Is Your Past Holding You Back in the Present?


I often keep a business news program on in the background while working. It’s an old habit, I guess. The other day, I heard the news anchor say a former CEO of Palm would be on after the break. That got my attention.

Palm. Now that’s a blast from the past, I thought. The once-ubiquitous Palm Pilot was the big thing back in the early '90s. Then U.S. Robotics acquired the Silicon Valley startup and both companies were devoured by 3Com. That turned out to be a real mess.

The PDA company’s founders soon jumped ship and started Handspring. 3Com spun Palm off in one of the more spectacular dot-com IPOs, but the stock fell off a cliff soon thereafter and the company never really recovered.

Expecting to see one of Palm’s notable founders – Jeff Hawkins, Donna Dubinsky or Ed Colligan – I was surprised when someone that didn’t even look familiar came on the program. Turns out it was Carl Yankowski, the guy 3Com hired with great fanfare to take the company public. He left less than two years later after everything went south.

When asked if today’s market is in bubble territory, Yankowski immediately flashed back to the day of Palm’s mammoth IPO and, referring to the company’s wildly inflated $100 billion valuation, said he remembers turning to the board of directors at the time and saying, “We’re in trouble here.”

That was strange. I mean, who says that on IPO day? But wait, the interview gets even stranger.

Next up was how Steve Jobs asked Yankowski to be co-CEO of Apple in 1997. He says he declined and told Jobs the reason was because John Sculley was his former boss at Pepsi and he fired Jobs so it wouldn’t work. That made absolutely no sense to me. Besides, the entire anecdote sounded grandiose.

Then Yankowski misspoke, saying, “I was CEO of Sony Corporation at the time.” Actually he was president of Sony’s North American subsidiary and, while he later corrected himself, it was an interesting Freudian slip.

When the anchor asked if he regretted turning down the offer from Jobs, Yankowski avoided the question, saying, “I don’t think Apple is as innovative as it used to be,” which drew some very interesting follow up questions. He went on to say that social media was a fad. In any case, it was a bizarre interview.

Here’s the thing. Yankowski had a remarkable career with Memorex, Pepsi, GE, Polaroid, Sony, and Reebok. He was a real star. Then came the Palm fiasco and not much since, but so what? He should be proud of himself. I doubt he needed to use those grandiose-sounding anecdotes to get on TV and ostensibly promote an esoteric startup he sits on the board of but, even if he did, was it worth it?

It came across as sort of pompous and sad. It certainly didn’t reflect well on him.

While I’ve been known to tell a story or two from back in the day, I use them as examples to share lessons learned the hard way. Truth is, you don’t gain any real insight from viewing the past through a colored lens. If you don’t see things clearly, you simply end up with skewed perspective.

Case in point, I was talking with a friend – another former executive of the high-tech industry – the other day. We have a lot in common. We were both primarily hardware guys and we’re both so far past our prime and have been out of the picture for so long we’re essentially unemployable.

Still, my friend wants to get back to work and couldn’t figure out how to do that. We bounced some ideas around but he couldn’t seem to get past hardware. That’s his comfort zone, but sounded to me like a dead end. Then I remembered that he was the guy that actually turned me onto a new thing called the Internet.

Turns out he always loved to code. That’s when the light bulb went off. Now he’s off coding his way into a new career. Good for him.

The point is this. The way our brains retrieve and utilize memories plays a critical role in our ability to reason and make smart decisions. And yet, the most important events in our lives include some pretty emotionally charged experiences. In other words, our recollections always pass through a selective and colored filter.

If you remember the past one way, it can be an albatross that holds you back. It can make you feel bitter and jealous. It can even be self-destructive.

If you remember events another way, they can bring you opportunity and wisdom. They can even bring you peace and joy.

Our sound-bite crazy culture loves to quote missives such as, “Learn from the past, live in the present,” but it’s not really that simple, now is it? In reality, how you feel about the past – how you interpret those emotionally charged events – plays a pivotal role in how you live in the present. Think about it.