Saturday, September 21, 2013

When To Remember & When To Forget

Photo by myrr ahn via Flickr

The other day I saw a video online that caught my attention. It showed an eagle flying over the land, as if from the perspective of the eagle. The motion was so real I felt a little seasick.

And a little disturbed. I have had this dream. And I did not want to see it while awake.

Dream-state to waking-state is really a transition from one “total reality” to another. The word “total” means that you’re fully immersed in a situation, physically, psychologically, socially, economically and so on.

For many people, a kind of amnesia kicks in during such a transition:

· From Child to Partner: You bring your fiancĂ©e or significant other home to your parents and have to give them the “I’m not a kid anymore” speech when they act like, yep, you’re their kid.

· From Parent to Chauffeur: You take your kid to the mall to meet friends and they give you the “don’t embarrass me by acting like you know me” look as soon as their friends arrive.

· From Vacation to Real Life: You go on vacation and can’t even believe you have another life somewhere else; conversely, when you get back home it’s like the vacation never even happened, or happened to somebody else.

· From Weekend to Workweek: You get to work on Monday, people ask about your weekend, and you actually have trouble remembering that you had a weekend.

· From Colleague To Stranger: You attend a farewell party for a colleague, and within a couple of days it’s as if they never worked there.

(I also believe that we go through amnesia when we pass from one world to the other – either coming in or leaving).

Other times we try to induce forgetting. We call this “starting again,” for example, choosing a college far away, or leaving town after a painful event in one’s life.

A few weeks ago this happened to me when I changed jobs. I think it’s natural: Rather than try to cobble together the past and the present, which can actually harm your ability to survive (you need to adapt to the new reality quickly), you “forget” so as to fit in right away and succeed.

But then I realized that I should never forget the past. Only stop talking about it:

· Talking about the past = bad: Your current colleagues weren’t there, can’t relate and won’t get the point. They will also get the impression that you’re insulting them.

· Remembering the past = good: Life experience helps you avoid repeating old mistakes. Number one: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Number two: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

In fact, holding on to your memories – in particular, knowing what’s worked and what hasn’t in a particular workplace – is a critical source of competitive advantage. Because nobody can get inside your head to find out what you’ve seen, learned and are using to your advantage.

Wake up and observe instead of zoning out.

In particular:

· Similar challenges from one place to the next: The particulars of a place may be different, but the issues are always the same – strategic thinking and alignment, identifying and prioritizing stakeholder groups, executive communication, metrics, technology, project management, budgeting, bureaucracy, morale, and so on.

· Similar successes: What actions have worked in previous places? How did they actually implement a new and better process for getting work done? How did senior executives decide to finally implement an employee feedback tool? What technology tools made it possible to go from idea to practice?

· Similar rewards for you: What roles have you gravitated toward that has resulted in positive recognition? What have people said about you, that maybe you didn’t realize about yourself? What skills do you take for granted that others find hard to carry out? What has gotten you into trouble in the past, but you were stubborn about it and it ultimately worked to your advantage?

Note that I’m not advocating mindlessly repeating your own bad patterns or roles in the group. Doing so (also known as “acting out” is destructive) even if it wins you a temporary reward. Rather, you want to find the gold in your own personality – where you’ve made the workplace shine brighter – and the ways that former cultures have burnished what shines brightly in you.

Secondarily you can draw on all the other good sources of information: What you learned, what you read, what others told you, feedback from your loved ones and colleagues.

Don’t let yourself get cultural amnesia – keep all those lessons you’ve accumulated in your head. The ones you’ll never find in any blog.

* All opinions my own.