Letting Go

Talent Management

April 16, 2012

by Marshall Goldsmith

When you consider how many hours of organizational time and productivity are lost in the endless retelling of our co-workers’ blunders or the internal stress we generate reliving real or imagined slights, you can appreciate the value of letting go of all of these negative feelings and focusing on the future.

Carrying grudges, harboring doubts about a colleague because of perceived missteps in the past, or maintaining a cynical outlook about the selfishness or shortsightedness of everybody around you — but not yourself, of course — are all things that pull you out of the present moment. These feelings not only break your concentration, they lead to pointless conflicts in the workplace.

Instead, you need to be attuned to things happening right now, as well as in the future, where the results of your efforts reside. The past is a useful guide, but if you dwell on it too much, particularly the negative aspects, you may find yourself trapped there. That’s the deeper meaning of the phrase “stuck in the past.”

Successful people constantly look to the future. Why?

That’s where the action is. We can change the future, but not the past. Leaders in business, government, nonprofits and just about any kind of organization spend their time shaping a better future by asking for and listening to the ideas of others.

An old Buddhist parable illustrates the challenge and the value of letting go of past animosities: Two monks were strolling by a stream on their way home to the monastery. As they walked, they were startled by the sound of a young woman in a bridal gown sitting by the stream, crying softly. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she gazed across the water.

When they asked her what was wrong, she told them she needed to cross the stream to get to her wedding, but she was fearful that doing so might ruin her beautiful handmade gown.

In this particular Buddhist sect, monks were prohibited from touching women. However, one of the monks was filled with compassion for the bride. Ignoring the restriction, he hoisted the woman on his shoulders and carried her across the stream, assisting her with the journey and preserving her gown. She smiled and bowed graciously in thanks; then the monk splashed across the stream to rejoin his companion.

The second monk was livid. “How could you do that? You know we are forbidden to touch a woman, much less pick one up and carry her around!” he scolded.

The offending monk listened in silence to a stern lecture that lasted all the way back to the monastery. His mind wandered as he felt the warm sunshine and listened to the birds sing from their branches.

Even after returning to the monastery, he was jostled awake in the middle of the night by his fellow monk, who was still deeply troubled by his actions.

“How could you carry that woman?” his agitated friend cried out. “Someone else could have helped her across the stream. You were a bad monk.”

“What woman?” the sleepy monk inquired.

“You don’t even remember? That woman you carried across the stream today,” his colleague snapped.

“Oh, her,” he said as he laughed. “I only carried her across the stream. You carried her all the way back to the monastery, and you still haven’t put her down.”

The point is simple: When it comes to someone’s flawed past, leave it at the stream.

Now, I am not suggesting we always should let go of the past. You need feedback to scour previous actions and identify where improvements are needed. But you can’t change the past. To change, you need to share ideas for the future.

Race car drivers are taught to look at the road, not the wall. After all, they need to be focused on where they’re going to be. And when they’re taking a curve at more than 100 miles per hour, the wall is definitely a place they don’t want to be.

That’s what being oriented toward the future does. It not only helps you win the race, it helps you have a better trip around the track.