Driven by the past or pulled by the future?

By Fatmanur Erdogan, Hurriyet Daily News

In October 2009, I met a Turkish businessman who had grown his family’s business from virtually nothing into the largest in the industry. I loved this man’s ambition, his interest in the arts, and his visionary outlook in life.

When he told me his story, I was impressed by how easy it was for him to talk about the failures he had endured along the way. I was amazed when he told me that he owes most of his success to luck. In fact, he would say, 60 percent of life is about luck. 

In a business world where people like to attribute 100 percent of their success to their own efforts, it was refreshing to hear someone talk so humbly about his own path. 

He didn’t preach stridently, like so many do, about how through sheer force of will he overcame obstacles and built a business when no one else believed in him. He had worked hard and made his dreams come true in a fantastically successful way, and yet he was a humble, down-to-earth man who hadn’t forgotten where he’d come from.

He was in touch with his past and talked freely about it, but he was clearly driven by a vision for the future. It got me to thinking – how about the rest of us?

Are we driven by the past, or pulled by the future? And if it’s a bit of both, like it was for this man, which one is stronger? We all want to live a happy life of personal fulfillment and meaning. And for most people, that means some degree of professional and financial success. Our version of success might not require being a fabulously wealthy titan of industry. Maybe we just want to do better than our parents, or better than our neighbors, or better than we are doing right now. But whatever our version of success, it requires pulling resources from east and west, north and south, using all the tools at our disposal to reach it. To know where we want that hard work to take us, we need to use a bit of the past, to look back on it long enough to understand what we want and don’t want. But in order to make our vision for the future come true, our primary orientation must be towards the future. We need to be more pulled by the future than driven by the past.

No matter how pulled by the future we are, though, we can’t totally get away from the past. We can’t form a picture of the future without looking back at our past in the process. And in the past, we all have some pain and regret. It’s just a natural part of life. No one escapes it entirely. However, how you look back on your past has a big effect on how well you can create your future. If you focus on the hardships and pain in your past, if you can’t divorce yourself from them and leave them behind, you are more likely to be held captive by your past. You will probably spend the rest of your life reliving it. The regret will act like a leash that ties you down and keeps you from moving forward.  

However, if you accept your past and simply use it to learn what you do and don’t want out of life, you’ll be free to look towards, and shape, your future. In other words, you’ll be free to be pulled by the future. And the future doesn’t have to lie far off in the distance. In fact, it can be as close as today.  

When I first met that Turkish businessman almost a year ago, I wondered what made him such a charismatic leader who could inspire thousands of employees and lead an entire industry. Now I realize it is a confident and relentless optimism for the future which allows him to embrace obstacles when others can only worry about them. It is his ability to believe in himself even when no one else does, and his ability to move forward no matter what. He is a man who looks back only to appreciate what he has created, and to give thanks for the past that made him the man he is today.

I think if you asked him, is he driven by the past or pulled by the future, he would answer that he is pulled by the future, but is perfectly happy to have the past come along for the ride, too.

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