The Past as Prologue: How Experience Shapes You

  • 5 mins read

“Many leaders point to their childhoods as the source of important ideas and values, and the time when they began to develop emotional energy and edge.”
– Noel M. Tichy, The Leadership Engine

Life is full of daily lessons. We interpret experiences; tag them as good, bad or neutral; file them into memory (or not); and create stories about ourselves.
Our stories are, in fact, quite loosely “based on a true story,” as the tagline boasts in movies and books. It’s not about what actually happened, but how we remember and form the story that joins our library of experiences. As Gail Sheehy notes in New Passages:
“The mind is formed to an astonishing degree by the act of inventing and censoring ourselves. We create our own plot line. And that plot line soon turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Psychologists have found that the way we tell our stories becomes habitual. Our perceptions of ourselves and others dictate how our stories define, defend and justify our actions and identity.
If you want to improve your self-awareness, start by examining your life stories. Deep psychoanalysis is not required! You can begin with some writing exercises or work with a trusted friend, mentor or coach.

The Past Is a Map to the Future

Each of us has values and assumptions about the way the world operates. We believe people are generous or selfish, friendly or competitive, in control of their destiny or victims of circumstance.
These views are formed in early childhood as responses to past experiences. We seldom recognize the origins of these beliefs and rarely take time to examine them.
Successful people continually explore their assumptions and beliefs. They trace their prejudices back to childhood sources. They’re willing to learn from their experiences and shift their worldviews. They know that what they remember isn’t always the truth, but the story they formed at the time.
People who want to succeed in life are willing to consciously examine and question their stories. They use their past as a prologue to their future selves. They re-frame their stories to learn from the past.

The Formative Years

If you want to harvest your life stories for the experiences and lessons that shape you today, you need to examine your childhood: the formative period, when everything was new and carried a powerful impact.
As children, our brains are only partially developed, but our early interpretations of events and people form beliefs that we carry into adulthood. We start to create a self-identity, but it’s also a time when we heavily rely on authority figures’ interpretations of events.
As an adult, you have an opportunity to explore your childhood by reexamining the lessons you learned and the stories you tell.

Writing Exercise

While reviewing the past may seem like an overwhelming task, it’s easier when you break it down into childhood memories that had the greatest impact:

  • Home life
  • School
  • Play (sports and hobbies)
  • Events (illnesses, accidents, awards, divorce)
  • People (parents, siblings, friends, other family members)
  • Break each of the above areas into three sections:

Facts: Write down simple descriptions of places, events and the significant people in your life.
Memories: For each fact, write down how you felt and what was important to you.
Stories: What story did you construct at the time? What did you tell yourself? Looking back, what lessons did you learn? How did these experiences shape who you are today?
Review your most powerful stories, both positive and negative. How can you retrospectively reframe a story so it becomes useful and character-enhancing?

How Personality Is Formed

One psychologist has defined personality as the “strategy people develop for getting out of childhood alive.” Rarely is our childhood a matter of life and death, but for many of us it certainly felt that way at the time.
Leaving our protective home environment for school can be frightening. There are certainly magical childhood moments, but we forget what emotional savages children can be. Children do and say cruel things to each other. As distressing as that can be, most of us manage to bury those memories – or, at least, we think we do.
School is the place where we learn to share, fit in and avoid ridicule. We begin to form opinions about our identities, intelligence and social abilities. When we enter the workplace, our stories are rekindled.

Your Childhood Revisited

We revisit our early school years as soon as we walk into the workplace. We become “the new kid.” We subconsciously play old tapes in our mind.
With each job we accept, position we hold and responsibility we fulfill, we operate from a template formed by past experiences. How you respond today is heavily influenced by prior experiences – particularly your first school days and initial workplace events.
Self-development requires examination, awareness and the ability to reframe our stories as a solid foundation for character and values.

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