Dec 7, 2020

Why You Need Your Past for the Future

Why You Need Your Past for the Future

Why You Need Your Past for the Future

Nathan King

To create a vision of your future, you must mine the past. You can't make a loaf of bread without yeast in the same way that you can't plan for the future without the past.

Why are some people’s visions vivid, influential, and so compelling that they shape the world while other people scarcely have a vision for what they are going to do this afternoon?

People like the late Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have earned renown as luminous visionaries in our society. I want to craft a future world - for myself, for my family, and for others - with amazing new possibilities, just as compelling, actionable and clear as they did.

Vision isn’t the only ingredient. There is discipline, intelligence, the ability to communicate, even luck. But vision is the start. Where does vision come from?

The answer is counterintuitive. To craft a vision of the future, we must access our personal past, our unique desires that have shown up, previous educational experiences, books we were drawn to, projects we've been a part of, the experiences of our family of origin.

Margaret Heffernan points out [1] the neuroscience research demonstrating how we all access our pasts just to go about our day, arguing that “the way we think about the future is we're retrieving memories and reconfiguring them.” She goes on,

"Our brains aren't like computers. We're not retrieving a file. We're kind of re-enacting memories and reassembling them in the present to see the future. The easiest way to describe this is, I'm going from my house in the south of London to my sister's house in the north of London. I have a path I always take. But I remember that last time there were roadworks somewhere [along the route]. And as I'm driving, I also see a sign saying there's roadworks somewhere else. So I reconfigure my pieces of the route to construct the future route, which I will now take in the present. So we live across all three time zones; we’re taking the ingredients from the past. We're rearranging them [in the present] to create a scenario of the future that gets us to our destination on time."

(Emphasis added)

To drive home the point, people with amnesia are physiologically incapable of having a vision of the future. Amnesiacs are people who have lost the ability to recall the past. The consequence of this condition is that they can't consider a future at all, but are stuck in a dismal present.

Thankfully, almost none of us have that condition. But most of us don't want to spend time in our pasts. They contain a mixed bag of positive and negative experiences - it's scary back there.

We are shadow amnesiacs, living in our own dismal present.

Negative experiences in our background shape how we see the future and also shut us off from it. This is most obvious among people who have experienced significant traumas. Victims of events like a catastrophic car crash have had their brains analyzed with an fMRI while being asked to mentally recall the traumatic experience [2]. The parts of the brain that become active indicate that the recall of the experience is indistinguishable from the present. In short, intentionally recalling a traumatic past experience overwhelms the present.

A natural response is to shut off from thinking about such pasts. Trauma victims "dissociate" from the past, becoming numb, feeling nothing even when in normally pleasurable situation like their child's birthday party. They take on a voluntary amnesia, binding them to the present without the ability to functionally utilize their past.

The majority of us haven't experienced traumas that result from tragedies like a catastrophic car crash, or great evils like sexual abuse or child abuse. But all of us have experienced negative events, and our brains interpret them and treat them as traumas as well.

Whether you've experienced “big T” Traumas or “little t” traumas, the likelihood is that there are parts of your past that you choose not to revisit, which reduces your ability to craft rich and actionable visions for your future.

Shawn Askinosie, entrepreneur and owner of boutique chocolatier Askinosie Chocolate, details his journey from a vision-less, unsatisfied trial lawyer to running a meaningful business in his book Meaningful Work [3]. In his search for creating a vision for his own life, he discovered that an essential step was to start with his sorrows by reflecting on the painful events of his life. Another important step was to reflect on his positive experiences. From that reflection a picture began to emerge of the vision for what he wanted to create with his life.

Much anxiety that we experience from situations today flows from experiences in the past. We don't want to go there. As you read that last paragraph, you probably saw “start with his sorrows” and felt a tightness in your chest about the prospect of revisiting that part of your life.

Somehow, the pain from our pasts - disappointments, embarrassments, losses, and traumas - hold for us a treasure of joy if we are to figure out how they stay with us. They are fuel for a brighter future.

In metaphorical terms, we just need a mental pick axe and a headlamp. Maybe some dynamite too. In other words, with manual effort, we can create a compelling vision for our future.

I can't say how individual past experiences influenced Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or any of the other visionaries who shaped our world. But I am confident that they utilized their pasts in ways that most people don’t to bring forth a new reality.

The richest life is the mining-the-past life. It seems simple, but it is hard. We have to dig through bedrock, go deep into dark caverns, far from the light, in a cold and lonely tunnel where our past lies.

Most people don't even pick up the pick axe. Many who begin the effort give up after they enter the dark tunnel. But for those who persist, vast riches await in a future that is impossible to imagine without a committed mining of the past.


[1] This insight and the quote that follows, along with the reference to amnesia, comes from an interview with Margaret Heffernan on the Econtalk podcast hosted by Russ Roberts, from September 7, 2020. She is describing the work of Eleanor Maguire, a neuroscientist at the University of London.

[2] This example, along with the following description of trauma, comes from the book, The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk. The reference to the past consuming the present as illustrated in an fMRI comes from page 68.

[3] Askinosie discusses this process on page 22 of Meaningful Work.




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