Telling Your Past Can Tell Your Future

A lot of us are finding ourselves in the Innermost Cave these days, as philosopher Joseph Campbell would say. Deep in the cave. Millennium-Falcon-tractor-beam-to-Death-Star kind of times. The place of not knowing.

I hear it in every meeting: “These are unprecedented times.” But while unprecedented can help us nod in agreement about the multi-pronged enormity of the challenge we current face, there’s a problem with constantly leaning into this idea of never-before-happened. It can freeze us in our tracks with overwhelm. How do we navigate something that no one has ever seen?

And this is what I have to say to you. You have been here before, or at least some version of here. Your life is made up of never-before-happened moments, edge-walking moments that, once translated into lessons and insights, make you who you are and tell you where to go. From a brain science perspective, we can thank the hippocampus for this connection, which organizes memories like files in our brain and also re-organizes these memories in order to predict the future. But when the hippocampus is damaged or even constricted by fear, our ability to imagine tomorrow is also damaged.

So in order to navigate unprecedented we need to walk back into our key struggles and lessons in order to remind us of our tools, and to orient us to a workable future. To do so, let’s consider the precedented: what skills, insights and wisdom you can leverage from the great trials you’ve had up thus far, and how they might help you make your way into the future.

This week as I was bouncing between Zoom calls and helping my daughter with her math, feeling my own stress about where the hell we are and what kind of guidance I can offer my clients, I had a thought. I decided to map a shortlist of my own unknown moments and see what could be leveraged. Out of it, I created a form that you might find useful. It’s called the “Precedented Times Table,” a shortlist chart of deep struggles you’ve faced and what you picked up along the way.

Here’s my top list:

1. Arriving at midnight by crowded bus to the mayhem of Varanasi, India, with one name of a very popular guest house (Yogi Lodge) and being taken to the wrong side of town where my maps no longer worked and none of the restaurants on my list were there and ended up spending four days sleeping on the thinnest mattress I’ve ever seen, getting Giardia in 120 degree heat. (It turns out I was brought to Yogi Lodge 2, the copy.)

2. Being on the front lines of a friend’s paranoid depression and losing my own grip daily.

3. Swimming in the 50-degree cold water off San Francisco in winter and suddenly feeling a deep crack in my chest and heat rushing down to my belly and thinking I had a heart attack 100 yards from shore.

4. Starting a business in the beginning of the recession with a young family and a very short cash runway that led us to what my wife and I now call “The Empty Fridge Times.”

It makes my heart race just to think about them. These are the moments we want to forget about. But here’s what I want to tell you: In all of my years of developing speakers and storytellers, I’ve found it’s these moments that make you who you are. It’s these moments that, when you go back to them and see what changed for you, what you learned and how you got out, take you from an “unprecedented” event into something more “precedented.” And when you get there, you begin to have a reservoir from which to draw through these times.

So here’s my challenge: Take a few minutes in between your unprecedented day and make a Precedented Times Table. Make a list from one to five in the left column. At the top left write: Experience. When were you scared to death? When did you fail terribly? When did you get very hurt? And how did you get through? Was it a friend’s advice, a new skill you developed, something you read, or maybe just a matter of time? How did you get off the Death Star? You might find these are professional or personal or both.

Next write: What got me through.

Here’s mine:

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See if you find any overlaps between the experiences, if you pick up some reminders of what you have learned, and what you need for these times. Maybe you’ll pick up a story you can retell that reveals the power of deep times.

And maybe it will give you of a glimmer of that future that seemed to recently fade out of view.

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