Forgive the slight variation on Charles Dickens, but this is a great thought for the start of a new decade. This is a time to look forwards to the road ahead rather than staring backwards in the rear view mirror.
Our legacy from the past
The past is gone – this is an indisputable truism. Of course, we can scroll back through social media posts and emails, browse through our selfies (or what used to be called photographs) and even read through old diaries (for those of us who keep them). But even when we stitch these together with our memories and communal storytelling, we can only capture small fragments of the past and whispers of thoughts and feelings. Our brains are ruthlessly efficient at housekeeping data which they decide we will no longer need. Which is 99% of it.
What the past does leaves us with, for better or worse, are not so much the individual pictures, words or sounds but the impact of experiences which have shaped our personalities. The past bequeaths us our deepest and often invisible beliefs and feelings. The landscape of our character – who we are and how we behave – has been formed by traumatic glacial events or the constant daily dripping of rainfall on impressionable surfaces – particularly when we were children.
These are the lasting engravings in our minds, many chiselled in the days before we even remember. Those events, those people, those experiences which shaped our personality, which moulded our present day hopes and fears.
When we face the blank canvas of our future, we don’t so easily leave these behind. Whilst the past is gone forever, the one thing we take with us is its profound impact on ourselves – who we are. This is what will determine our future more than anything. For better or for worse.
If we let it.
Our mindset for the future
At the end of last year, I resigned my job and decided not to take up full time employment again in the future. So I have a 2020 diary which is straining to be 5% full. Having spent the majority of my working life with a dozen entries in my calendar every day – meetings, flights, deadlines, tasks and reminders – this is a very scary thought. I have almost everything before me in terms of time, and almost nothing planned to fill it.
A glorious opportunity of course, and one I am very grateful for. The options are endless. Spend more time reading. Learn a new skill. Meet up with neglected friends. Do more exercise. Sleep more. Take a qualification. Write more blogs. See the world.
But then I still have my personality. Those fears and self-limiting thoughts which were formed in childhood and adolescence and persist through the years of adulthood. The difficulty I have in concentrating for any length of time. The need for distraction. The need to be motivated by deadlines and pressure. The fear of emptiness and boredom, from when I was stuck in my room for hours on end as a child with nothing to do. Anxieties about what people think and whether people will like me. The loss of identity and meaning if I don’t have a job title to sit behind. The worry that I have nothing of any reverence to say.
As a manager, I coached my teams in the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is constrained by its past. It is self-limiting, talks itself out of taking risks and making hard decisions and finds comfort in the familiar. It finds security in keeping things fundamentally the same. It is born out of insecurity, under-confidence and fear.
Contrast the growth mindset, which has learned from the past, but is not its prisoner. It has a ‘can do, will do’ attitude which will risk and even enjoy being uncomfortable. It is adventurous and seeks out new challenges and experiences. A mindset with inner confidence and belief. It takes control of its own destiny. It boldly goes . . .
Choices we can make
Last year, I did an exercise with my team to show that we always have a choice about how we react to experiences, situations and other people. We can choose not to be frightened, not to be stressed, not to be bitter, not to be envious, not to be limited. We can decide not to be dictated to by those ghosts of our past. We can choose to let go of the baggage we have dragged behind us through the years. We can choose a growth mindset over a fixed mindset.
Now I have the opportunity to test what I said my on myself and to shrug off some of those lifetime habits and default reactions. I already made the big decision – to leave a job I loved, to give up the safety blanket of a regular salary, and to jump into almost empty space. Now the challenge is to shake off the chains of my past, work through the old fears and anxieties and tell myself that I am never too old to learn, to change my thought patterns and to learn new tricks.
So I have signed up for a coaching course and a cookery class, and have a list of 10 other things to have a go at. It’s a start at least.
Of course, there are aspects of our lives which we cannot change – commitments, families, health and mobility. And there are many things we do not want to change – where our fear is more about losing them.
We certainly can’t change other people – despite the fact most of spend a whole load of energy wishing we could or trying to do so. But we can change ourselves – how we are and the way we think about ourselves. We can choose a growth mindset. We can choose not to be prisoners of our past. We can face the future with optimism and positive energy.
“We have nothing before us, we have everything before us.”