Don't Bypass the Past

May 09, 2022 1 Min Read
A girl is looking back at her past while waving and smiling.
Source:Image by @diana.grytsku on Freepik
Sometimes Looking Back is Not Bad

In high school, one of my favourite subjects was history. So much so that I thought about becoming a history teacher.

Not surprising then that one of my favourite quotes is from the Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

And yet, we can be overly future-focused. We imagine the future. Spend time planning what comes next, rather than enjoying the present. We can focus our attention on recent ideas and writing while ignoring concepts from the past, deeming them irrelevant and old fashioned.

But if you are a watcher of fashion cycles (be it clothing, music or other trends), you’ll know that everything old eventually comes back. Old concepts are recycled and presented as new or ‘rediscovered’. Old ideas are tweaked and reshaped somehow, yet the core of the concept is untouched.

I was reminded of this as I returned to read some of Charles Handy’s work. A prolific writer, his latest book was only released two years ago, while at the age of 87.

The Elephant and the Flea was published in 2010 and The Empty Raincoat: Making Sense of the Future was published in 2011.

In the Elephant and the Flea, Handy predicted that the age of giant corporations was over (not something that has happened yet). He believed that the age of the entrepreneur was here (and yes, there’s much truth in that part). He encouraged us to change the way we think about our portfolio (and by that, he means our portfolio of work and how we approach our career). In his book, the elephants were the giants, and the fleas were small or independent operators. Handy saw the fleas as the innovators, the source of new ideas. The elephants needed them for these things, and so a symbiotic relationship existed.

The Empty Raincoat challenged you to think about your career and organisation. Here’s a handy summary.
What’s fascinating is how many of the concepts he shared are still being talked about as ‘new’ ideas today. It’s a great reminder that change happens, but often much more slowly than we imagine. So too, a reminder to always check and reflect on what’s come before.

You May Like This: How Important Is Past Experience in Predicting Job Performance?

There is much we can learn from the past. In looking to the past, you gain insights into yourself and better understand who we are as a species. You can examine good (and not so good) decision making and understand the context and outcomes of the decisions. You can uncover the root of concepts and ideas that were once on the fringe and are now mainstream.

At the same time, spending too much time ruminating about past decisions isn’t healthy, and a fixation with the past can mean you miss current and future opportunities. Status quo bias, a negative frame of reference and other cognitive biases, such as anchoring and confirmation bias, can hold you back from progressing. As I’ve written about before (Is your watch showing the right time), it’s about balancing the past, present and future.

So how do you get the balance right when learning from the past? There’s a helpful process to adopt:


Infographic by Leaderonomics: Learning from The Past

  1. Identify what you need to know – ask yourself what ideas you need to dig into or learn more about? What concept do you need to understand more fully? What’s missing from your knowledge bank? Why does this matter?
  2. Search and seek sources – go broad and deep and be deliberate about the sources you are using. Are they credible and reliable? What’s the angle they are taking? Everyone holds assumptions and an ideology and so know the writer’s perspective so you can balance their ideas with those of others. Be careful about only listening to or reading ideas you agree with. Be curious and seek out ideas you disagree with and ask yourself ‘why’. What element do you disagree with? Why does that perspective annoy or frustrate you? What does it say about you and your assumptions (and those of the author or content creator)?
  3. Study the data and identify the insights – determine what’s relevant and valuable. See how the new ideas connect with what else you know. Do they challenge existing assumptions or reinforce existing knowledge? Remember, there is already much you know, and it’s hard for your brain to hold everything. As this article reminds you, sometimes you need to dig into your past knowledge bank before you move forward.
  4. Challenge the meaning you are putting on those insights – so you can critically assess what action you take with your newly acquired insight and wisdom. What will you continue, stop or start doing?
  5. Determine what you take forward and what you leave behind – it can be easy to hoard ideas and stick with concepts that hold you back, so be clear on what you need to leave behind.

Dive Deep: Reflection: The Path to Clarity, Learning and Growth

And even when you do all that, there will still be more to know. As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said,

Even when all the possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched.’

So, where are you focusing your learning next year?

Before you go, check out this video by Leaderonomics on growing out of your past and getting the best of it. We hope it benefits you!

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Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert and the award-winning author of three books. Her latest book is 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one'.

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