Moving Past the Past—So You Can Have the Future You Want

By Karen Carnahan & Marsia Gunter

 54358234 - heard someone comparing your past to what you see in a rearview mirror

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” --John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Husband and wife owners Sally and Mark had a powerful, impassioned vision for their eight-year-old two million dollar business. Yet behind their enthusiasm was a deep level of anxiety and fatigue, which had its roots in past horrors.

Considering themselves more creative than managerial, Sally and Mark had earlier hired a manager to handle day to day operations. That decision nearly cost them, within nine months, their business, their reputation and their personal assets. A full year after the general manager and owners parted company, Sally and Mark, faced with everyday reminders of their mistake as they worked with creditors, were still deeply resentful and regretful.

Those feelings made it difficult for them to trust anyone else in any key role for their business. Yet they realized they needed expert help to develop a strategic plan for the rapidly growing company. That was the cleft stick they were caught in when we first met them. Their past was in the way of their future.

When the Past is in the Way of the Future

Sally and Mark aren't unique. Their case just happens to be more dramatic than most. And for virtually all of us, our business past is present every day. Sometimes that past experience is positive, sometimes it's negative. Either way, it stays with us and often affects everything we do. If we listen we hear ourselves saying things like:

  • “That's how we've always done it.”
  •  “We tried it that way last year and it didn't work.”
  • “John said no to that five years ago - he'll never change his mind.”
  • “She really blew it the last time I had her do something.”
  • “It really worked last year, so we should be able to do it again this year.”
  • “I just don't understand why I'm not able to do as well as I did last month.”

  Why It Matters

Past experience often leads to some type of judgment, interpretation or opinion. This is usually where we get most stuck. Sally and Mark, for example, had come to doubt their judgment of people because of the disaster they had experienced. So they were afraid to hire anyone else for a key position.

We do this sort of thing all the time, in our personal lives as well as in business. One of our clients compared it to being married, getting divorced and then remarrying, only to find himself repeating behavior patterns from his first marriage. “Here I was, married to my new wife, and in the middle of an argument I found myself thinking, ‘I've married my previous wife all over again - I'm acting just the same.’ ”

Conversely, if you experience success with a particular strategy, it's hard to get beyond that mindset even if a changed business environment calls for a different approach, because we are caught in the influence of our past experience. When we try to move forward we drag along all our expectations developed from past experience, which prevents us from seeing new conditions and new opportunities with the new eyes they deserve. Action based upon past experience does not facilitate the future.

There is an important point here: We are not just talking about past experiences that were ugly, less than desirable, etc. We are including the great experiences also. Our past – moment by moment – needs to be brought to closure so that we can facilitate our future.

If we are unable to achieve closure, then it will prevent us from achieving the future we truly want for ourselves. The past will literally get in the way of the present, and by default, prevent us from living the future we want. Some of us can get so caught up in either the failures or successes of past experiences that we are unable to see any kind of new future at all.

So What Do We Do With Our Past?

  • Complete it, bring closure to it.
  • Say good-bye to it.
  • Let it go.
  • Heal it.

When Do We Bring Closure to the Past?

Business owners like Sally and Mark need closure when a bad past experience inhibits them from doing what they need to do. However, bringing closure or completion to the past is beneficial in helping everyone to move on, whether the past experience has been pleasant or unpleasant. Some form of closure may be appropriate on all these diverse occasions:

  • Ending of a successful or unsuccessful project. (This is important! Closure isn’t just for the “negative.” Great things require closure, too!)
  • Successful sales month.
  • Departure of a longtime staff member.
  • Moving offices, buildings.
  • Product and service changes.
  • Termination of an employee.
  • Loss of a client.
  • Personally, at the end of EACH DAY.
  • As a group, at key points in complex projects.
  • As a group, at the end of the week, month or year. 

Mental Hygiene

Expanding on the points above, we believe it’s important to do a form of personal closure every day. We like to use the analogy of keeping your kitchen clean. In the process of cooking and preparing meals, your kitchen will get dirty. To keep your kitchen in working order, it’s important to clean it after every meal so everything is ready. If you leave your kitchen dirty, there will be no room or clean area to prepare your next meal.

