Learn Business Lessons From Past Experiences—Even The Painful Ones
Published DateAuthorDan Sullivan and Shannon Waller
Every entrepreneur engages with their past, but if they don’t know the right way to do it, it can be painful and get in the way of business growth. In this episode, business coaches Dan Sullivan and Shannon Waller explain how to engage your past with a growth mindset and gain business lessons from all of your experiences.
Here’s some of what you’ll learn in this episode:
How the future and the past are human constructs.
Why you have to grant to others what you grant to yourself.
Why a sense of failure can prevent you from future growth.
The only thing that makes for a bad experience.
How painful experiences can lead you to avoid having experiences.
How to gain something positive from unpleasant past experiences.
None of your learning is in the future—it’s all in the past.
No one has spent a single waking moment in either the past or the future, only the present.
We don’t grow in the future; we only grow in the present.
You were just as much yourself in the past as you are today; you’ve just had more experience.
You don’t have to wait until you’re old to examine your life.
If you like who you were in the past, it's natural that you'll like yourself in the present.
Being yourself is a full-time job.
The inability to deal with newness is why people’s lives get old.
Shannon Waller: Hi, Shannon Waller here and welcome to Inside Strategic Coach with Dan Sullivan. Dan, we both had the extreme pleasure and joy of being at the Free Zone Summit, which happened in February with Strategic Coach in Palm Beach, Florida. And one of the things that you said that struck me and struck a number of other people was how you talk about how to relate to your past self.
So I'd love to dive into that because you have a different perspective than some other people I've heard of that's very validating, very positive, but it's different. And you're very conscious and conscientious about how you do that. So we're talking about how people can think about who they used to be or how they used to show up in the world. What's your take on that?
Dan Sullivan: I'll go right to the punchline here. You can't have a bigger future unless you have a better past.
Shannon Waller: Nice. Okay. You can't have a bigger future until you have a better past.
Dan Sullivan: The reason is that none of your learning is in the future. All of your learning is in the past.
Shannon Waller: Oh, I love that.
Dan Sullivan: The other thing is that nobody has ever spent a waking moment in either the past or the future. Okay. I've only ever been in the present. Now, humans are clever because we've created these mental worlds. We've created these psychological worlds, emotional worlds called the future and the past. But, actually, none of us is ever there.
But there are things that happen when we engage the thought of the past that could have been very painful, could have been very uncomfortable. We might have had a sense of failure about them. And those prevent you from growing in the future. In other words, growing in the present so that you have a bigger future because we don't grow in the future. We grow in the present, and that creates the future. So there's different ways that people go about coming to grips with their past. There's all these things about forgiving yourself of who you used to be. I think that's faulty thinking. I think that's very faulty thinking.
I was who I was in the past. My experience of who I am is that I'm always trying to do my best, and I'm using the knowledge that I had at that time. I'm using the skills, I'm using the opportunities that I had. And I was as hundred percent myself back then as I am today. It's just that I've had more experience that I've processed, and it makes me more knowledgeable and skillful and more successful in the present. So I've had a habit for as long as I can remember of processing my experiences. I had an unusual childhood in the sense that I'm from a big family, but I spent most of my childhood alone with my parents or with adults that my parents knew. So I never played with anyone my age until I started first grade.
There was no kindergarten because I grew up on a farm and I have four olders who when I was born, the next oldest one started first grade. So they were gone. And on the farm, the four older ones worked out in the fields, and I was the house boy. So I had this totally different experience. And so I've got a lot of time to, what I would say, engage with my thinking. One of the things that I cracked very early, I don't remember when it was, but all I had was adults to talk to. So you didn't know anything. I mean, the adults had vast experiences and you didn't have any. So I hit on a question.
I remember I had a next door neighbor, which I've written about, a woman who was 78 when I was eight. So I would go next door. They were a dairy farm, so I would go get the milk unpasteurized, we didn't have pasteurized milk. That was my job. One of my house jobs was to go get the milk. And she would chat with me. Somewhere along the line, I asked her the question, "Mrs. Wetzel, when you were my age, eight years old, what was going on in the world?" Well, eight years old for her was like the 1870s.
