In the confusion and chaos of the world we all live in, it seems that survival is often the best we can do.
In some cases, the person or the organization is ill-equipped to face the challenges of change. In others, there are notions that root people in past governing assumptions that are no longer helpful or have become destructive of confidence and perspective.
I’ve seen this phenomenon in people and organizations all my life.
I remember a situation with an organization more than 30 years ago. They were proud of a moment of compromise, that occurred twenty five-years earlier, between two factions in their organizational community. However, as an outsider, I looked at the organization and the outcome of their corporate decision as a failure.
The decision was made based on an assumption of future growth that they had no real incentive to develop. There I was with them as a new, young leader in their midst. I could see that they were stuck at a point in the past that would always define them as an organization. They survived to see another decade or three, but they had also cheated themselves of the opportunity to discover the real impact as a group that they could have had for their community.
There is a huge difference between our past and our remembrance of it. For this organization, they chose to remember a spun version of what actually took place. Their comfort in remembering the past relieved them of responsibility for doing anything in the future. In effect, it meant that they spent their days backing into the future with no real sense of what happened at that “golden moment of decision.”
I place a high value on understanding our past. I speak about it as a transition from what took placed yesterday to what is happening right now and where we want to be in the future.
Time is not fragmented like the seconds on watch. Time is as whole as our lives are. The past lives in us as the consequence of past decisions and actions. However, we are not defined by our past.
The best way to think of the past is a place of learning. What I learned in that experience with the organization three decades ago is that some people and their organizations do not have the capacity to grow into the future. All they have are their memories.
If we are not defined by our past and, yet, the past goes with us, then how do we bring together our past, our present and our future into a whole picture of understanding?
We begin by looking at the past through the lens of experience. We look back and say, “What changed in that moment?”
For me, my experience with this organization showed me that I was far more oriented toward change than anyone in the organization. It changed how I decided where and how to work in the future.
Think of these experiences as milestones of change. Each milestone represents some value that builds a foundation of meaning for our lives. Each experience is connected in some way to past ones and to those that are coming in the future.
For some time, I’ve had this image in mind that our lives are like a journey through a big house. Each season of our life is lived in one of the rooms.
Following my experience with this organization, I began the process of looking for my next job. That job came, and our family moved across the country to begin the next chapter in our lives. In effect, the new position was a new room. We walked across the threshold into it, turned around, and pulled the door shut to the former room/the former job.
We take with us, in our backpack of experience, gratitude for the people we’ve met and the lessons we learned that led us to the next room in the living of our lives. When our time in this new room comes to an end, again we walk across the threshold into the next one, closing the door behind us.
To live this way is to live fully in the present, knowing that every present experience is leading us into a future yet to be defined.
The past doesn’t have to define us. When it does, we tend to find ourselves protecting it or defending it from change. The result is that we get stuck living in the past. We cannot see the opportunities for impact before us. Our perception of who we are and what our lives and work mean does not allow us to be seen, except as we were in the past.
This perception that we have about ourselves is a curious one. Who do we see ourselves as when we are defined by our past?
Early success in life sometimes can convince us that we are far better off than we truly are. It is a great tragedy when someone sees that his or her early success is a mark of life’s fulfillment, instead of a suggestion of what we might become if we give ourselves to being our true selves throughout our life.
The problem of living off the remembrance of past success – as this organization did – is that we never see the potential impact that can come from our lives.
I am suggesting here that we define ourselves by the impact we create.
Impact in this sense is not a checklist of accomplishments. It is instead the change that we create that makes a difference that matters. It is our true legacy. It is why impact matters far more than the actions that bring it about.
If the organization that I led thirty years ago had had an impact mindset – even I didn’t have one at that time – they would not have looked back at its decision as an end in itself. Instead, they would have seen the decision as a springboard for the impact that was possible – now almost six decades later.
In my work with people and organizations, we look at the past as a transition that we are in. We look at the milestones of the past that have come either to define us or have been instrumental in bringing us to this point in time. This perspective is essential if we are to see our lives not as an endless series of activities, but as a whole life of impact.
This perspective informs my book the Circle of Impact: Taking Personal Initiative To Ignite Change. You can also learn more about this discovery process by signing up for my newsletter, Leading for Impact, where you will receive an eBook called The 5 Questions that is one of the tools that I use in my process.
By defining ourselves by the impact we create, we are liberated from the obligation that the past must define us. We can walk out of one room, whether it is a job or a relationship, into a new room, and pull the door closed behind us.
Unless we can do this, we become overburdened with all the memories and expectations that require us to work to sustain the past in the present. As I tell people every day, the greatest change we go through is in our self-perception. There is no greater change in that transition than releasing ourselves from a past that keeps us from embracing a future of impact.