The liberating power of burning the past
Prune your past if you can. And don’t predict the future. Life is real only at this moment. The only thing keeping you from living here is you.
Human-beings, by nature, see their lives as a linear journey. They create to do lists and plans, and spend years executing against those. And when their plans no longer fit who they are, they fail to recognize that their personal growth has slowed down. Instead, they get stuck in a past version of themselves.
How do you deprecate your own outdated version?
Real life is more like a windy and uneven mountainous path, with milestones along the way. The word “milestone”, itself, was pragmatically invented because our ancients used to mark significant changes, or stages in their journeys’ development, rather than actual distance. Once you get to one milestone, you need to renew your focus, energy and spiritual canvas to get to the next one. That only happens when you press a mental reset button. What better visual cue for that than a giant stone?
But I’d like to talk about the reset button, rather than the milestone itself: We have buried the reset button. And that’s dangerous.
In ancient Persian culture that lives on until today, the New Years day is on March 20th (Norouz) . That unexpectedly random date signifies more haphazardness in the Christian calendar than the Persian calendar: The former is based on the birthday of Christ, a person. The latter precedes Christianity by at least five centuries, and is based on the Spring Vernal Equinox: an astrological and cosmic event.
Ancient Persians aligned themselves with the stars (horoscopes) and worshipped basic elements like water and fire (Zoroastrianism). And it seems that they have the longest history of having discovered the mental reset button that we’ve buried today.
On the last Wednesday eve before the Vernal Equinox, Persians would celebrate a feast called Wednesday Light (Chahar Shanbe Suri) . Each household would light a bonfire out on the street, and burn their old furniture. An entire city would be dots of bonfires signifying renewal: The burning of the past and the embrace of the future.
The festival is in harmony with two practices: First, the worship of fire, even in temples, as a purifying force of nature. And second, cleansing one's house in anticipation for the Spring’s cleansing of nature — the latter, they literally call "shaking the house", (Khaaneh Tekaani) . It’s the milestone-based psychological reset button. It's what we need to be doing to ourselves: our physical and spiritual homes.
This March, I may have found my mental reset button, after thirty years of wandering. I'll tell you about that at the end.
Managing a complex corporation is similar to managing one’s spiritual life.
There are often various plans under execution, each spanning anywhere from months to years. The teams normalize, and knowledge-bases are formalized, institutionally, around these objectives. Documentation, design, technical specifications, to do lists, meeting schedules and commitments begin to accumulate out of the ether. And all of a sudden, you’re sitting in a rocket ship of a company with linear trajectory and no control. That’s the story of most ten-year-old institutions. It’s also the story of most of us personally, when we haven’t had serious introspection for about ten years. We’re just droning on, and in spite of the intuitive contradiction at our hearts, we’re not changing course or recalibrating.
Strong leaders change course.
You don’t have to look far back into the history of great companies to stumble upon a radical period of pruning, just after liberal gardening. A visionary and charismatic leader shuts down projects and reorganizes the objectives. The employees often find themselves in major disagreement with the executive. The reason is simple: He sees the curves of the exponentially-ascending mountain from his vantage point, but they see a linear walking path before their eyes. That’s why, in software for example, “people” cannot design institutions or products. We recognize this phenomenon so frequently that we even gave an anti-pattern name to it: "designed by committee" .
Building a great institution, service, product or even character always takes a visionary founder with a vantage point.
His focus must be on the next natural milestone to the exclusion of the past and all the possible parallel futures. Importantly, this comes at the cost of forgetting about a successful past. He will put “more wood behind fewer arrows” as Larry Page did with Google when he shut down all but seven major company objectives. He makes a “coherent bouquet from a garden of thousands of flowers”, in the words of colorful Sergei Brin of Google X. Or he proudly says “no to the hundred other good ideas that there are” because that’s how you protect the seed of innovation, as Steve Jobs prescribed with Apple. The visionary character leaves the past where it is, and strives for only one version of the future.
Companies, like growing individuals, understand that to stay current, you must re-calibrate where you are and let go of your ego and legacy. The past has a tendency to take you on a tangential line that diverges off the present point and takes you off the viable path in the future. Burn the past, breathe the present and behold what’s to come. That’s common sense, though not common.
I took a heavenly ride through our silence
I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life
Electing to forget the past is a liberating experience.
Nostalgia limits your freedom. Most of us have happy memories from our childhoods. Enough disruptive events happen along the way that most of us look at it with a certain level of nostalgia. “Men used to have better characters”, says every old man, and “everything used to be so much cheaper back then”. Most of these statements are distorted. The distortions make for good stories, though they also lead to many a missed opportunity.
