Put the past where it belongs

Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.
— Bil Keane

In one of the most widely watched TED talks, Tony Robbins asks the question of why we do what we do. This is a powerful question that shapes (or at least should shape) our words, actions, and dreams.

In that talk, he references our “therapy culture,” a pervasive mindset that suggests that “biography is destiny,” or that everything in our future has been scripted by our past. We are, in effect, trapped by these earlier experiences and need to continue to reconnect with and perhaps break away from our history if we are to live a meaningful tomorrow.

This thinking relates to past failures. Why didn’t we succeed previously, in a relationship, at work, with a business venture, etc.? It was because, we tell ourselves, we lacked something, the key ingredients that would have otherwise propelled us to a different and better outcome. If only we would have had more time, more money, a better manager, a more understanding and loving spouse, things would have worked out differently.

We convince ourselves that the obstacles to our success were beyond our locus of control, perhaps because it makes failure easier to take.

I learned this lesson when I stepped into a head of school position on the coattails of the school’s most decorated and longest-serving principal. He was a robust man despite his advanced age and he had a larger-than-life personality and warm smile that could brighten up the gloomiest of moods. This man had hired practically the entire staff and oversaw the school’s growth from a fledgling pipedream in a strip mall to a robust institution in a large, new facility. Added to that, his wife was diagnosed with a terminal illness during his final, retirement year at the school (she would pass before the year was out). Talk about walking into a tough spot filled with raw emotion.

To be honest, I didn’t think much of all this at the beginning of my tenure. While I anticipated some challenges, I figured that I would chart my own course to success, which in many ways I did. But I also couldn’t fully step out from the looming shadow of the man who preceded me, and encountered much more resistance to change and growth than I could have imagined.

There were plenty of other issues, too, particularly in the area of school governance, and I easily could have made excuses for my bumpy experience. And for some time that’s largely what I did. But when the time came for me to depart and start a new chapter in life, which included moving to a new community and changing career paths, I decided that I needed to focus on moving forward rather than in reverse. I have spent most my time since then trying to learn from my experiences and to use that knowledge to help others succeed.

As Robbins points out, success is not about the resources that we have access to but rather the resourcefulness that we bring to each situation. The most successful people in life were not necessarily the ones who had it all laid out for them on a silver platter. Plenty of folks with the standard “success ingredients” such as intellect, strength, charisma, wealth, good working environments, strong business plans, etc. have done surprisingly little in life.

And yet many people who entered life with one hand tied behind their backs -- including a history of deprivation, limited education, maltreatment and even abuse -- rose to achieve some of the greatest things in human history. At the end, it’s not about what you opportunities and gifts do for you (although they certainly can help), but rather what you make of them, that make the difference in who succeeds.

What can we do to become more resourceful, so that we can take proper advantage of possibilities, manufacture opportunities and manage setbacks in a way that allows us to move forward? Consider using these techniques:

  1. Prepare well in advance. We never know exactly how things will work out. The best-laid plans often go sideways, many times for reasons that we could never have predicted. The readier we are for situations, the easier it will be to live in the moment and chart a different course to success.
  2. Be an avid learner. Again, the more we know the better we typically do. As part of being prepared, take the regular time needed to be well-versed on whatever we are trying to achieve. Many pundits suggest at least 30 minutes daily of growth-oriented reading.
  3. Think possibility rather than impossibility. We all have that inner critic, the one that tells us that our ideas are foolish or that there’s no way to fix a particular problem. For some of us, the glass is always half-empty, which only empowers the critic further. Seek to develop personal resilience and positivity by exploring new avenues and brainstorming with others.
  4. Work on becoming passionate. Nothing sells like passion. Passionate people get everyone around them excited and believing in what they’re selling. Even when the chips are down, they find ways to keep themselves and those around them focused on the prize and motivated to work even harder to get there.

This post first appeared in SmartBrief on Leadership.