Do you remember the opening line from Paul Simon’s Kodachrome (most of you are probably too young, so a link is here). “When I look back at all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Each of us has a season in life we’d rather forget. For many that may be high school. For others, it may be a word spoken out of place that came back to haunt. Much of our lives get past us before we know it. How we reflect on those experiences influences the quality of our lives, our leadership and our ability to make a difference. Let me explain.
No One’s Perfect
We all know humans aren’t perfect. But generally, we are the only human we fully excuse. We judge everyone by their actions but ourselves. We know our intentions, and because they are our intentions, they must be good. That thought first caught my mind while reading The Noticer by Andy Andrews, but I have seen it in several places since.
How you reflect on your life experiences matters. If you are a leader, it matters more. The best leaders lead from the depth of their experiences. True compassion which only grows through experience builds bonds with others. Leaders take responsibility for the future, but they gain insight to the future by owning, reflecting on and growing from the past.
Look Back to See Forward
In Leadership Challenge by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, the authors cite a research project performed by a USC professor to provide insight into the value of using reflection about the past. Two groups of CEO’s were asked to look into “their personal futures – ‘to think of things that might (or will) happen to you in the future.'” Then they were also asked to record events from their past. “In each case they were asked to list 10 events and date each event.” One group of CEO’s was asked to do the past events first then the future events. The other group was asked to do the future events before the past events. Each group looked back about the same amount of time, approximately 20 years. But the group of CEO’s that viewed their past first “had a significantly longer future time horizons than the CEOs who listed future events first.”*
Reflecting on your past allows you to objectively, constructively process it. The wisdom you develop is leverage to impact your relationships and your leadership in the present. You learn new insights and perspectives as you objectively reflect on past events. Take time to reflect on the past to gain leverage and insight into people, causes, effects, and results taking place in the present. Use your life as a classroom. If you’re new at reflecting, enlist an older mentor, someone whose leadership you appreciate. Chances are they’re good at reflecting and their experience will prove helpful.
Make It Stick
Even though Kodachrome is going away, you can photograph your past and archive the memories. What recent experiences have dropped off your radar because you’re too busy? Can you take a minute today and reflect on a recent problem or experience? Some times our most painful experiences provide the best lessons because we remember them longer and reflect on them more. Pick an experience from your past today and think for a few minutes. Then share your learning with someone else. In a few short minutes you will make a difference. You may even help someone avoid learning the same lesson the hard way.