The Power of Your Past

The Art of Recalling, Reclaiming, and Recasting

John Schuster (Author)

Publication date: 04/04/2011

The Power of Your Past

Bucks the current cultural obsessions with "living in the now" that devalues our rich histories and blinds us to our true potential.

  • Bucks the current cultural obsessions with "living in the now" that devalues our rich histories and blinds us to our true potential

  • Provides insight and encouragement for mining the hidden gold within our lives and reprogramming hidden self-limiting beliefs

  • Includes affirmations, exercises, and questions in every chapter along with movie and book examples that bring the concepts to life

Most of us value learning from the rich histories of well-known figures, gleaning insights from their failures, triumphs, inspirations, and key learnings. And yet how many times are we taught to devalue our own past, to live it behind--especially when it involves difficulties and unresolved challenges?

The Power of Your Past is in sharp contrast to "nowness," a concept advocated by philosophers who argue that our past has little value. It has great value, but we don't use it well. John Schuster shows the many ways we ignore, distort, or become captive to our pasts and explains how we can tap into this treasure trove of wisdom be revisiting and reframing our experiences.

Schuster describes our good experiences as evocations--they allow our gifts and possibilities to be called forth. Negative experiences are compressions--they squelch, mute, and even mangle these same gifts and possibilities. But these processes remain largely hidden from us. We need to come to grips with what our stories were and what they mean for us now. As Faulkner said. "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

To unleash the power of our past we first must recall key images and experiences that have influenced us, for good or ill. Then we can reclaim the positive experiences--deepen our understanding of their impact and use them to guide our going forward. The negative experiences must be recast--reinterpreted so that they no longer lessen our possibilities but rather serve to expand our understanding of who we are and what we can be. Schuster guides you through each step of this process of recalling, reclaiming, and recasting, helping you to live more authentically and to consciously choose your future.

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Overview

Bucks the current cultural obsessions with "living in the now" that devalues our rich histories and blinds us to our true potential.

  • Bucks the current cultural obsessions with "living in the now" that devalues our rich histories and blinds us to our true potential

  • Provides insight and encouragement for mining the hidden gold within our lives and reprogramming hidden self-limiting beliefs

  • Includes affirmations, exercises, and questions in every chapter along with movie and book examples that bring the concepts to life

Most of us value learning from the rich histories of well-known figures, gleaning insights from their failures, triumphs, inspirations, and key learnings. And yet how many times are we taught to devalue our own past, to live it behind--especially when it involves difficulties and unresolved challenges?

The Power of Your Past is in sharp contrast to "nowness," a concept advocated by philosophers who argue that our past has little value. It has great value, but we don't use it well. John Schuster shows the many ways we ignore, distort, or become captive to our pasts and explains how we can tap into this treasure trove of wisdom be revisiting and reframing our experiences.

Schuster describes our good experiences as evocations--they allow our gifts and possibilities to be called forth. Negative experiences are compressions--they squelch, mute, and even mangle these same gifts and possibilities. But these processes remain largely hidden from us. We need to come to grips with what our stories were and what they mean for us now. As Faulkner said. "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

To unleash the power of our past we first must recall key images and experiences that have influenced us, for good or ill. Then we can reclaim the positive experiences--deepen our understanding of their impact and use them to guide our going forward. The negative experiences must be recast--reinterpreted so that they no longer lessen our possibilities but rather serve to expand our understanding of who we are and what we can be. Schuster guides you through each step of this process of recalling, reclaiming, and recasting, helping you to live more authentically and to consciously choose your future.

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - John Schuster

John Schuster is an author and mentor/coach (www.johnpschuster.com), and has co-owned a speaking and training firm for 25-plus years (www.skalliance.com and www.profitandcash.com). He is a faculty member for Coach Certification Programs at Columbia University and the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara, and he is pursuing a certificate in Jungian studies from Saybrook University. He is also a coach for Merryck & Company, a CEO-mentoring firm, and works for nonprofit and government organizations.