Childhood, with its theme of innocence, seems just a few milestones ago. How could so much change so fast? Is there something else we could have done? Or better, if we’re happy with where we are, could we have avoided some mistakes and taken faster shortcuts? Would it not be neat if we could somehow communicate that back to our former selves?
Traveling back in time is impossible. But we keep the memorabilia: the notes, photos and books. We keep the nice set of dishes that were always meant for the guests who never arrived for thirty years. We keep the high school yearbook from that one year when we were particularly unpopular; the undergrad notes from the courses we damn near failed, and only passed with a hair; or a lock of real hair from our first-born child that we kept in the family album because of uncertainty about war and the future. We amass books that acted once as our guiding lights, and we gather music that helped us navigate through our own emotions. As if someday we might need to re-live it all over again. We are humans. And we have always marked the stones. We’ve never traversed those paths twice, but our kind has survived because of that habit. Language is a form of evolved milestone.
But when it comes to our own self-guidance, for each of these symbols and experiences from the past we have implicit to do lists and unwritten plans for the future. Someday, we’ll complete that French course, learn how to dance, or scan all of those photos into the computer. Back in the day, this, and someday hopefully, that.
And thirty years later, we wake up to realize that for every single moment of opportunity, we’re paying the technical liability of maintaining two moments of nostalgic past. And there lie our chains.
I am my cleansed spirit. And the coherent bouquet of a thousand flowers of experience that I once planted is the set of articles that you’re seeing before you.
I’m writing this particular article in Canada. It has been my interim adolescence home for a decade, between a Childhood in Iran and an adulthood in the US. I’m sitting here, in a room where I spent nearly a decade accumulating characteristics, things, plans and longings.
And I no longer want any of it.
For the first time in a decade, I reduced the contents in my room. I gave away 90% of my books. I put all of my painstakingly collected gadgets and DVDs in a tub and sent them to their resting place. And I reckon I’ll keep doing this for a while, until the bare minimum is left. And only that’s when the next milestone can begin: with a clean slate for expectations, and only the soothing comfort of every mindful breath.
Once I started throwing out things, I realized that I’m a new person: I’m the person I had always wished to be.
I used to look up to role models longingly to learn how to become who I am today. Now, I am that person. Somehow, on my perceived linear trajectory, concern for the growing boy never ceded to the feeling of pride for the grown man. Nostalgia wouldn’t let me live my dreams, because just like the way I used to take refuge in dreams of the future, now I’ve been clinging to the comfort of a familiar past. And at that moment of reflection, I see the curves in the “linear" road. There is only now.
You will visit the past once again in the future. But you need to take the right reasons with you. You can’t go there because regret and nostalgia took you there, or you will get stuck. Growth loves freedom, and freedom is limited by regret and nostalgia.
I’ve learned a curious thing about the sweetness of the past: none of it is actually real.
I’ve postponed visiting the city of my childhood by about two decades. That’s a long time for most people. It’s not that different from exile, except for the fact that mine is self-imposed. I just never got around to revisiting the past, because I was too busy seeking answers for it in the future. And now, even that future seems like a new past.
An entire generation that raised mine is either very old or gone. Many of the relatives I knew have passed away. And a different generation, one that I’m barely familiar with and whose thoughts I less vividly understand, lives where I was born. It is now more strange than ever to want to visit — because I know the things I’ve been nostalgic about for thirty odd years no longer even exist in reality. What I remember from my childhood may in fact only exist in my head.
I learned one final thing from this trip to my Canadian interim home: Who we think we are is the minimal set of characteristics that maintain the consistency of our identity throughout time.
When we throw things away, we remain the same, if not stronger. When we dump reams of to do lists, we’ve actually done more than if we had checked off each of those items. And when a decade goes by, we need to not have lived with regret, and then and only then, we can let go of the burden of time. Life is not a story that needs to be preserved, nor a set of checkboxes along a predictable future. It has its twists and turns. And it favors the adventurous.
When I visit my childhood city some day, it won’t be to visit the past. It may be for one final adventure into the blissful unknown of a learning journey. The past and the future are one and the same. They’re this very moment.
Are you cleaning up the contents of your spirit often enough? Are your plans for yourself updated in the last two years? Are you working on something because it makes sense as of right this moment? Does your tree garden need pruning? Do you need to shut down lines of products in your company? … Do you regret anything? Are you afraid?
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the Road has gone
And I must follow if I can
Pursuing it with eager feet
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet
And whither then? I cannot say
Bilbo Baggins, Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien
Amin Ariana is a software entrepreneur in San Francisco.
Special thanks to Azadeh Mossannani for reading early drafts of "The liberating power of burning the past".
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