Echoes of Your Former Self

Couple of weeks ago, we hit a sort of milestone that only the media could catch: we arrived at the “distant future” date of October 21, 2015 that protagonist Marty McFly time-traveled to in the 1989 movie Back to the Future II.   The media focused on where writers were on- or off-target with future technology in things like communication and transportation. Instead of the technology, I’m interested in that vision of the future as a reflection of our former selves.   Do you remember who you were in 1989 when you were envisioning that future? Were you excited, disappointed, skeptical or amused by this depiction? What does your reaction say about your former self? How does that compare to your current self?

The opportunity for this backward reflection is one of the many things I love about my job. On occasion, our alumni return and tell stories about when they were students. To me, it feels like time travel.  One day they graduated and poof! here they are, years into the future with a story to tell of the past. That story provides a reflection of our former selves, either as individuals or as an organization. Some of the things they found meaningful I may not recall at all. Things that I thought were monumental did not even register on their radar.

However, through these stories I can feel the old (younger) Susanna speaking to me in some way. She is either saying, “You have been consistently you for decades. Your beliefs and values carry forward, even to this day,” or she says, “You’ve made some mistakes which you may not have recognized at the time, but you’ve grown and matured.” Occasionally there is the, “Oh shit. I’ve been doing that my whole life and never realized how that impacted others,” in which case I end up with a long overdue apology. Some versions of myself are downright noble or prescient, qualities I may only recognize in hindsight or through the lens of another. Others are, well, not.

We need not wait for reminiscent volunteers to get a glimpse of our former selves. In the Reflected Best Self exercise, you ask  current and/or past acquaintances (30 is recommended) to share what they see as the best in you. This powerful exercise shifts what is often an overly negative and critical self-image into one that is more consistent with or balanced with how you’re actually viewed.

Whether solicited or volunteered, these remembrances are gifts of perspective that help us to understand who we once were and how we’ve grown over time. They may also help us to understand the person sharing the memory including their perspective and motivation.   If nothing else, they’re a fun trip down memory lane that allow us to savor our shared past. Perhaps a new exercise akin to the gratitude letter: share a fond memory with someone whom you admire or who has helped you.   You can both bask in your shared history, reinforce your relationship and help that person grow their own sense of growth and accomplishment. Thanks reminiscers!

I’ll Be Happy When…

What came to mind when you read this sentence stem? Did a couple of goals pop into mind?

On my list during my lifetime included: when I pass this test, when I finish school, when I get that job, when I go on vacation, when I get married, when I have a family, when the kids are independent, when I get promoted, when I retire.

Sometimes those goals were not quite as lofty or distant: when I get home, when I finish that project, when/if I get that grant.

I’m old enough to have actually achieved most of those milestones. And yes, I am actually happy when I reach one of those milestones.

For about a nanosecond.

Given this bad habit of living in the future, writing my annual report has become one of the best days of my year. That exercise requires me to acknowledge all that I got accomplished during the past year instead of my usual MO of just breezing by those milestones without even so much as a mental pat on the back.

Sick, right?

Have I just gotten into some weird habit of perpetual delayed gratification? Or have I developed some masochistic Puritanical guilt for enjoying life? Regardless, my underlying dysfunctional belief system includes the lie that I have control over the future and that my external world determines my happiness.

Living in the past is just as bad. Living in the past may mean ruminating on ‘what if’ regret statements or harboring resentment from past transgressions. Sometimes these misdeeds happened decades ago; I sometimes hear (adult) people complaining about resentments that have occurred during childhood.

Alarming, right?

The dysfunctional belief system around living in the past includes the lie that someone else or something else from my past is in control of my current happiness.

You can see the fallacy of both future/past foci: that external events control my happiness. No.   Rather, how I choose to arrange my inner world determines my happiness.

Furthermore, that choice is pretty much the only thing I have any control over at all. I have absolutely no control over the past except for how I choose to view the past. I have little or no control, really, over the future. I can influence the future, yes, but control? No.   9/11 taught me that lesson.

So it seems to me that the best option is living in the present. Living in the now means to be totally engaged with my present reality. The task at hand. My immediate environment. The person I am with. Whether I choose to judge my current circumstances as fantastic, pretty good, or awful, or to just acknowledge it without judgment. That choice will determine how I feel in this moment.

Consciously make that choice in this moment to create love, awe, and inspiration and refuse the choice that create anxiety and resentment. It’s in your control.

Sweet, right?