John is the author of such books as Answering Your Call: A Guide to Living Your Deepest Purpose (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003), Hum-Drum to Hot-Diggity on Leadership (Steadfast Publishers, 2001), and two books on open-book management. His clients include the American Academy of Family Physicians, corporations and hospitals, and many smaller midsize organizations.

John is a green advocate; pursues gardening, tennis, and guitar; and has three grandchildren. He is married to his business partner, Patricia Kane. He believes in learning communities, sustainability, and local food. He works to create markets and communities that work for everyone, and he naps whenever possible.

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Table of Contents


Contents
Preface Introduction: Your Past Can Work for You 3
Part I: Discovering the Power of Your Past 15
Chapter 1: The Underused Past: The Price of Forgotten Yesterdays 19
Chapter 2: Good and Bad News: Evoked and Compressed 45
Part II: Tapping the Power of Your Past 69 Chapter 3: Recall 73 Chapter 4: Reclaim 101 Chapter 5: Recast 127
Part III: Channeling the Power of Your Past 151
Chapter 6: Answering the Big Question: When to Say Yes and No 155
Chapter 7: Using Suffering to Grow 175
Notes 191 Acknowledgments 195 Index 197 About the Author 205

Preface

Introduction: Your Past Can Work for You

Part I: Discovering the Power of Your Past

Chapter One: The Underused Past: The Price of Forgotten Yesterdays

Chapter Two: Good and Bad News: Evoked and Compressed

Part II: Tapping the Power of Your Past

Chapter Three: Recall

Chapter Four: Reclaim

Chapter Five: Recast

Part III: Channeling the Power of Your Past

Chapter Six: Answering the Big Question: When to Say Yes and No

Chapter Seven: Using Suffering to Grow

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

About the Author


ContentsPreface Introduction: Your Past Can Work for You 3Part I: Discovering the Power of Your Past 15Chapter 1: The Underused Past: The Price of Forgotten Yesterdays 19Chapter 2: Good and Bad News: Evoked and Compressed 45Part II: Tapping the Power of Your Past 69 Chapter 3: Recall 73 Chapter 4: Reclaim 101 Chapter 5: Recast 127Part III: Channeling the Power of Your Past 151Chapter 6: Answering the Big Question: When to Say Yes and No 155Chapter 7: Using Suffering to Grow 175Notes 191 Acknowledgments 195 Index 197 About the Author 205

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Excerpt

The Power of Your Past

Chapter One:
The Underused Past: The Price of Forgotten Yesterdays

The movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind revolves around a clever variation on the amnesia theme. The central characters, played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, willfully induce a partial amnesia to erase the painful memories of a relationship gone bad. It works but has mixed results. At one point, Carrey, sensing his memories disappearing, the good along with the bad, pleads with the doctor inducing the amnesia—“Pl-e-a-s-e, let me keep this memory, just this one!”

They are drawn to each other a second time, experiencing an unconscious attraction even with the conscious memories gone. Memories or no, even with spotless minds, their destinies are woven together as they get a second chance to go after love.

We are all those two characters. We have forgotten why we are pulled toward and pushed away from certain people and events. We attempt to have fresh, spotless minds when we move into our lifework, but a vague familiarity reminds us that we erase memories at our peril. Forgetting dooms us to repeating. We are destined to return to that which we must encounter until we fully absorb our core lessons.

UNDERUSING THE PAST: THE FIRST HURDLE IS THE NORM OF MEDIOCRITY

We all know that our yesterdays have value. When we hire someone with “lots of experience,” what we want is the knowledge that comes from past experiences. We know that older people teach younger people and elders provide wisdom to later generations. Many of us seek mentors. But as useful and common as it is to use others’ pasts at work and in life, it is just as common to neither truly understand nor fully value the power of our own yesterdays.

Because of this devaluating amnesia, we rarely attempt to fully harvest the rich lessons of our own lives. The common discounting, forgetting, underuse, and misuse of our past deprive us of our truest stories.

