As a business professional, your focus is always moving forward, calculating that next move in your business strategy, the next goal or benchmark to be achieved, the next great innovation.
Looking ahead is how I'm introduced to opportunities and possibilities. Looking ahead also helps me avoid pitfalls or being caught off guard.
Something you can't prepare for the unforeseen. That day arrived for me a decade ago in the form of a cancer diagnosis. All the looking ahead in the world didn't prepare me for that day. But that event forced me to take a look at my life's trajectory, and helped me to think differently going forward.
Looking back can be extremely effective. It's a lot like using your rear-view mirror when you're driving. It's necessary, but if you spend too much time looking back, you won't see what's in front of you. So how do you get the most out of your past to get the best out of your future?
There's nothing like facing a life-threatening illness to put your life into perspective. I realized I didn't like the person I was becoming and that I needed to change.
However, you don't need a brush with your own mortality to take a good, hard, honest look at yourself. Do you like what you see? Are you passionate about the work you're doing? If you don’t love it, quit. Don’t go through the motions half-ass. Steve Job said it best. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.”
Learn from your mistakes
While dwelling on the past isn't healthy, learning from it can be. You can't expect things to change or improve if you're stuck in the same patterns. Look back and see what you did in the past to land you in the position you're in now. Use that information to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly.
Reshape your past. When you look back to see what you did wrong, don't forget to also see what you did right. Look for your successes and what you did to achieve them. Build on your positive experiences in the past to create more positive experiences in the future.
"Before and after" photos are always popular because you can see just how much progress has been made. When we look ahead, we can get fixated on how far we have to go. Take a minute to look back so you can see how far you've come. It's probably a lot farther than you think.
Ask what if?
A few years ago, researchers from the Kellogg School of Management and the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered the power of counterfactual reflection, the act of asking, "What if X, Y, or Z didn't exist or didn't happen?" In an experiment where employees were asked to imagine what things would be like if the company they worked for had never come into existence, the results were an increased employee commitment to the company. Looking back into your company's origin from this standpoint is a great way to get inspired about the direction you're going in now.
When looking back, it's always important to not get stuck in the "coulda, woulda, shoulda" trap. Instead, glance in the rear-view mirror just long enough to ensure you're moving forward in the right direction.