The Tricky Balance Of Using The Past To Shape Your Future

It's not dwelling on the past—it's learning from it.

Business is all about moving forward, calculating that next strategy, achieving a new benchmark, and pushing innovation. Opportunities and possibilities all lie ahead. But if history repeats itself, why do so few of us spend time thinking about the past?

"People often base their next move off of gut instead of science and research," says Scott Petinga, CEO of Akquracy, a marketing firm that uses historical data to create future campaigns. "But a business database is a mine of behavioral data. When you understand what customers and businesses have done before, you can replicate success or avoid mistakes in the future."

For Petinga, the importance of looking back hit home 10 years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer. After surgery and radiation, his cancer went into remission, but he vowed to stop living for the future.

"You can’t prepare for the unexpected," he says. "I realized I had taken life for granted. While you have to make plans for the future, don’t forget to glance back every once in a while and measure your life. That’s how you create change and become change."

Petinga says operating a business is like driving a car: You get ahead by looking through the large windshield, but you can’t operate without the rearview mirror. "Looking back can be extremely effective, but it’s a balance," he says. He offers five tips for using the past to shape your future:

1. Don’t repeat the mistakes.

The greatest lessons of the past are often learned through mistakes, but it’s important to not get stuck in the "coulda, woulda, shoulda" trap. While dwelling in regret isn’t healthy, making changes going forward is.

"You can’t expect things to change or improve if you’re stuck in the same patterns," says Petinga. "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."

2. Duplicate the successes.

When you look back to see what you did wrong, don’t forget to acknowledge what you did right, says Petinga. "Look for your successes and what you did to achieve them," he says. "Build on the positive experiences of the past to create more positive experiences in the future."

3. Ask "What if?"

In 2010, researchers from the Kellogg School of Management and the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that asking employees to reflect on their company’s history can strengthen their workforce.

Through the power of counterfactual reflection, the study found that imagining a company didn’t exist generated increased an employee’s commitment. Petinga says using this tactic for your own company—whether you practice the idea yourself or ask your employees to participate—can increase loyalty and inspire future directions.

4. Find inspiration.

People love "before and after" photos because they make it easy to see progress, but when you’re constantly look ahead, you can become fixated on how far you have to go, says Petinga. Instead, take a minute to look back to measure milestones and see how far you’ve come. "It’s probably a lot farther than you think," he says.

5. Gain perspective

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"There’s nothing like facing a life-threatening illness to put your life into perspective," says Petinga. "I realized I didn't like the person I was becoming and that I needed to change."

But you don’t need a brush with your own mortality to take an honest look at your life. If you don’t love what you’re doing, quit, says Petinga. "Don’t go through the motions half-ass," he says. "Steve Jobs 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.’"

[Image: Flickr user IrfaanPhotography]

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