Shannon Waller: Wow.
Dan Sullivan: Okay. What I discovered is that she had never spent a night in her life except in that house. She had never traveled anywhere. I think the furthest that she had ever traveled might have been 30 or 40 miles. Went in the morning and came back later in the day. It was just amazing things that were going on in her life, but without electricity, without tractors, none of the electronics, radio, television, nothing. The nearby town didn't have a movie theater. She hadn't really seen any movies.
It really, really struck me that everybody lives a full life regardless of the circumstances. So we see people in the past living in deprived conditions, but everybody fills in their whole life with relationships and activities and interests. It just fascinated me that I could just ask questions and just sit there. If I got an hour out of her, that was worth two glasses of milk and four cookies. So there was definitely a reward system involved.
She did use the telephone, and it was a party line. She would call my mother periodically, for one reason or another, but she says, "Danny was over here again and he got me talking, and he always gets me talking about things that happened, and I have never really thought about them until he gets me on the topic and I see things that happened in the past very differently." She says, "I always feel good about this." Which is kind of an interesting point because for a long time, my mother didn't know about the coaching that I was doing, in the business I was coaching. When I told her what it was and she said, "Well, you were doing that when you were eight years old."
It had two permanent marks on me, is that what I was helping them do, I could do for myself. So I could look at my experiences and go through them. I said, "I'm not going to get to 78 before I started examining my life. I'm going to do it constantly all over." So I've always been taking a look at my day's experience and everything else and kind of saying, "What happened here? How was I thinking about it and what have I learned? Is there any corrections or changes I need to make?" So I was kind of self-correcting, self-educating, self-transforming at an early part of my life.
I mean, it's no mystery why I became a one-on-one coach and then created, with the team, I've created a whole coaching company. One of the things that I have is, I really like who I was. I really have a great liking for the person I've been. I'm 78, so I'm as old today as Mrs. Wetzel was when I first started talking to her. I really like who I was. I had the normal turbulence and upsets of childhood, adolescence, the teenage years, the 20s and everything else. But I like the person who lived back then.
I'm not trying to get away from anything. There's nothing I'm trying to forget. Even the most painful experiences are extraordinarily useful if you treat them as, "Well, that's what happened. You had this knowledge level, you had this skill level, you had this experience level when it happened, and you did as well as you can." What it does, if you like who you were in the past, it's natural that you'll like yourself in the present. That'll be even more the case when you go into the future. So that's my take on this.
Shannon Waller: It's interesting because if we're hard on ourselves in terms of the past, when we grow and expand and become more capable and bigger in the future, and if we look back with criticism or a lack or a "gap," it kind of is a disincentive for growing, is one thing. So really appreciating who you are, and what you said that's so key to me is that you were, at that point, were doing your best with your skillset, with your capabilities, with your knowledge. There's a grace and a graciousness, which has always been one of my words for you.
You also grant that to other people, which I've noticed. You're like, "Okay," what I've seen from you is you assume, or you kind of give people that grace, they were doing their best—in retrospect, whatever—but they were doing their best in that moment. And how can, in your perspective, aka Mrs. Wetzel, is, "Okay, how can they learn from that experience? How can that be useful for them?" is the tack you take rather than being critical or harsh or judgmental.
Dan Sullivan: One of the things that I realized along the way, and this has come up in a lot of our podcasts, and it comes up in our book recordings when you and I do the interviews for the small books, is that any understanding that I grant myself, I have to grant the same thing to other people in their experience. So I said something to Dean Jackson, who's for those of you don't know, is one of my many podcast partners.