With a half-complete history in mind, the level that the world around us accepts and promotes, we misjudge who we are, what we can do, and how to do it (identity, potential, and self-direction). Instead, we channel our talents into the narrow confines of what society offers us, such as the many jobs that are either too small or not designed for the people that fill them. Seeing minimal connection from formative times in youth and early work events to our current reality, we are left to the culture’s advice. A misinformed boss, a columnist from Rock-Hard Abs Forever Magazine, and bloggers in love with their opinions are all happy to tell us what to do. This is the mediocre norm that we suffer without knowing it and which we have to escape if we want things large and soul-resonant to happen in our life.

We are trained to make this mistake: listen to the following statements about the past from a few 20th- and 21st-century sources, both pop and highbrow.

If you delve into the past it will become a bottomless pit.

—ECKHART TOLLE1

I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes.

I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down,

—CARL SANDBURG, “PRAIRIE2

Is it any wonder that we don’t think much of our past? Countless other statements about the past have this identical drift: get over it, don’t think about your past. There is nothing really there to pay attention to. Don’t waste your time.3

MISJUDGING OUR HISTORY: OUR COMMON ERRORS

Here is a list of the common errors that prevent us from having an optimal relationship with our yesterdays for navigating our journey. Some are more obvious than others. All are damaging. You get to be the judge of your favorite tactics and the degree of ballast and drag you absorbed on your journey. (You enjoyed some smooth sailing as well, of course, but here we are talking about our errors.)

Underuse Mistakes

Avoid/numb out: When we don’t explore the painful parts because they are negative.

“I never go there.”

Ignore: When we don’t use the positive parts for their power to define, inform, and inspire.

“Why think about that?”

Erase: When we flat-out regress, forgetting what we once knew, and need a wake-up call that goes like

“Wow, how did I get so out of touch with that part of me?”

Misuse Mistakes

Pathologize: Having a clinical view of our history, sucking the passion out of it, and giving it a dry, clinical diagnosis.

“My mom was a basket case, perhaps even a borderline personality, and that is why I . . .”

Romanticize/sentimentalize: Having a Pollyannaish, sanitized view of everything we encountered. This is often the result of our heads’ opinion that to admit any suffering or heart pain is a sign of weakness, so we suppress.

“You know, I can’t think of a single downside to my perfect past.”

Demonize/victimize: When the villains from our past take center stage and we stay helpless or unforgiving or otherwise stuck. If we emphasize the villains, it is demonizing:

“The good-for-nothings set me back for a lifetime.”

If we emphasize ourselves, it is victimizing:

“I wish I would have had the right family—who knows what I might have become.”

We all do some of the above. We have our own variations of these statements and many more particular ones, since our lives are singular and our brains are uniquely organized around the constellation of experiences and interpretations that are ours alone. The errors are both the sloppy habits that divert us and the protective mechanisms we put in play to help us understand the events we could not put into perspective at the time they happened. They become problems when we stick with the errors for the long term and don’t claim our own truth.

THE UPSHOT: YESTERDAY’S LESSONS LOST

Most people make their idiosyncratic mix of mistakes because they don’t assess their past as full of value anchors, energy sources, and practical lessons for how to work and live. Hardly anyone reviews his or her yesterdays systematically with a view toward growth. Our collective amnesia makes it so. Most people I encounter consider their personal history to be mixed and less than perfect. It is somewhere between “sorta good” and “sorta bad”—not useless, but not particularly useful either. (There are exceptions, of course, and they will show up throughout the book.) These people have decided that their less-than-ideal past, since it is over, has little more to teach them about making today’s decisions for tomorrow’s life chapters.

Wrong!

One Venezuelan-born entrepreneur I interviewed, Rosanna Figuera, who has an executive search and coaching business in Manhattan, talked about her former thinking: “I used to think the past should stay in the past . . . that the past was baggage.” Some of us still think of our yesterdays in this negative mode. We may work on our self-awareness but are in the now-is-all-that-matters camp, intentionally ignoring our past.

Wrong!

