Every now and then it’s a good idea to turn around, look over your shoulder, and see how far you have come. We spend most of our time looking ahead, planning the next step, running toward the horizon, treating it as a spot that can be made to come closer. The horizon, being smarter, advances at the pace we run.
Looking back shows us how far we have traveled from the starting point, or at least from the turn in the road that marks the last big decision.
Here is what I discovered when I looked back today: it’s been a long, hard trip and worth it.
In a recent class was a difficult participant. I’m going to call her Mary. Mary was tough and mean–under the guise of logic and seriousness, she torpedoed my jokes. If she didn’t understand something, she said it wasn’t true until I could prove it. Within an hour of class starting I hated her. Oddly enough, not because of her tactics. But because I understood her. I had been just like her.
What I hated about her was that she reminded me of myself, years ago, when I was managing a department in a big corporation. I would go to meetings ready to disagree. Classes I attended became my personal challenge to make the instructor prove everything to me. I did this for the same reason Mary did: I had been beaten down by my work, and I was looking to build my self-esteem at the expense of someone I could make wrong.
It was a bad idea, poorly executed. It was also all I knew how to do. I wanted permission to be creative and bright. I wanted to be recognized as having a good idea occasionally. That was not possible at the place where I was working. Over time, I came to realize that I was not suited to work in that corporation, and, afraid to leave a job that paid well and gave me excellent benefits, I got myself let go.
Over the next several years, I struck off in a new direction, stumbled, fell, bled, pulled myself up, kept going. Along the way, I learned to admit when I was wrong, used my creativity, learned by failure, and, best of all, did what the poet Rumi suggested, “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” Along with it came humility and empathy, two characteristics that are often dangerous in a corporation.
Of all the characteristics I had stuffed down and now released, empathy was the most freeing. It gave me the gift of understanding other difficult people, and wondering what was underneath all that.
Mary, I’m sorry you were mistreated at your last job, and maybe at a long line of jobs before that. You scared me a bit at first, because I saw so much of what used to be me in you. But you don’t have to hug that anger, that fear, that longing to be who you want to be. You have a chance to choose a new path, a new career, something you are good at and love. You can uncover the Mary you want to be, because you are the only one who can.
I hope I treated you well, with appreciation. I hope you recognized the things we had in common. It was hard for me to recognize what we shared. But I also recognized the possibilities ahead, at the turn in the road, as you head for the horizon.
–Quinn McDonald is a life and creativity coach who helps people through change. Even difficult change.