I said, "You know what I'm discovering more and more as I get older, Dean?" He said, "No." I says, "Being myself is really a full-time job." He just laughed and laughed and laughed. I said, "I really don't have time to criticize other people's life." I said, "Because just being who I am is a full-time job." I suspect being who they are is a full-time job, but we're all involved in a full-time job being ourselves. So therefore, how we treat ourself makes all the difference in the world since I'm the only human that I have direct access to.
Shannon Waller: How we treat ourselves. Oh, this is so rich. The thing I also appreciate, Dan, and I'd like to dive into more, is that you are constantly processing your experiences: good, bad, painful, not painful.
Dan Sullivan: There's just experience. Good, bad, and thing is a judgment that you have. Experience is just experience. It's experience. I think what makes an experience a really bad experience is that you didn't learn anything from it, and you're being controlled by it years later. You're still being controlled by an experience that had a negative impact on you when it happened, and you never learned why that was. So the pain is still there, and then you say, "I got to get away from this. I can't let this happen." It distorts your forward progress, your inability to learn from a past experience.
Shannon Waller: Your inability to learn from a past experience distorts your future progress.
Dan Sullivan: Your future. It distorts your future. Yeah.
Dan Sullivan: Yeah. Most humans, they themselves will talk about this, that I've met will say, "I used to be open to a lot of things I'm not open to now." I have a suspicion, I haven't really explored this deeply, that they have painful memories and so they've cut off any activity that gets them back into their... After a while they start off with an openness to this much experience, and now they're down to this much experience because everything else, they cross the border into painful territory and they don't want to be reminded of painful territory.
But if you learn from all your experience, the circle keeps getting bigger of what you're open to. The reason is because you know nothing can happen to you that's going to set you back. Only not learning is going to keep you stuck someplace in the past.
Shannon Waller: I love that. Nothing that's going to happen will ever set you back. So you can go into the future from the present very confident just knowing that you have that capacity, you have that capability to always be learning.
Dan Sullivan: Yeah. It's a skill that anyone can develop. I mean, it's not peculiar. But you have to stop being trapped in the present by your judgments about things that happened in the past that can never change. I just said, anything that's negative that happened in the past, I can simply go into that experience again and say, "So what really happened here?" First of all, what worked about this experience? Because I find that even the worst experiences have positive consequences, but you don't see it and you can't examine the bad part of it because you don't see anything good about it.
Shannon Waller: Yeah. There's something about the way you look back at things, Dan—we have a fabulous tool called The Experience Transformer—but you look back on something and you eliminate the buildup of scar tissue is what I was thinking about when you talked about people getting so much smaller. It kind of breaks it open, and you can look at the facts.
I know for me personally, I'm not alone in this, you can get overwhelmed by the emotion, how it felt, and it's so big, and so icky, whatever the word you want to use, that you just don't want to go near it. But if you actually do just get out of your just emotional mind and into your thinking, there are things about the situation that did work. There's good things that have come out of that. There's things that you did learn even if you didn't realize it. And then you can build up that sense of confidence to be able to tackle what didn't work and do something about it.
Dan Sullivan: This way of approaching things has done me well. So that's all I can say about it. It started early and it became more and more conscious, and it became more and more active rather than reactive. That more and more, I know if I go into any situation, there's going to be things that don't suit me. I just keep note of them and I say, "Okay, next time we're in a similar situation like this, let's prepare differently. Let's organize differently. Let us get back." That's always been true. So I think it's always going to be true in the future. In any new situation, there's going to be things that I like and things I don't like, and if I don't want the dislikable things to happen again, I'm going to have to change something as a result of the dislikable experience.
Shannon Waller: That is such an amazing mindset, Dan. I actually just kind of got a model that you drew years and years and years ago, because a lot of people's thinking, sometimes mine included, is that, "Okay, our intent of learning everything is so that in the past, things worked and they didn't work." We get to now and it's like, "Okay, now I know enough that things are always going to work." It's like, no, that's not going to happen.
