We Are Products of Our Past, But We Don’t Have To be Prisoners of It

Today’s title may sound familiar. It’s taken from Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. I’ve chosen it because it speaks to the importance of understanding how our past influences our behaviours, attitudes, and career choices.

From an early age, our family, education, and social environment significantly impact our career paths. For instance, parents often influence our ambitions and expectations, subtly steering us towards specific professions, even though we may have no interest (or talent) in those areas.

If you grew up in a household where education was highly valued, you might be inclined to pursue a career that demands rigorous academic qualifications. Conversely, socioeconomic constraints can limit our perceived opportunities, shaping our career choices.

Our early experiences also mould our work behaviours and attitudes.

I recall several years ago coaching an entrepreneur, Brian, who worked in the service industry and, by all external measures, was highly successful. However, despite his outward success, Brian was unhappy about how his long work hours impacted his family and health. The problem was that he couldn’t say ‘no’ to work. Every time he tried to reduce his hours, he failed.

To figure this out, I asked Brian to write his life story. Only then did Brian begin to recognize how his past had influenced his attitude toward work.

Brian grew up in a rural community where work was scarce. His father, the main breadwinner in the house, had a strong work ethic, but there just wasn’t enough work around to support a large family. So, he would never turn down work when it was offered.

It didn’t take Brian long to figure out that he had developed that same attitude, even though work was abundant for Brian. He told me he recalled feeling a surge of pride when he would tell his father about his own long work hours—as if this was a badge of honour. But the reality was that his behaviour—influenced by his father’s attitude—was affecting his life.

Here are the questions I asked Brian to answer when drafting his life story. It’s an exercise you might consider doing. Hopefully, you can see that while our past shapes us, it should not confine us. You have the power to shape your future, regardless of where you come from.

Where were you born? Describe your upbringing.

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

Describe what your siblings 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?

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 most significant influence on your life and why?

Who were your best and worst bosses, and why?

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

What jobs have been your best ones? Your worst ones?

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

Are there any career moves you regretted?

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