Skimming over your rich life history with its challenges and resources is a major error. I see this skimming frequently. As a coach, I see people with big events in their yesterdays, perhaps a teacher who changed their life for the good, or an early boss whose negativity they fought to overcome. They barely acknowledge the event as worth revisiting and therefore miss the developmental significance of their own experience. This leaves them with blind spots for which they pay a price and unaware of how to proceed in accepting the tasks of their own growth.

Leaders and professionals busily attack their tasks but often fall short in the crucial act of extending their unique humanity, one based on a thorough knowledge of self, into their role. This is the identity problem at work. When I interview leaders’ teams to give them actionable feedback, I often find that the leaders have only partially found their own voice. This lack of self-authorship stems from the leaders’ not claiming the singular voice that is theirs to claim, the one that emerges from their unique history. These leaders can use the Harvard Business Review article they read on the way to the board retreat to get by in some instances. But such tactics won’t work for the long term or in the real clinches, when character counts and a crisp leadership identity is the primary fallback asset.

The director of INSEAD’s Global Leadership Centre, Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, puts it this way: “Plenty of executives refuse to consider the possibility there may be issues in their work and life that originate in the area beyond . . . their immediate awareness.”4 In my work, I see large numbers of partially successful leaders suffering from this accepted blind spot of under-use and amnesia. I get to regularly view, close up and very personal, the enormous difference it makes to use our past well.

SEEING THE ERRORS AT PLAY

The notion of making full use of our yesterdays is for people who care about best practices for their work and life, and who deeply desire to discover their most authentic and ever-emergent voice. They want more than to accept the hazy, lazy, mediocre middle of thinking about a life path that matters but not walking on that path.5

Perhaps the biggest reason why we settle for mediocrity is that we are used to seeing it. I have seen the mediocre middle in accessing the power of our yesterdays with hundreds, probably more like thousands, of people, both individually and in groups. Conversely, when we come across people whose work is a natural extension of their essence, we are drawn to their personal power and can even be moved by their presence. These self-defined people are ordinary, too, of course, and as humans they suffer from the usual feet of clay, but they have done their homework and know the power embedded in their yesterdays.

One reason we use to justify the amnesia and not work with our yesterdays is the well-known fact that we don’t recall our yesterdays with accuracy. An extreme example is how some self-proclaimed victims of abuse eventually realize that they fabricated the stories that had become so real to them. So if our memories are faulty, why use them? Because most of us naturally review our memories and have a set of yesterdays we ponder. The past we have is as much or more about the interpretation of the events as it is about the events themselves. Our job, therefore, is to look at that interpretation, the “truth” upon which our belief systems have settled. Not to look at those “truths” is to reside in that mediocre middle.

Avoid/Numb Out: Not Exploring the Painful Parts

This one is common. You hear it all the time, sometimes stated, “Let’s not go there.” Just as often, you hear numbing and avoiding between the lines, as in the anxious language of men when they make their jokes about “touchy-feely, kumbaya” moments at work.

A few years back, I had a remarkable interaction with a group of business owners. As I have done a few hundred times, I presented a topic to CEOs on personal and professional change. We gathered at the clubhouse of a golf course on a warm spring day. The stag energy in the group was powerful as the guys chortled and harrumphed, teased, and laced the morning’s conversation with swearing and off-color jokes. I was in an element I knew well: men without women around and without the accompanying social constraints.

Their facilitator told me, in preparation for the meeting, that several of the men had been divorced in the past year. The following exchange occurred:

“I would rather pull out my fingernails one at a time than have my wife look at me and say, ‘We need to have a talk.’ Man, I hate that!” declared the handsome 40-year-old CEO on the outdoor deck of the clubhouse.

His buddy chimed in, “Yeah, I know what you mean. I especially hate it when she says it in the morning, and then I have to think about it al-l-l da-a-ay!!”

Groans of understanding and nods of empathy issued from most of the others. You could hear their collective yesterdays and the intimate conversations that petrified them clawing back to the surface of their awareness. Their numbing and avoiding tactics were only Band-Aids and could not work in the long term.