Much in the same way, simply by living life you will accumulate events, both positive and negative, that will require closure. If you don’t actively work every day to keep bringing closure to the past, you will have no room to leave for the future that you want. Closure must be done every day, just in the same way that you clean your kitchen.

Think of it as a form of mental hygiene. Even not bringing closure to the “good stuff”, like an unexpected bonus or a new promotion, will eventually get in the way. If you’re stuck in the past it’s hard to move forward into the future.

How to Bring Closure to the Past

There are some simple ways to bring completion to our past so that we can continue to move forward. You can get very inventive about this.

A large multi-million dollar business found themselves making a very difficult decision to close a 30-year division of their organization, a division that was highly visible and supported by the community. They decided that people - staff and community members - needed to be able to mourn the loss of the division and celebrate its good works in the community. So, they had a wake and invited the community. They encouraged people to say how disappointed they were, to share their experiences, and to celebrate all the accomplishments. They threw a wonderful party which provided an opportunity for people to say goodbye, and for life to move on.

A large multi-million dollar business found themselves making a very difficult decision to close a 30-year division of their organization, a division that was highly visible and supported by the community. They decided that people - staff and community members - needed to be able to mourn the loss of the division and celebrate its good works in the community. So, they had a wake and invited the community. They encouraged people to say how disappointed they were, to share their experiences, and to celebrate all the accomplishments. They threw a wonderful party which provided an opportunity for people to say goodbye, and for life to move on.

Second, remember that to be complete, people need to be heard without editorial comment. So all involved must commit to listening fully to what others say. Do not take what is said personally, and do not defend yourself. Remember, this process is not about blaming, punishing or defending. It's about completing.

A third point. Bringing closure entails acknowledging all aspects of the experience - the good, the bad, the ugly, the glorious. Do the bad and the ugly first. Why? We often remember more readily what didn't work than what did. Until we get all the frustrations and disappointments out of our system, these things tend to block our perception of any good in the situation. So get them out, get them heard and released, and then look again. Then acknowledge what was good in the situation, and let that go too.

The History Shelf

One thing we want to make clear – this is about closure, not about forgetting the past. When you truly let something go, we use the analogy of the history shelf—that you have achieved closure with this experience and now you can put it on the history shelf just like a book you are done reading.

That doesn’t mean you forget the good or the bad of what has happened. This experience will always be a part of you. And if you ever need to revisit the experience to learn something or pick up some context, you can. It’s just important that when you do revisit it, you remember to put it back on the history shelf. It will always be there for you if you need it again.

You can’t achieve your future if all you see in front of you is your past. The more experiences you are able to put on the history shelf, the better able you are to fulfill the future you want in the moment, unencumbered by a past that no longer defines you. You can start fresh, believing in the whole universe of possibility within you. It frees you to act boldly to make the future you want present today through action. That is the essence of being what we call an applied futurist.

A Moment of Reflection

Try this out for yourself. Divide a page into two columns. List everything you accomplished last week in one column. In the other column, list everything that wasn't accomplished or didn't work. Which list is longer? Nine times out of ten, what didn't get done or didn't work exceeds what was accomplished, and dwelling on that can obscure your recognition of what truly was achieved.

Completion, Moment by Moment

Over the years, we’ve worked with many clients to help them get closure over the past. From that process, we have developed a checklist to assist in completion, moment by moment.

  1. What am I disappointed, frustrated, and not pleased with? What didn't work?
  2. What did I like, feel pleased with or good about? What worked?
  3. What did I accomplish?
  4. Is there anything else I wish to say about this?
  5. What do I want to be acknowledged for?
  6. Who else do I want to acknowledge, and for what?
  7. Am I ready to declare this complete?

If the answer is “no”, ask the questions again, say what needs to be said until you do feel complete. When you are able to answer “yes”, then make the declaration of completion aloud.

“I DECLARE THIS COMPLETE.”

Are you further interested in bringing closure to your past and taking a more active role in shaping the future for yourself, your company or your organization? Explore the future you want to create through ongoing coaching to develop business growth strategies, professional leadership development and business ownership, and transitioning your business for the next generation. We believe in the future you envision, and stand with you to help achieve it. 

Gary Gunter