By Phil Liebman, CEO and Founder, The BullFrog Grouproad-163518_1280


The idea that our experience shapes who we are is certainly appealing. On one hand, it just rings of logic in that we accumulate experiences that we derive meaning from – and it seems sensible that what meaning we divine from our experiences informs our nature and our character. Part of what makes us human is that we take meaning from our personal history. But where we have “come from” isn’t simply the tracking of the roads we’ve traveled, it is clearly a consequence of the collective choices we have made that have brought us to each turn and crossroad.

Who we are speaks more to our having habits that guide us into the future that awaits us, and may somehow suggest that our lives are predictably patterned by our experience. But beyond the life we seemingly desire or even design – there our lives are all dotted with random circumstances, some good and some bad that befall us. It may be comforting to think that experience prepares us for the unexpected good fortune and adversity that is inevitable in life. And for those who learn from their experience – perhaps it does. But what about when it doesn’t?

But isn’t looking to our past perhaps a lazy way to define ourselves? We cannot change the past – so it’s easy to blame “who” we are on things we cannot change. It certainly removes a great deal of responsibility and allows us to create a zone of comfort around acceptance of who we are when we can explain our behavior on our past circumstances that somehow drive the choices we make today. The weight of the evidence is founded in the suggestion that who we are can be traced to events of our past that have “formed us” and that can be verified as a matter of record and therefor serve as proof. It’s as if we are cast in stone, hour history is tangible, the feelings we have about our past is visceral and who we are can be easily explained. Millions of people have endured lifetimes of therapy on this premise.

The future, however is by definition intangible. We may or may not be able to link our history to how we feel and think today – but it is impossible to connect us to what we will feel or think tomorrow. We may attempt to change our attitudes, beliefs, behaviors and habits in an effort to improve who we are or to reverse our frustration with our lack satisfaction, joy or accomplishment in our lives. If our past seems as solid as formed concrete, the future is entirely the fluid product of an active imagination. It has no form and can only be described subjectively. Even the clearest vision shared – must be formed in the minds of those we share it with. Even when carefully illustrated and animated – the meaning is always interpreted through the eyes of the beholder.

We might like to think that at least we can find proof of the past – in records and artifacts. But history is imperfect too. Just like the future – it is subject to interpretation. Even recorded history is plausibly deniable, subject to multiple interpretations and often just reinvented to suit our needs. History has shown – that when it is not convenient to us – it will serve us better rewritten than how it was recorded on first account. It is possible that our history is as imaginary as our wildest dreams of the future.

Looking at the literal use of the word “heading, ” it speaks to the mind as being our source of direction. Where we are heading is a product of our thinking – and most usefully of our imagination. We take a step forward with some sound and reasonable expectations – but never complete certainty. Our experience and history may inform us as to what we think we should anticipate, yet time and time again we are surprised when we find that we get a different, unexpected result. It’s what innovation is all about.

If we assume that Einstein’s admonition of repeating the same action and expecting a different result is evidence of insanity, it may be that a greater truth is that life is more about dealing with that which is unexpected – than that which we all agree to expect. I would suspect that what is really crazy is to believe that things don’t change and will be how we expect them to be. If you sit in the same chair day after day, year after year – and fail to observe that the joints are weakening – you may be surprised when the chair leg fails and it collapses beneath you – sending you crashing to the ground. You would be a fool for having failed to observe an obvious truth: all things change over time. In fact, nothing really remains unchanged. The instruction is that we must constantly be vigilant to the changes we must adapt to. Darwin made us acutely aware that the fittest – really the most capable of adapting are those that survive. How would Sir Isaac Newton have processed weightlessness in space flight? Or what about the phenomena of jet propulsion? What goes up, may, not only, never come down – it may in fact litter space and remain in orbit around the earth – or even the surface of the moon. Everything man-made requires maintenance – as do most living things.