My job with this group became quickly apparent as I picked up the spirit of their sharing: to coax them into considering that, while their business lives were successful, their growing edge for happiness rested on the side of understanding intimacy and investing in relationships. They were lopsided executives, skilled professionally and financially, and underdeveloped in how to love. They barely allowed themselves to consider what they were missing.

We had a powerful exchange that day. Who knows what one day with them accomplished? But they had a permanent facilitator/coach for the group, the person who brought me in, so my hope was to let the wisdom of the group and the skill of this coach ease them into new heart space with these demanding women who had the audacity to want to “talk.”

Ignore: Not Using the Positives to Define and Inspire

An error in learning from our yesterdays occurs when we become frozen in patterns that stunt growth by keeping us busy using only secondary gifts. This holds for all people, even those enjoying some worldly success. We all know people who are bored with work and locked into the paycheck, and this may be us now or not so long ago. To stay with work patterns that are “OK” but not an expression of an essential part of us is a slow poison. It may be imperceptible at first, but over time the ignoring becomes more toxic.

A colleague from my Omaha youth, Joe Vacanti, is an accountant. He rose to the top of his profession, training other accountants. But as the years went by, he began to suffer as he faced the same processes and the same crazy tax season. Like many a successful professional, Joe had gotten crispy around the edges from the routine of a career gone stale. He suffered from a common pattern—he had made a career decision at age 18 that he would have to live out for the next 40-plus years. For him, this work was not close enough to the parts of him that were theatrical and fun, that had liked to participate in the school plays and musicals.

Joe suffered well (yes, there is such a thing—see chapter 7). He stayed aware of the price, searching and experimenting without burdening others and complaining. While still connected to his profession today and not fully jettisoning his enormous quantitative-thinking gifts, he has moved into more creative work. He teaches in hospitals with a board game and works as an extra in movies, and feeds his soul with these pursuits and more that may come.

To ignore our essential gifts, the ones revealed to us in our yesterdays, is a slow slide into misery.

Erase: When We Flat-Out Go Backward, Forgetting What We Once Knew

Not all misuses of our history are easy to read, however, and the subtle, trickier kinds are often the ones that hold us back the most, precisely because they sound so reasonable. It does not have to be a big outrageous falsehood that is limiting your life’s work and ways to contribute; it can even be a lesson that you forgot and distorted.

The Executive Who Turned from Learning to Telling

“One of my favorite long-term clients has made a request: “We have this executive by the name of Bill, with this great track record for four years, but his stress level or something has him way off base, and he is annoying about everyone—his team and boss and customers, even his close supporters. Do you want to work with him for a while, John? Because if he keeps this up, he will get fired. And we think that is a last option, because we know he can do better—we have seen it.”

I said yes—a formerly highly regarded exec who had become disruptive must have been doing it for a reason. So Bill and I began to work together.

In our conversations, I soon learned that Bill had run out of patience. While his career involved applying his considerable brilliance to fixing problems and getting work done, he had unofficially and compulsively appointed himself the fixer of everybody else’s problems, which quickly gained him royal-pain-in-the-butt status. He had accelerated from never being shy about contributing, to badgering peers, his team, and even his boss. Bill had gotten some feedback that he had become obnoxious and unproductive, but a large amount of stress kept him from containing himself. Some of his investments were going very wrong, and the money for his kids’ college tuition and his family’s future was almost gone. He had not told anyone about this at work.

So Bill and I had several conversations, the kind that I have had with hundreds of other people doing less than their best, many of whom knew it. We worked on the stress and the communication patterns.

In our sessions, I took Bill to a few big lessons from his past. One lesson he recalled vividly from his early days at IBM was that he found something positive and things to learn everywhere, especially in his team’s mistakes. He had formed this thinking as a positive catalyst for change and a steady leadership contribution. This was the lesson that he forgot and pushed aside in the stress of watching the kids’ tuition dwindle. He had misinterpreted his past, turning “I use mistakes as a learning opportunity for the team” into “I see mistakes and single-handedly try to fix them with my solution.” He threw in a little victimization for good measure—“Why am I surrounded by dummies who can’t see the solutions?”

