971 words : 5-minute read

The UK Government is currently consulting on “A New Approach To Building.” Part of its “compelling case” for doing so is Construction’s lack of innovation compared to other sectors.

In private I’ve heard some say Construction is stuck in its past. It’s a macho industry that faces uniquely tough challenges such as high levels of complexity and adverse weather conditions. This has meant its rate of progress hasn’t advanced much since Stonehenge was built: so the argument goes.

Harsh.

And yet it’s true to say we’re all prone to getting caught up in the past. This is especially the case when previous events have given rise to strong emotions that taint our view of the present.

In the open and supportive conversations I have when coaching, I feel privileged to hear what some of these are. The three examples below crop up frequently. If innovation is about finding a superior solution to one that’s been available until now, to my mind they reflect a mindset that understandably inhibits it:

  • Inferiority – E.g. “We’ve always been a small fish in a big pond, that’s why we get bullied in commercial negotiations. Price is all that matters, nothing else. I can’t see that changing.”
  • Incredulity – E.g. “Whenever I’ve taken a risk by introducing a new idea, it’s either been shot down or exploited by others who claim it was theirs. I keep ideas to myself now.”
  • Outrage – E.g. “I think late payers are despicable, they put others’ livelihoods in jeopardy and think they’re being clever. Why would we want to invest in new ways of working with people like this? That’s how they are, living proof that the love of money is the root of all evil. You can’t alter them.”

Past events can play a starring role in our lives. They dictate our approach to new situations and can even define who we think we are.

It’s as though they add up to an objective truth that grips us tightly. They dictate how we automatically behave when finding innovative ways forward such as when negotiating, exploring new ideas and resolving cash flow issues in the examples above.

We can get easily caught up in this inhibiting mindset:

That’s the way it was, therefore, this is who I am, and this is how I will be.

At times, it’s like there’s no way round this right? We’ve all been there. The past can seem like our inevitable, situation normal.

But is this the case?

What if we experimented with the idea that in this moment – right here, right now – however unpleasant past events may have been, they only have the power to grind us down by virtue of the meaning we attach to them?

Before delving into this a bit further, let me illustrate by using a personal example that caused a strong visceral reaction in me.

My father died on November 25th, 1999. He was 66 years young.

Sometimes I feel deeply sad about his passing. Sometimes I feel he’s still around looking out for me.

Sometimes I wish we’d had more time to laugh about life together. Sometimes I recall the arguments we had.

Sometimes I wish he’d been around to get to know my daughters more. Sometimes I feel angry that his addiction to nicotine caused the heart condition that ended his life.

Sometimes I think about his passion for rugby union and his role as a referee of that game. Sometimes I think he lived out that role when being a father and wanted to “sin bin” me way too often.

Sometimes I laugh at the fact he was a stickler for punctuality yet passed away at 11:26AM on the 25th of the 11th month; 1 minute after perfect symmetry in the numbers.

I could go on..

What’s the truth in all this?

He died.

The meaning I attach to that in this moment can vary from profound sadness to great humour. It can feel light or weigh heavy, be better or worse, good or bad etc.

It can be anything. And it isn’t fixed, it will change.

Philosophy and neuroscience points to the fact that even though the past can seem all consuming at times, you cannot ‘be’ your past, it isn’t possible. You can only experience the past through your thoughts and beliefs in the present moment.

Note it’s NOT saying rewrite, relive, deny, forget or only think positive thoughts about the past. Nor does it suggest we can’t learn valuable lessons from past events. Simply that however we’re experiencing the past it’s happening in the present.

If you’re like me, this idea can take a bit of getting used to. But it’s worth dwelling on. Here’s why.

Think about it. The past cannot dictate who you are, what you do or grind you down. It has no power to do that. Only you have that power, through your in-built capacity to interpret past events in whichever way makes sense to you in the present moment.

The more we realise this, the easier it becomes to be sad but not overwhelmed. We can look back and laugh without being disrespectful. We get to distinguish between interpretations of the past that enable us and those that inhibit. We put any regrets into a new light.

There is only now: the past is over and the future hasn’t happened yet.

This maxim helps us free up mindsets that inhibit. We can look at even intractable problems through new lenses. Valuable lessons about emotions like inferiority, incredulity and outrage may guide us, but needn’t dictate us or cloud our judgement. Simultaneously we can ask what matters most now, in this situation with these particular people facing these circumstances.

Minds that aren’t caught up reliving the past break through problems more easily. They deliver the innovation which, apparently, is in short supply.

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