We Are Products Of Our Past But We Don’t Have To Be Prisoners Of It

By Gerald Walsh ©

That title may sound familiar. It is a quote taken from Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. I've chosen it because understanding your past is vital to moving ahead in your career. But getting to an understanding of who you really are - and why you think and behave the way you do - is not as simple as it sounds.

That's because most of us don't bother to take time to reflect on our past. Or, if we do, we fool ourselves by focusing only on the good parts of the story, the one we tell most often to impress people in job interviews, when we meet new people, or when we talk to our children.

But we also have another story that rarely gets told. This story is about self-doubts, worries, fears, and struggles that influence our actions and career decisions. Because this second story deals with failures and setbacks, we are embarrassed by it and tend to block out these thoughts.

Completing an honest self-reflection can be instructional in so many ways and lead to a better understanding of who you are.

I recall one client, Brian, an entrepreneur, who was very successful by all external measures. He made good money and was respected in his industry. But despite his outward success, Brian was dissatisfied. In particular, he regretted his long work hours and how they impacted his family and health. Yet every time he tried to reduce his hours, he failed.

It was only when he wrote his life story did he really figure it out. Brian grew up in a rural community and his father, the main breadwinner in the house, worked in a trade where work was irregular. Although his father had a strong work ethic, there just wasn't enough work around to keep him busy all the time. So he could never turn down work when it was offered.

It didn't take Brian long to figure out this was the source of his problem. He recalled how he had always felt a surge of pride when he described his own long work hours to his father - as if this was a badge of honour. But the reality was that this behaviour - influenced by his father's behaviour - was affecting his life. He concluded this was something he had to change, even though it wouldn't be easy.

Your homework

I am going to ask you to do a bit of homework today and write your life story. Now, I know most of you won't do this because it's difficult or uncomfortable, or you think it's not for you.

But if you do decide to undertake this "assignment," I suggest that you find the right place and time to write. You want to be in the right mental state and environment to write so you can turn all your attention to the activity and avoid distractions.

Here is a list of questions you might consider to help you with your writing. Feel free to add important factors I may have omitted:

Where were you born? Describe your upbringing.

What were you parents like? What did they do? What beliefs did they hold?

Describe what your brothers and sisters were like.

Who were your best friends and how did they influence you?

What were your hobbies and interests?

What subjects interested you in school?

How did you do in school?

Who were your childhood heroes?

Who are - or were - your models? Why did you select them?

What are some highlights from your school years?

Why did you pursue your chosen courses of study in college or university?

What experiences in life have been most gratifying for you?

What experiences have been most difficult for you?

How have your early career jobs influenced who you are today?

What three people have had the greatest influence on your life and why?

Who were your best bosses and why?

Who were your worst bosses and why?

If you have children, how have they affected your outlook on life? 

What jobs have been your best ones?

What jobs have been your worst ones?

How well did you get along with your co-workers and bosses?

Are there any career moves you regretted?

Have you ever done something on the job that sabotaged your goals?

How have any volunteer or community activities affected your outlook on life or work?


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Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @@Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn.