Adjust Your Rear-View Mirror Before Taking Off

March, 2017

“Life is lived forward, but understood backwards.”
Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher

This month I attended a week of training at the College of Executive Coaching. I studied positive psychology, appreciative inquiry and building on strengths in professional development coaching. In this month’s blog I will take you through two exercises inspired by these three areas of study.

The first will help you become reacquainted with your strengths and best stories through some appreciative self inquiry. The second exercise will have you rethinking what is ahead, using positive psychology and a reframing strategy that begins with looking backwards. These exercises will help you successfully move forward by first looking in your rear-view mirror.

Exercise 1: Prepare your top eight achievements

What have your life’s peak experiences taught you about when you are at your best? What have been your recurring talents and callings, and how might these past lessons shape your future direction? It might take several hours to complete this exercise, but if you are hoping to learn more about yourself and what you might be best suited to do in the future, begin by looking backwards at your top eight achievements. I ask each of my career transition clients to do this exercise. They sometimes protest that it will take too much time, then afterwards smile with the satisfaction of knowing themselves much better as a result.

Here is the assignment. Take a look back at your top eight work/life achievements. Name each, then create a spreadsheet that includes these items for each of the eight achievements: project name and date, challenge, actions, results, skills used, interests engaged, values present, lessons learned about yourself.

After completing this assignment, consider the implications. What are the recurring themes? What skills, interests and values do you hope to connect to the future needs of the market and/or community? Aristotle once said, “Our calling is the intersection of our talents and the needs of the world.” What are you called to do now? How can your historical achievements and talents inform your future direction?

Exercise 2: Remember the ride home

I will introduce you to this second exercise by sharing a story. Charlie Maxwell is the CEO of Meristem, a Twin Cities based financial services firm. Charlie’s job is extremely demanding, and he is also the father of triplets. His children all received early childhood development services from an organization named Fraser. When Charlie was asked to join the Fraser board, he quickly and whole heartedly agreed to do so.

Over time, Charlie became aware of a growing frustration caused by the demands of his work and family, combined with the time and energy required by the Fraser board and also serving as a Trustee of the Foundation at the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute. He was most in touch with these frustrations on his trips in to his board and foundation meetings. On most rides home, however, Charlie would find himself feeling grateful for the choice he had made to serve in this way.

Charlie found a simple attitude adjustment as a method for alleviating these frustrations. He decided to remember his prior ride home on the ride to those meetings. From that point on, a broad smile appeared both to and from the meetings. Charlie has told me that he regularly shares this story with his staff, encouraging generosity as an ongoing expectation for everyone within his firm.

Whether going to a demanding meeting or a service commitment you might prefer to skip, try imagining the ride home on your ride in. Think of how you have felt at the end of similar past activities. Using this version of positive psychology can help you avoid negative energy, and remind you that what is ahead might be challenging and time consuming, but it will likely be rewarding as well. Predict a successful conclusion, and there is a good chance things will move in that direction.


Life is lived forward, but understood backwards. Søren Kierkegaard got it right. I have often thought of these words while listening to my clients’ life stories and reading the details of their top eight achievements. We all tend to be self critical as we evaluate our days, but consider the many ways that positive psychology and apreciative self inquiry can lift your spirits and strengthen your confidence.

Let’s not wake up each morning as Sisyphus, with that rock coming down each night after a day of pushing it up the hill. If you made progress yesterday, acknowledge it and begin the day with positive recollections and gratitute, not emptiness and futility. We are each builders and climbers, not Sisyphus. Apply what has been gained from your past accomplishments, strengths and learnings to whatever is next. Take a good look in your rear-view mirror, then be on your way!