Within days, Bill was able to stop the intensity, and within a few weeks he had gotten back on track and regained his old ways. In his words, “I had become stuck as a know-it-all hijacker of meetings. . . . I was trying to help, and instead I was seeing stupidity everywhere and could not shut up.”

What Bill had needed was a few deep and consistent reminders of who he wanted to be because of who he had been. He had used the lessons from early in his career well, but the stress of losing some of the family nest egg had turned his learning style into a know-it-all style. To prevent backsliding, we kept up the conversations over several months. Bill carried on well, with a few predictable slips, negotiating a number of important deals before he left the company 18 months later. He left on such positive terms that he did several more deals with his former company when he became COO of a startup and began to re-fund the family’s future.”

Stories like Bill’s illustrate the positive power of yesterday and the harvest of errors that we reap when we erase the lessons of yesterday.6

Pathologize: To Have a Clinical View of Our Past That Sucks the Passion Out of Our Yesterdays

Pop psychology has made us all amateurs in naming our inner dynamics—a good thing as general awareness of emotional intelligence expands, but not without its dangers. Sticking with clinical language is one such danger, as we can use it to hide from ourselves behind a wall of analytical diagnosis, versus engaging with the creativity and courage we need for our growth.

We all hear things like

Image I’m naturally intuitive, and my P is off the charts, so you know what that means!

Image I am so left-brained, and I am on this crazy right-brained team and they all drive me crazy.

Image My feminine side is nonexistent, so buck up and take this feedback the way it comes—straight at you.

Image I think I am projecting onto my boss stuff from my family—no wonder this feels more desperate than it is.

All of this language can be of use, but it can also get in the way, by giving our autonomy away to some useful theory that categorizes us. When we pathologize, we are failing to take responsibility for ourselves. We are being too glib and too cognitive about our past and its good and bad moments. We are creating an unhealthy distance from our experience, rather than confronting it and taking it to heart.

Romanticize/Sentimentalize: Pollyanna Moves to Sanitize and Minimize

This error is especially socially acceptable. It sounds positive, creates no enemies or victims, and can be useful, like all the errors, to a point. When it goes past the point of seeing the good in our yesterdays, we can be camped out in our own la-la land.

Many of us have a past filled with beautiful memories—mine is. And yet to push out the harsh or tough memories without confronting them as an adult is to become captive to our positive fictions. We do this not knowing any better and in hope of avoiding the effort and tears that may lie ahead in naming the truth, the sadness and the badness, of those episodes.

I have seen families frequently and goodheartedly recount and laugh about numerous alcohol-enhanced family events over a summer holiday, for instance, with outrageous stories and funny dialogue. I rarely hear those families tell stories of the damage they have endured with that same alcohol.

I have seen people refuse to name the negative impact of a really bad boss, not wanting to admit the damage incurred and the time it took to recover. The phrase “I am taking the time off to fully detox” comes from someone who understands that romanticizing and sentimentalizing will not serve him or her in the long term, even if minimizing sounds heroic at first.

Demonize/Victimize: Getting Frozen in Passivity

We all have bad actors in our past, some of whom may have been advanced saboteurs who worked hard to limit our possibilities. More than the evil ones, the ignorant actors in your life tried their best and still managed to botch up your capabilities with untruths and judgments. And sometimes we are our own bad actors and did the damage to ourselves.

We have a job to do with the memories of the bad actors. First, don’t minimize them. Second, let them go and move on. Demonizing is missing the second part.

Victimizing is often in concert with demonizing. In its blatant forms, it is easy to spot, as we use the past to rationalize who we are in the present. We have all heard something like this: “Well, my dad was a distant guy and worked all his life way too hard, so I am kind of emotionally distant myself. Always will be.” Or, “I have always had this temper, and it runs in the family, so get over it.”

Wrong!