Dan Sullivan: I mean, the very notion of new means that you haven't dealt with it before. So all you have is your previous experience to deal with a new thing, and there's going to be part of your previous experience that didn't prepare you for this, doesn't give you the ability to respond to it immediately. So you're perturbed. I mean, there's a disturbance and there's fear. I consider that just part of the game, that you will always have things in the future that upset you, disturb you, throw you off balance, paralyze you, and everything. I just accept it.
I said, all I have to do is, anytime I get into that kind of negative, what I'm experiencing, it's negative. I mean, it's a negative experience. You're charged up and everything else. Remember that this is quite natural. The other thing is, remember, you've transformed this a hundred times, a thousand times in the past, and it always turns out well. What that does then is, you don't try to control things. You don't try to control things. Uncomfortable things don't happen. What you do is you take charge of things in such a way that the number of good things that happens expands.
I give an example, it's a rainy day, and you're standing right on the curb in a busy city and a car going too fast comes by and it hits the deepest puddle on the street right in front of you and you get drenched. Your immediate approach is, they did that on purpose. But the truth of it is, on a rainy day in a bigger city, don't stand on the curb. The other thing, back up to the furthest wall you can. The other thing is, make sure that you're outside of the splash zone. I said, the other thing is, they were late. They didn't even see you. They didn't even see, they don't even know who you are.
Shannon Waller: They may not have even seen the puddle.
Dan Sullivan: No, no. They didn't see the puddle. They were late. A lot of what happens to us is that it just happened to us. There was no intent on the part of anything else or anyone else to have you have a negative experience. Not only that, they don't even know you had a bad experience. Besides that, they don't really even care. So this is all your business, this is all your experience. This isn't anybody else's experience.
Shannon Waller: I love this, Dan, because it's like how not to take things personally because it wasn't. Stuff is going to happen, and how are you going to learn from it so it doesn't happen again, is so useful.
Dan Sullivan: Yeah. I think it makes you, when you approach new situations, you go into high awareness: "Okay, what's actually happening here?" And not immediately assume that you know what's happening, because if it's new, you don't know what's happening. But then you have some, what I would call "always-work strategies." For example, I'm a very, very high extrovert, but when I'm in a new situation, I don't seem to be because I'm just getting what's actually happening here. Being an extrovert is just going to add to my confusion. I'm very assertive. I'm a very assertive individual, but not when I'm in a new experience. I said, "I don't even know what to think about this, so how can I know what to do about it?"
Shannon Waller: So you learn, you soak it up, take it in, and then once you feel like you've got your bearings, then ...
Dan Sullivan: Yeah. Well then you see your area where you can take action. I find, the first thing I'll do, I'll just find somebody to talk to. They're adults. I'm used to adults.
Shannon Waller: Since you were really young.
Dan Sullivan: Yeah.
Shannon Waller: I really appreciate this, Dan, because I think especially for entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial teams, everything is always new. There's new stuff coming up. That's the subject of our next podcast.
Dan Sullivan: Yeah. But I think the inability to deal with newness is why people's life gets old.
Shannon Waller: A hundred percent, yes.
Dan Sullivan: I know teenagers who life is already old because they're so afraid of new experience. They never learned how to grow through new experience. So they're afraid of new experience. I mean, they're shut down and oftentimes they're tempted to become addicted to things that make them seem like they're powerful and in control, but they're not. Addictions are giving you an emotional feeling of "things are really working," but in fact there's no growth of knowledge, no growth of skill in the situation.
I knew the director of the Toronto Addiction Center in the 1970s. I know him to the fact that I knew who he was, and he knew who I was, not that we were friends. He said, "It's really, really interesting. Almost all addictions start in the teenage years." He says, "The only exception to that is painkillers after 20," but he said, "I would say that almost all people who are addicted as adults, it happened around 13 or 14." "And what it is," he said, "it's when the hormone wars go off." The other thing is that they've largely, from a relationship standpoint, disconnected from their parents, and now it's peer relationships. Up until about ten, if you're a parent, you're God to your children. But after ten, they have to start getting ready to leave home. That's going to be through sideways relationships, not vertical relationships. That wasn't my case because I was always looking to the adults. I never depended on peer- But I hadn't up until six. So the wiring was pretty well set. I can't say I ever learned anything from one of my peer students that helped me later on, but an enormous amount from adults. So I think I'm a bit unique in that respect.
