Keep Your Eye on Yesterday

Remember the good old days?

Probably not. Your memories of the good old days are rarely accurate. When we look back, we often cherry pick the details that fit a positive story of the past. We’re wistful when we remember our family road trip to the Grand Canyon, but not the hot hours in the cramped car. We recall the camaraderie of our first great job out of college, but not the stressful deadlines that forged those close bonds. Nostalgia is one of fantasy’s many traps.

And yet, applied wisely, nostalgia is a powerful tool of self-leadership. In the face of hard times, looking back with nostalgic thinking is sometimes exactly what you need to locate the way forward.

Experts say that people most often turn to nostalgia when in the midst of change, when the present is stretching them. Hard times bring up memories of a happier yesterday. In these uncomfortable moments, nostalgia can be a form of self-soothing, and we sometimes misuse it to avoid facing a difficult present. But we can also use nostalgia to see our lives as the journey that it is and in doing so, discover or refine our sense of purpose. A recent article in The New York Times reflects that with nostalgia, “you begin to feel like there’s some continuity between your past and present, like you’re living a full and meaningful life.”

In my work with the archetypes of leadership, adopting the perspective that your life is a heroic story is what I call the view of The Voyager inside of you. The Voyager knows where you’ve been before and finds meaning in the journey, guiding you to become the leader your life needs you to be.

As mythologist Joseph Campbell found, all grand heroic stories begin when the hero or heroine crosses a threshold out of their ‘ordinary world’. Dorothy leaves Kansas for Oz, Neo ventures outside the Matrix, Diana/Wonder Woman travels from Themyscira into the Europe of World War I. In this unfamiliar world, far from home, you face a challenge that demands some kind of transformation or personal evolution.

Once you meet that challenge, you are transformed. Only then is the hero or heroine able to return home to use their gifts to help others. Dorothy wakes understanding “there’s no place like home”; Neo re-enters the Matrix to fight Agent Smith and set others free; and Wonder Woman presumably returns to Themyscira to end that island’s isolation.

Nostalgia can be a sign that you’re encountering one of life’s tests. This often feels frightening. The origins of the word are based on the Ancient Greek for a return to home (nóstos) and the suffering (álgos) we experience when we long for that safety of familiarity. Nostalgia is homesickness. In dreaming of past good times, you conjure the ‘ordinary world’ to which you wish to return. You can’t go back until you navigate the waves that knock you off-balance. But you can use your nostalgia to guide your “heroic” transformation and subsequent return.

According to Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, nostalgia is an energizing emotion. He explains: “after delving into nostalgia, you’ll feel more connected to your friends and also be motivated to actually reconnect with them; you might even go out and seek new ones.” By recalling past support, nostalgia encourages us not to face upheaval all alone. Threading together the moments when we dared to try, it also reveals an enduring strength. Our inner Voyager reminds us of our own resilience.

When I coach clients to harness their nostalgia in this way, we employ a few questions:

1.   When you’re feeling nostalgic, what qualities of yours from the past are you wishing could return?

2.   What has changed in you since those bygone days? Nostalgia often includes a sad undertone of “if only I knew back then to appreciate what I had.” What’s changed in you that lets you appreciate it now?

3.   Given who you have become, and where in your life you find yourself, what do you need to do to recreate the qualities you’re now missing?

4.   What can become possible, when you revive some version of those qualities now?

Often, my clients report this last question opens up new approaches to the challenge at hand. Other times, it simply gives them the patience to wait out the storm, or the courage to ride the waves to the other side.

When we invite nostalgia to act as our guide, it brings our attention to the big picture of our lives. Like a child collecting sea shells on the sand, it brings back a sense of wonder about treasures hiding just beyond our sight. Cherishing that sense of delight energizes us to face today’s unknown with the spirit of adventure. Life tests us. When we falter, our past reminds us that we can start again.

Erica Ariel Fox is the New York Times bestselling author of Winning From Within: A Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living, and Lasting Change. You can learn more about your own leadership style and the Winning from Within archetypes with her free Big Four Profile Survey here.