Mining the past for strains of influence is useful; indeed, that is what we will do in part 2. We will do this work with great care, however. To attribute one of your current traits or patterns to your parents or a teacher, or to an event from your past, is excuse-making of the first order. It is a way-too-common abuse of the past, as bad as ignoring your yesterdays altogether with willful amnesia.

The less blatant forms of victimizing can be just as damaging. I see leaders not owning the part they played in mistakes and divorced people not owning their part (“My wife didn’t want to be married anymore—funny thing”). As Alfred Adler is purported to have said, “The life lie of the neurotic person is failure to accept personal responsibility.” Victimizing ourselves in the interpretation of memories is a great way to live into life lies.

OUR OPPORTUNITY: CORRECT THE MISREPRESENTATIONS

Be prepared to start thinking of your own past in new, creative ways. The past is there to help us if we want to use it. Energy infuses us and insight guides us when we harvest the life wisdom and motivational uplift available upon skillful reflection.

I know the story of a woman who put up with an abusive husband for a long time. She would put icepacks in the refrigerator early on Friday nights, the most common nights for the abuse, for her use later that evening. Applying ice quickly really does limit the swelling—can you imagine that as a self-care strategy? She had an interpretation for this process: “He could not stop himself,” she told herself, “but he loves me.” This was her longstanding mental representation of the abuse.

Eventually she left her abuser. When asked why, she had a clear explanation. “I have never had coffee in my life. I am a tea drinker. One day he asked me if I wanted some coffee like he was asking a normal coffee drinker. He had never known I drink tea. He did not know me, pay attention to me, or love me.” The coffee question, more than years of abuse, convinced her that her love explanation was not based on truth. She could then set herself free. Her mental representation, based on a sentimentalized interpretation, had kept her stuck and preparing icepacks for Friday nights.7 While this may be an extreme example, we all have equivalent adaptations, substituting some less-than-optimal set of explanations and their accompanying behaviors for the real thing. These can be called our blind spots, our misaligned thoughts and behaviors, our addictions, or our stuck points. We hear them all the time:

Image I have always been direct . . . too bad my people are so sensitive.

Image My calendar is always full. I just miss appointments because I have so much to do.

Image Deadlines are way too arbitrary. I do the work the way it is supposed to be done, and if I miss a few deadlines, the team can adapt.

When we address these falsehoods, we begin to make progress on the three shortfalls: we align with our true identity, we activate our potential, and we write and live our own script, not the ones we inherited.

A clarifying point: Don’t be fooled that you are tapping all the power of your yesterdays if you have some stories you like to tell. One common type of underuse of the past is getting stuck in our favorite stories and telling them repeatedly. We may be on our way to becoming the midlifer who has stories we find reasons to regularly tell, to anyone within earshot. When we do this, we may well be unhealthily reminiscing, refusing to live into our future and using predominantly our old anchors for meaning. A rich set of stories told or recalled at the right time is priceless. But beware of the underuse of the past that is disguised as story-born wisdom. The phrase that tips you off to this reminiscent stagnation is, “That reminds me of the time . . .”

Be prepared to rework some of these old stories for new lessons—that will be one of our approaches.

THE COLLECTIVE PRICE: THE EMPTINESS OF LESSER PURSUITS

Many have observed that humanity has a persistent tendency to fall short, sometimes ridiculously short, of its potential. Lots of images describe this shortfall. One of my teachers used to say that we are all dressed up with nowhere to go. Carl Jung said that we are wearing shoes that are too small. This observation provides the basic background for our discussion on our yesterdays. An enriched set of practices about our yesterdays can shift us toward fuller use of our gifts and energy, expanding those small shoes bound to give us psychological and career bunions, while generating the inner fulfillment that comes from good work and the right fit.

Many a thinker has created his list for why the human family stays well below the creativity and good of which we are capable. But the basic fact remains that we too often choose to listen to our lesser angels, deny the best parts of our nature, and take the low road of passivity, dependency, and cheap thrills.

When I confront a list of the endless addictions and escapes that we use in our pursuit of the trivial, I get depressed. So let’s avoid the list and admit the fact.