Making a choice as to where you are heading requires some level of imagination. Getting there will also require knowledge required for the journey. It may be helpful to know that the future always has some component of the unknown attached to it – no matter how obvious the rules of cause-and-effect seem to be. In fact disturbing those rules is one of our greatest sources of amusement and entertainment. Children all love surprises. As adults if we do not – it’s likely because we have locked ourselves in a zone of comfort and blindly “imagined” certainty that has drained the joy from curiosity and discovery. (Imagined in this context is not a matter of using positive creative insight, instead selectively seeing or thinking about what we want to see and ignoring what we are uncomfortable dealing with). But for those with the courage to face the uncertainties of the future – and especially those who dare to imagine a future that contains and benefits more than just themselves – where they are “headed” speaks to who they are: their values, their aspirations, their courage and their hope.

There is a difference between ambling into the future and free falling into tomorrow – and creating a future and leading yourself (and perhaps) others into it. When we invite others to join us on our journey into the future – they too become leaders of their own journeys, complete with their personal values, aspirations, courage and hopes. In this regard we are leaders and not simply herders. Those who we guide, encourage and seduce to join us do so out of free will. And because they are leading themselves behind us – they have the potential to allow us to step back and lead us.

We call some who focus solely on predicting the future “futurists” – or simply dreamers. Following a dreamer or a futurist may amount to following an aimless stumbler – or worse, someone aiming themself over a cliff. Knowing where one is “heading” draws from more of the mind than simply the imagination. Critical factors include preparation and competencies required for the intended journey ahead. And there are equal opportunities for fools to follow as there are for fools to lead. But heading is not all about skills and execution. It is also about attitude, conscientiousness and values. What people believe and what they care about – what’s in their heart – also comes from our heading of things. How we feel and how we think are products of how we take care of our mind. Not how we have “taken care” care of our mind – but how mindful we are. The consumer warning – that past performance is no guarantee of future performance aptly applies to all human thinking. Smart people do dumb things all the time. Competence and confidence can quickly turn to hubris and maniacal scheming if unchecked, so do be “heading” somewhere worthwhile – we need to maintain a healthy mind for reasoning as well as healthy values to direct our thinking.

Finally, where we are headed, meaning the path we are on – is really only meaningful when we have a sense of purpose that is guiding us there. The deeper the purpose – the steeper we are willing to climb. Purposes that serve our own interests tend to be rather shallow. But great, worthy purposes are larger than we are. They don’t serve us – we serve them. When where you are headed – is driven by a duty to a guiding purpose – it telegraphs to the world who you are – leaving no need to say a thing about where you’ve been. Viktor Frankel wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” – a timelessly wise and inspirational work from the meaning he created out the most deplorable experiences imaginable during his childhood in a Nazi concentration camp. He chose to make sure the misery he observed and experienced would somehow benefit the world – and keep this cruel chapter of history from ever being allowed to be repeated. What he chose instead to want repeated was what he noticed about those, like himself – who survived: that they cared more deeply about something beyond and larger than themselves – like living to tell the world of the atrocities in the camps.

Who we are – is who always who we prepare ourselves to be. It’s what we make possible because we find it necessary to do so. Where we come from, where we have been may be helpful or not. How privileged we are born – or how wealthy or powerful we become has no direct impact on whether or not we become who we need to be in order to accomplish what we feel and make necessary.

Who we are – is simply who we are. We can only make ourselves into ourselves. No once can do this for us. We may seek guidance in the example of others, wisdom from the writing of sages and inspiration from the great accomplishments of heroes and visionaries, but none of this will make you competent or conscientious. It is a matter of choosing what future we want to have, discovering who we need to be so that we can engage our minds to learn what it takes to be that person – and then apply ourselves with whatever might it takes – to accomplish what we set out to achieve. The greater and more noble the cause, the more difficult and treacherous the journey will be. Satisfaction comes from being fully prepared for the journey.

When our joy is in the journey – the greatest joy comes from being competent in all it takes to move forward – even knowing that the destination we aim for may be unobtainable. Because when we find our destination – it will simply become a stop along the way. Tomorrow there will be a new destination, demanding new competencies, new thinking and a better version of yourself and of those you travel with. When this is where we are heading – when this is how we think – and when we realize the near limitlessness of our potential – and can harness our attention to expand those boundaries – we can begin to understand not just who we are – but what we can be.