Dancing With Ghosts

Of Meanderings Down Memory Lane

I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there-Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

They say the past is history. But, what if we live in it incessantly? It may not be too much of a problem if we search for happy moments in the past to bring our minds back to a peaceful place. However, if we choose to focus on mistakes, unwarranted comparisons with others and everything that we should have done differently, it may turn out to be our undoing.

Businesses that focus on their zenith all the time become obsolete. Kodak stuck with an outdated strategy while digital cameras took over the world. Most recently, Microsoft pivoted from being an operating system (Windows) focused company to a cloud focused company. The person responsible for the turnaround Satya Nadella became its CEO.

In many cases, tradition and heritage convey reputation and inspire trust. Companies such as Unilever which have a rich heritage can leverage their past to signal reliability. Modern brands such as Apple promise a much better user experience backed up by consistent past performance.

Today, the past is measured in milliseconds. Algorithms trade in high frequency cycles based on minuscule price fluctuations. As Einstein would say, the past is therefore relative just like anything else.

This article delves deeper into the advantages and pitfalls of living in the past for both businesses and individuals. As they say, history repeats itself. But, if we chose to live in the past, we may successfully create stasis. The wiser option is to keep dancing and repeat the same steps as the music demands.

The Grown Up Child

Sigmund Freud viewed adults as a product of their childhood. A lot of decisions that mature adults took were an outcome of past upbringing. To Freud, humans were like onions. Their dreams a product of unconscious layers of the brain hidden from the world by the pre conscious and conscious mind. Their present behavior rooted in the past.

In fact, “Freud compared the psychoanalyst to an archaeologist, excavating the ancient temples of the mind in search of long-forgotten buried treasure.”

By unearthing the hidden past, often secreted intact beneath the rubble of the mind, Freud came to learn that the patient will experience relief and freedom from the ravages of infancy and childhood which remain both forgotten and yet still remembered at the same time, a paradox that the American psychoanalyst Alvin Frank has called “The Unrememberable and the Unforgettable.” (Excerpts from Freud: Great Thinkers on Modern Life)

Freud’s own journey is quite remarkable. After spending a great deal of time translating classical Roman and Greek literature (including Sophocles Oedipus Rex) into German, Freud collected an impressive array of antiques from all over the world. Quite remarkably, his own life was a mirror to his writing.

Our lives frequently follow a similar pattern. Our childhood never really gets unstuck. Many management experts stress the importance of unconditioning our mind. But, very few warn of the impracticality of the endeavor. As Baz Luhrman says: “Advice is a great way of wishing the past away”. Except that the past never fades completely.

Business Cycles

I read an interesting Stanford Graduate School of Business study that linked CEOs past to the performance of the companies they are leading. For instance, a CEO with a law degree can take a different route to growth instead of a CEO who was a hedge fund manager in the past. Similarly, a CFO who becomes a CEO could look at a world differently from a CTO who becomes a CEO. In a sense, Freudian psychoanalysis could be used to predict some of the decisions a CEO makes.

People often say data is the new oil. That’s because it is. The visual capitalist notes the change from 2001 and 2016. A period of time that saw Silicon Valley whiz kids overtaking oil barons. The past is informative in that it points out the importance of cycles and of studying macro trends that become mega trends in the future. An investor that does not diversify doesn’t understand the signals that stock market indices throw out.

The past, in a sense, is not useful in predicting the Titans of the future. However, it is very useful in pointing out the importance of business cycles.

More importantly, in my humble opinion, the past is the best testament to common sense. Whatever the business or industry, the importance of serving the client and keeping employees happy, basics of cash flow management and revenue and cost drivers don’t change. Only the context in which they are applied.

In that sense, applying common sense is the best way to create an unbiased mind.

The Unfinished Dance

My experiments with the past taught me:

1. Painful memories are best buried and comparison is futile unless they are with your former self

2. Things can come full circle and managing up may be a dangerous way to make a career.

3. Life operates in cycles. Remaining steadfast in a downturn is key.

4. Creating backup plans in times of abundance is indispensable. Be cautious during times of exuberance to be happy when the tide turns the other way.

5. No time is too early to learn personal finances and to start saving.

6. Most people learn from experience. Even though wisdom comes from learning from other people’s mistakes, it is seldom practical to acquire wisdom that way.

7. Living in the present is the best thing to do. It may not be easy to do so. Meditation helps.

8. Civilizations, markets and the world moves in cycles. Opposing forces such as tradition and modernism collide. The future can be predicted based on which force is dominant in the present.

My dalliances with the past have become a burden on my present. I am ashamed to admit it but I frequently wander, within the labyrinths of my mind, to the dark alleys of my past hoping to undo my mistakes. In doing so, my wandering itself becomes a mistake.

I am also aware that many people, separated from their loved ones, wander into the past thinking: “what if I had spent more time with my grandparents?” Perhaps, that is the essence of time. It is finite so that it can remind us to seize the day every day.

I don’t know if the powers that be roll a pair of dice and decide the future or if everything is preplanned with a set purpose. One can look back at the past and reframe the bad events of the past as necessary learnings or stepping stones to the present.

But, I do know that the past, in so far as it drains the present of happiness, is best forgotten. Lest, your dances with ghosts turn you into one.

Writer @ The Intersection of Finance, Tech & Humanity. Stories of a Global Language: “Money”. Contributor @ Startup Grind, HackerNoon, HBR. Twitter@akothari_mba

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