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Don’t let “what was” get in the way of “what’s next”

Get out of a rut -- or stop spinning your wheels -- by embracing the opportunities of new challenges.

4 min read


Don’t let "what was" get in the way of "what’s next"

Lukas Leitner/Unsplash

At some point we have to let go of some of our hopes for a return to the way things were. Whether wishing we had something different for breakfast, or whether we regret the negative direction some of our relationships have taken, some parts of life, once past, cannot be redone. That shouldn’t prevent us from using what we’ve learned from “what was” to helping us better shape “what can be.” 

Our continued movement through these last eighteen months is a prime example of this. No matter what we do, we cannot go back to how things were pre-pandemic. Once we allow ourselves to accept this, we become better capable of moving forward effectively. Here are three lessons I’ve learned about shifting my direction from “what once was.”


Know when to move on (or surround yourself with others who do) 

Letting go of the past is hard in the best of times, so it stands to reason that our ability to move forward would be even harder during times of incredible stress. The pandemic has made this abundantly clear. Some of us are better at moving on than others, but everyone, at some point, will have to let things go when simply continuing on a path will do more harm than good or when we won’t be able to accomplish what we need to do unless we change course. 

Various signs often point to the inevitability of change:

  • When we are no longer achieving positive benchmarks, and when we have been experiencing these diminishing returns for a while.
  • When it seems like the motivation and engagement of others is faltering. 

If you tend to struggle with shifting course, turn to people in your professional and personal lives who can see the picture a little clearer. Empower them to push you out of your own way.


Embrace obstacle-to-opportunity approach

Sometimes, a change in mindset is all we need to move past “what was.” The obstacle-to-opportunity approach can help by decreasing focus on the obstacles to change and instead envisioning the opportunities you’ll gain. 

For example, if you hone in on the obstacles to adopting a new format for hybrid teaching, you’re likely to continue along the path, even if it’s a dead end. Looking at the opportunities, on the other hand, is more likely to prompt a forward shift. Drafting a simple pro/con-style list that outlines obstacles versus opportunities is likely to show — especially if you’re in a rut — that the latter outweigh (and outnumber) the former. 


Zoom out

It is never easy to see the big picture, because so much of the work we do is focused on the present. Taking only the micro view, however, tends to result in doing the same thing. Try to zoom out for a macro view using such questions as: 

  • Where does this work fit in the grand scheme of things?
  • If I look at the last year, five years, ten years, etc., have we ever run into situations like the one we are in now?
  • What signs of being stuck in “what was” have I exhibited in the past?
  • Which indicators for a need to move on are present now, and which are not?

Often, if we look at our work in the span of a number of years, we can find quite a few similarities among the differences. This doesn’t make the work easier, but it does set some important context.

Moving on from the past is a challenge. The trick is learning to value and learn from experience while growing our way forward. Moving toward “what can be” is really the only way to live and learn.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.


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