Have you ever been in a rowboat? If you think about it, it’s kind of an unusual way to get where you’re going—because you’re moving forward, but spending the whole trip looking back at where you’ve been.
Many people we know (some more than others), and a bunch of the organizations we work with (dare we say a boatload), spend a good deal of their time traveling through the world in that very same way—moving forward, but looking backward.
Humans have a hard time letting go of the past—of the way things used to be, of our regrets and mistakes, of who we once were or believed we should be.
We get attached—to a certain way of doing things, to our youth, to beliefs and behaviors, to people, to locations, to possessions.
My dad used to say, “Life is a series of adjustments.” And besides the fact that he was unwittingly paraphrasing every sage and scholar since the beginning of time, he was really onto something.
To be alive means we are either adjusting to some change in our lives—or we’re resisting that change. Deciding to go with the flow just might be easier. Right?
And, yet…that doesn’t seem to be our human tendency…
power of inertia
The future is rife with uncertainty, which imbues the familiar patterns of the past with great allure—so we do whatever we can to avoid change, to fill our days with a sense of security and predictability. We try to re-create our “used-to-be’s” in our todays, even as we see the evidence of yesterday after yesterday piling up behind us.
Sometimes the past just feels safer—whatever mistakes we might have made have already happened, and the stuff in the rearview mirror (even the crappy stuff) is at least a known entity. Tomorrow is a wild card, and that just scares the bejesus out of us.
Who knows what the heck could happen—what failures or fears could be realized—if we tried that new thing or stopped doing that other thing. And, the thought of REALLY putting ourselves out there makes us hold our breath and poop in our pants just a little.
So we play it safe and go with what we know. We don’t take too many chances. We dutifully replicate, and sometimes desperately cling to, the status quo.
In our organizations, even when we want to go somewhere new, we unwittingly design business plans and strategies that are ensconced (and sometimes trapped) in the policies, procedures, and parameters of the past—the very things that we are hoping to transcend.
Let’s look at an example…
Suppose you work for a company that’s trying to cut its expenditures, and suppose that company also has a strong community-based focus. Reviewing the budget reveals that a fair amount of money is spent on the labor and materials associated with mowing the lawn—so a team goes to work to try to find the most efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable way to cut the grass.
Committees are formed, circles and arrows are drawn, numbers are crunched, and, finally, someone comes up with a great plan to buy new, super-fuel-efficient equipment and reconfigure the landscaping crew’s schedule to save money. And, big bonus, those monies can now be donated to the local food pantry to further the company’s mission to give back to the community. (wild applause)
Until someone, someday, asks…”Hey, um, do we really want to use all of this land we own to cultivate grass? I mean, what if we grew, like, food.” Huh?
So, now the committee shifts gears…and they forget what has always been done in the past, and they swing their heads around and wonder—what’s the intersection between our current values and our vision for the future?
What if rather than mowing the lawn differently, to save money, so we can afford to contribute more to our neighbors, we reimagine what we do in the first place? What if we donate all that empty space to a nonprofit that can use it for community gardens to help make fresh, nutritious produce more available to those that need it?
Nobody is suggesting that we totally disregard the past—no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is often value in deliberately reflecting on what’s come before and taking stock. But, we can’t spend our time gazing wistfully over our shoulders, or get to where we really want to go, without shaking things up now and then.
Always looking backward and clinging to those well-worn grooves in our lives comes at a cost—as we give into inertia we sacrifice adventure, growth, innovation, and the chance to evolve beyond ourselves and discover something outside the bounds of our sometimes-limited imaginations.
And we would do well to remember that life offers no guarantees.
We all expect to live forever and to have a lifetime of “somedays” in which to fulfill our dreams, but that sense of security is only in our minds.
The idea is not to deny where we’ve been or forget what got us to this place, but to dare to develop a vision for our lives and the future that transcends our histories, and even our present circumstances.
Give yourself some time to think big, to send your mind off into the future without thinking that you don’t have the training, time, money, personality, what-EVER, to do the thing you most want to do. And in our organizations we must also give ourselves the chance to dream and envision the future we want, before we plan what to do this morning.
So, today—be bold, creative, and all in.
Keep your heart in the moment and your eyes on the prize, loosen your grip on the past and point your feet toward the very future you hope to realize.
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