Don’t Let the Past Dictate your Future

 In Blog

Don’t Let the Past Dictate your Future
By Justin Wright

Change can be difficult at times, and downright impossible at others. The conviction required to make small changes, let alone large ones, should be celebrated. Many of us know at least a handful of people who have turned their lives around, those who have set goals and taken control of their future. It can seem like they have cracked some secret code that eludes the rest of us.

One of the largest challenges that comes with change, however, is the biases we carry with us from the past. Many of us truly believe that “some people never change” despite evidence to the contrary. If we do not allow ourselves to grow and evolve, to look at situations through a new lens, then our previous experiences will adversely affect our future.

Some people don’t change, this is true. Many more push themselves to grow, and we must allow our perspectives to change as they do. Reflect on your own life experiences. How many times have you held previous actions against someone, despite them being very different now? How often has this caused you to react or respond in a way that may have been appropriate in the past, but has no bearing now? The reality is that this affects many of our interactions with others, and oftentimes prevents us from fostering stronger relationships and more fruitful collaborations.

Forgive and Forget

The old adage around forgiving and forgetting the transgressions of others is not practical in many situations, but lies at the core of embracing change. Let’s say that you try a new restaurant in town when it first opens and have a lousy meal. You return a month later once they have sorted out some of their initial problems and have a wonderful time. This sort of thing happens often when it comes to our experiences; we give ourselves the freedom to change our opinion when new information is presented and the experience changes.

Aside from a small percentage of extremely stubborn individuals, this type of change is common. The problem is that a much larger percentage of us resist changing our opinions of people. We are taught that first impressions matter a great deal, which is certainly true, but not as much emphasis is placed on additional impressions. Many of us tend to formulate our opinions of others within our first few moments with them, and these opinions permeate our thoughts surrounding those individuals in the future.

If we meet someone’s friend at a house party and they were rude or disagreeable, we tend to always assume that they will act the same way in future situations. What if that individual was later confronted about their attitude and, realizing that they had been out of line, corrected their behavior in the future? In our next encounter with that person, despite them making changes to better themselves, we may avoid interacting with them entirely or may be short or curt with them during the interactions we do have.

This behavior is caused by our natural biases which were informed by previous experiences. This was, and is, an evolutionary advantage; for the survival of our species we had to learn quickly which creatures in the wild would do us harm and which were safe to interact with. We needed to know the appearance and actions of members from warring tribes in order to preserve our own tribespeople. In order to communicate effectively in the modern world, we must override this tendency. We must learn to forgive and forget, to give others a chance to change our opinions.

Team culture and growth

This phenomenon can be especially detrimental when it comes to teams. Whether you are playing sports at a high level, in a boardroom launching a new product, or expanding the team at your business, culture becomes critical for success. A team that stifles growth by finger-pointing, covering up mistakes, or minimizing communication must experience a culture shift to become successful. This culture shift requires the members of that team to change their personal viewpoints and biases as well.

Far too often I see groups that are willing to change, fully committed to the process of growth, yet still view others on their team in the same light as before these changes occurred. If you have a boss who used to rule with fear decide to embrace change and empower his team, it is unfair for those team members to view him as the same tyrannical leader he once was. In the same way, new employees are expected to make mistakes as they grow in their roles; we don’t still assume that they are incompetent once they have learned to perform their job tasks effectively. Our opinion of them must change as they learn and grow.

When teams undertake cultural shifts and buy in to the process of changing, there tends to be a recurring pattern that emerges. There are huge, positive shifts early on and then things seem to plateau. Members of the team get frustrated when they feel like progress has stagnated, but forget to look internally at how their biases may be preventing further growth. Their expectations for the team have evolved, but they are still viewing other team members with the same lens as before. Someone who was historically lazy but has taken huge strides to provide value is still seen as a slacker. Someone who lacked communication skills in the past is still viewed as a poor communicator, despite development and progress to the contrary.

Review, revisit, revise

Just like with setting goals or building out plans and habits, it is crucial that we consistently revisit and revise our opinions of others in our lives. Especially if you are part of a team attempting to change, you should consistently review your biases and prejudices that come from past experience. Ask yourself if your opinion of someone else is based on current information or outdated information.

Just as technology is constantly being updated, we must update our viewpoints. If you failed to update your cell phone, it would stop working eventually. The old software could not keep up with the apps and services you rely on. This is a simplistic comparison, but should paint a picture of the importance of revisiting our opinions. People do change, and we must recognize this if we wish to communicate and collaborate more effectively.

Do not hold an individual’s past against them. We have all taken actions which we regret, and it is the lesson that matters more than the mistake. The person you see in the mirror today is (hopefully) much different than the person you were five years ago. Realize that others are working just as hard to better themselves, to grow and develop into their ideal selves. Learn to revisit your opinions, and make sure they reflect the present instead of the past. By constantly revising your viewpoints you will be able to more effectively lead and follow, to contribute to your communities at the highest level, and to have stronger relationships with everyone in your life.


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