I can spot the other people for whom it's true. I can spot other people who got self-directed at a very early age. But since I'm the person that I know best, I really don't know what's going on in other people. It becomes so overwhelming that alcohol becomes important to you, tobacco becomes important to you. And now all sorts of-
Shannon Waller: Video games.
Dan Sullivan: Sex becomes very, very important to you because it gives you a sense of being masterful. It was a great line I saw once. It was a teacher and he said, "You know the thing I noticed is that every generation of new teenagers thinks that they invented sex." That they're the first one who actually had- "Do you know about this experience? I mean, you guys, you don't seem to know about. This is amazing."
Shannon Waller: It's good for the continuation of the species.
Dan Sullivan: You are who you are when you were there.
Shannon Waller: Yeah. It's true.
Dan Sullivan: I was a very late developer in a lot of things. I didn't drink alcohol until I was 27. I was 27 before I drank alcohol. I think because I wasn't taking any cues from my peers, I wasn't exploring the normal things, but I was already plugged into the adult world. I knew what adults did. After you're not a child anymore, knowing what other adults do, having a mastery of other adults is the key. Look what I do today.
Shannon Waller: Totally. Well, it's interesting, Dan, because what you're just talking about, to me, this is a process for becoming an adult, is to actually be able to reflect back on your experience, to be able to process it, what worked, what didn't. Knowing what I know now, what would I do differently next time? Coming up with your new course of action, your strategies, and then doing those things.
Then always giving yourself that grace, that graciousness to look back and appreciate that what you did then was best you could do at that moment. Then granting that to other people. Then also just looking ahead, knowing that despite all of your efforts, things are still going to work and not work in your future. How you handle those is by anticipating them and not making a big deal. It's just like you made it normal. That's what you did, or do. That I think, again, is so critical for entrepreneurial success is because that's how you stay open and excited instead of closed in and boxed down or buried under all the scar tissue that's built up over the years.
Dan Sullivan: I just go back to connect the ending back to the future. So I don't really work on the future that much. I'm always working on the past. I find if I transform the past into more useful lessons, more useful experience and insights—in Coach, we call them concepts and lessons—I find that the future takes care of itself because it's a byproduct of your present learning. I mean, the future is just a byproduct. Your future can't be any bigger than where you are in your present capability. So I don't worry too much about what's going to happen here, what's going to happen here. I says, "You're fantasizing."
We talked about people getting trapped by their past, and that's the subject of another podcast. I find people get trapped in their past, they get paralyzed and stuck in their past, or they get stuck in the future, but they never really spend very much time in the present. So I think that would be a very useful thing. Until I started dealing with technology people, I hadn't seen how totally trapped they are by the future, which in fact doesn't exist. At least the past exists, but the future doesn't even exist. They're totally trapped. Then they want to control the future in such a way that it doesn't surprise them.
Shannon Waller: Right. That's so good.
Dan Sullivan: They want a future where they don't have to learn anymore.
Shannon Waller: So always be learning is one of the messages to take from this. Dan, as usual ...
Dan Sullivan: The only thing in the future that I've found satisfies that you don't have to learn anymore is death. I have no knowledge of what happens after that.
Shannon Waller: Exactly. I love it. Well, Dan, thank you. This is, for me, it's very inspiring. It's also very validating to appreciate who we were before. All future progress will be a result of learning from the past. And that whole thing, what worked, what didn't, what can we do differently next time? What's the next course of action? And keep doing that so consciously and to be welcome and open to the future to see what you can learn, to my mind, it's such an incredible mindset. So thank you for sharing that.