The poet Victor Hugo once said, “there’s nothing like a dream to create the future.”  Yet what if we don’t know what our dreams are, or what we really want in work or life?  Fortunately, by taking a look back at where we’ve already been, we can uncover more about our potential future than we might realize.

If we consider our life in decades, we can often associate each decade lived with a central theme that is unique to our own experience.  When we connect the themes of each decade together, we begin to see a pattern and a direction in which we might go next.

For instance, a look back at my twenties reveals two things: first, that I finally had the freedom to make my own choices and I exercised that freedom with both positive and negative consequences (positive: I switched majors halfway through university and was actually able to launch my career.  Negative: in first year, I skipped more classes than I attended and jeopardized my university prospects.  I had fun but I had to buckle down in my next year.).

Second, I also became aware of my inability to manage workplace conflict as effectively as I would have liked, and reacting impulsively as a result.  In one case, this led to quitting a job before I had another lined up; a job which I’d enjoyed and could have built on further if I had known how to deal with a colleague’s troubling behaviour.  My actions didn’t make me feel great about myself and can’t have helped my professional reputation.  As it turned out, this experience and how I felt about it planted the seed for what the next decade would hold.

Fortunately, by taking a look back at where we’ve already been, we can uncover more about our potential future than we might realize.

In my thirties, while navigating the fall-out of being treated for blood cancer and losing my ability to have children, while still moving ahead in my career, I learned how to recognize and be with intense emotions, like fear, anger and sadness.  I discovered a new sense of groundedness in my emotional self-awareness and became more clear about what I valued.  With the help of mindfulness meditation, I learned how to integrate my experience of pain rather than resist or ignore it.  Accompanied by a stronger self of self, I became better able to observe how I experienced interpersonal conflict, without reacting impulsively as a result.  This set me up for the next phase in my life.

Having developed the capacity to respond rather than react, it became clear that I still needed to work on speaking up for myself in work and life.  For us gentler types, this is a reality that we can resist mightily, finding all sorts of ways to rationalize our silence.  That causes more pain however and so my forties have been characterized by training myself to be more assertive.  My sister-in-law has been my inspiration.  As she says, “by the time you reach sixty, you don’t care what anybody thinks anymore.”  She speaks up far more than I’ve dared to so I channel her courage to my forty-something self, and challenge myself to speak up as often as I can – to share an opinion (to show I have an opinion worth sharing), to say yes (when it would be easier to say no) and to say no (when I’m more likely to give in and say yes).  Armed with this new skill, the next decade looks promising.

In fact, as I look toward my fifties, a couple of key themes are standing out.  One is that I’ve spent a lot of time with my attention focused on the challenges I’ve faced and I’m ready to discover more joy in my life, however that emerges.  Correspondingly, I’ve also been developing many qualities of mindful leadership, including presence, compassion, focus and creativity.  These days, I teach and model these concepts to others and I’m looking forward to stretching even further on this front, trusting in my creative process to help uncover related goals and objectives.

To sum up, if you’re not quite sure where you want to go, try taking a look back at where you’ve been.  Notice the themes that come up and begin piecing them together.  What do they tell you about where you’ve been, and what might they suggest about where you’re headed?

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Maggie DiStasi, PCC, is a Professional Career and Leadership Coach and faculty member for the Business Coaching Advantage Program™.  She is the creator of a customizable workshop series called “Leading Mindfully to Manage Overwhelm and Respond Creatively.” To learn more, contact Maggie here.