The collective price for this false quest is the lack of social imagination and effort to create a better society. We have lots of stuff but not a society investing in its social capital. The individual price is a life of varying degrees of draining anxiety. We have endless entertainment choices, and complain about not having enough time and about too little meaning in our day-to-day lives. Anxiety is our friend when we confront it with courage. It is our nemesis when we try to escape it through a trip to the mall or the refrigerator, one more Facebook plunge we don’t need, or reruns of Law and Order and NFL games from 2006. (OK, I had to include a little list after all.)

The pursuit of titillation is the easy pursuit, unworthy of us. It is on the outside. The pursuit of extensive self-knowledge is the difficult pursuit, worthy of our every effort, mistakes and all. It is on the inside. To know who we are by paying full attention to where we came from serves our worthiest pursuit—the expression of our best and deepest self.

Image SUMMARY

Without a set of informing stories from earlier in life and work, we have less of our future to create. We shortchange our path to our destiny and our contribution, allowing the culture into which we happen to be born to “wither the soft tissues of [our] soul,” as Pat Conroy puts it in The Prince of Tides.8 We have stored too little self-knowledge to counter the inertia and impact of the world.

The hurdles created by this amnesia-induced, wrong relationship with our yesterdays are big ones, because they are so accepted. We miss the gems and lessons that ignite our imagination, help define us, and provide us with our best energy for a lasting contribution. With demonizing and numbing and the other poor approaches, we stay confined by earlier events and draw conclusions that cloud our thinking, thwart our options, and limit our horizons for putting our gifts to use.

Let’s look at how to capture the truth of your past in the next section. Let’s put the power of your yesterdays to work for your highest efforts.

Image Core takeaway idea: Your yesterdays are filled with lessons and energy waiting to be tapped.

Image STATEMENTS OF INTENT TO ENGAGE THE WILL AND FIRE THE IMAGINATION

My best life and work efforts are the positive extensions of understanding and absorbing my unique history.

The lessons of my past are uniquely mine to own and express in my life’s work.

I spring beyond the limits of my upbringing and my culture to live the deepest possibilities of my life.

Image EXERCISES
Reflect on Your Favorite Mistakes

We all tend to repeat some mistakes about our yesterdays more than others. If you haven’t already done so, make an educated guess about what your patterns are. But let’s first take the positives:

Image How do you use your past well? What are some examples?

Image Which of the six errors of underuse and misuse do you tend to make the most—avoid/numb out, ignore, erase, pathologize, romanticize/sentimentalize, or demonize/victimize? What makes you think that?

Reconsider One of Your Old Stories

The past may be irrevocable, a feature that gives it much power, But it is, curiously enough, not final. It is no more frozen than you are. As you revisit it again and again, you can find new lessons, draw new conclusions, be more blunt about the forces at play, or be more compassionate than you have ever been.

Think of one of your favorite stories from the past—with a teacher, a friend, a coach, a boss, or a project. Use the stories and examples provided thus far—Tommy Emmanuel and Chet Atkins, “I feel like a puddle”—as examples to get you going if needed.

Play your story over in your mind yet again, but slowly this time. Go past the headlines you often normally use, when you tell a short version of this story. Here are a few ways to help keep you from getting stuck in an old story and instead revivify it, and you in the process, by remembering it anew:

Tell a longer version to your spouse or a friend who has heard the story. Stop early on, as the story begins. What new facts can you bring in about you or about the context of the story?

What new feelings?

What about the back story can be elaborated on? What about the forces at play and the moving parts and people?

What new conclusions can you speculate on?

Record in a journal what new lessons and insights came your way, or what old ones sank a little deeper into your heart and mind.

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

—WILLIAM FAULKNER, REQUIEM FOR A NUN

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Endorsements

"With gentle wisdom and real-world common sense, John Schuster offers a refreshing way to uncover purpose in the only place is truly exists: inside your mind, heart...and past. It should take its rightful place on every seeker's must-read list!"

--Richard Leider, bestselling coauthor of Repacking your Bags and author of The Power of Purpose

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