The Road That Built You

7. Fragility I

Retrospection is well-established as a critical business tool. Whether we’re comparing this year’s sales results to last year’s, providing employee feedback, or analyzing a project’s success, we all agree on the value of looking backward in time, to see what it can teach us.

However, when it comes to the personal, we often discourage each other from too much looking back. We have a library of cliches and platitudes. “Don’t dwell in the past.” “Water under the bridge.” “What’s done is done.” We dismiss any journeys into our history as sentimental nostalgia, or relegate them to the therapist’s couch.

Our personal past is trivial, except where it is so consequential that it requires professional help.

When we are doing business—building our working relationships, organizing our teams, making the various experience-based judgment calls we all make every day—our personal histories are expected to take no part.

But is that realistic?

There is only one of you

The reality is: the person who woke up this morning is the person who showed up at work is the person who came back home at the end of the day. Your identity, knowledge, emotions and memory are the same. Your bad habits and anxieties and motivations and passions are the same.

And many of them come from the past. But we don’t admit it.

  • You resist processes that feel repetitive and gratuitous because it reminds of you of your mother’s rules about bed-making. But you tell yourself and everyone that they are inefficient and a bad use of time.
  • You are uncomfortable networking in a room where you don’t know anyone. You’ve felt this way since you transferred schools mid-college. But you tell yourself and everyone that it’s because you were unprepared.
  • You’re bothered that you weren’t invited to an industry event. It feels like not getting asked to a school dance. But you tell yourself and everyone that you should have gone because it would have helped your development goals.

The question isn’t will your personal past influence your business decisions. The question is will you recognize it when it inevitably does.

When we act on business reasons, the past has full legitimacy. Past mistakes, lessons, successes and surprises are welcome to belly up to the conference table and share their lessons, out in the open.

But the personal reasons behind the things we do in business are the ones that stay hidden. Sometimes even from ourselves.

The past is talking, if you’re listening

Our private history is private, right? Those stirred up feelings are just emotional echoes, with no business bearing.

But that’s about as reasonable as expecting us to become a different person every day between the moment we leave home and the moment we arrive at the office. And also? It doesn’t make good business sense.

Your personal history is no different from your business background in its ability to give you retrospective insight. Because those reminders and parallels aren’t mere triggers.

  • When that new policy reminds you of the repetitiveness of bed-making, consider that there is also value in routine daily rituals—how does that insight inform the business process?
  • Would you be less uncomfortable networking a room full of strangers if you thought of yourself like a new transfer student with every reason not to know anybody?
  • When it’s your turn to hand out awards or event invitations, what can you do to make everyone feel included?

Getting heavy

It would be nice if it were all about childhood chores and schoolyard politics. But one reasons to set our personal backgrounds aside is that the personal can be quite dark.

No doubt, there are people walking among us who are fortunate souls, who’ve had idyllic childhoods and lived simple lives. I don’t think I’ve ever met one. Just about everyone I know has survived some nasty things, and some of them have survived the unimaginable.

Serious traumas are not as easily parsed as amusing anecdotes, and we are particularly inclined to try to keep them at arm’s length while we are at work. We don’t want to burst into tears in meetings, or feel unjustifiable rage over normal business decisions.

These emotional reminders can lead us to feel weak, like we should have better control. We should not let these demons haunt us. We should put the past in the past.

But the darkest parts of our history are sometimes our strongest teachers. They build our resilience, our sense—or lack—of trust, our judgment of character. While these pieces of our history are rarely the stuff for casual conversation, they are often the strongest steel that has shaped us.

The secrets we all keep

There is another benefit to allowing your personal lessons a place in your business mindset: Mercy. Because when you recognize that you are carrying some troubling memories behind, you have to recognize that you’re not alone.

Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. – Ian Maclaren

Imagine this. If you are in a large meeting or attending a conference, with one hundred people in the room, chances are:

  • Ten of them were victims of sexual assault before age 18. Two were under eight years old.
  • Over sixteen of them, including a few men, have survived attempted or actual rape.
  • At least five of them were violently attacked by a parent or guardian in childhood.

Not to mention how many have survived serious illness, bullying and harassment, substance abuse or mental illness in themselves or a close family member… the list of potential ordeals is endless. And in many cases, these are stories told to few people, if they are ever told at all.

You do not know in what ways your colleagues have suffered. But you know that, in some way, nearly all of them have.

Residue, not residence

Business necessitates some degree of pragmatism. Beyond reasonable kindness, we usually can’t be so careful of people’s feelings that they outweigh rational judgments based on strategies, finances, laws, and the other practical reasons behind our actions.

And when we say, “Don’t dwell in the past” we have a point. Dwelling means living, and the past is no place to live.

But our past—the things we talk about and the things we don’t—as well as the pasts of the people we work with—what we know about and what they’ll never tell—are a very real part of how we all got to where we are. And these stories contain great insight, if we allow ourselves and each other to look.

There are harsh memories in your personal journey. And you should not live there. But they are worth an occasional visit.

Featured image: Summer Mei Ming Lee, Fragility, 2015. 40 x 30 inches. Cyanotype of my son on gauze mounted on canvas.

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