen it."
Excerpted from The Power of Your Past by John P. Schuster Copyright © 2011 by John P. Schuster. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publisher, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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