One Trick to Free You From the Past

by Tom Koulopoulos

One Trick to Free You From the Past

Breaking free of the past is one of the hardest things to do, but this change in perspective is the key to unlocking the opportunity of the future.

The Patterns That Hold Us Hostage

We build so much of our view of what’s possible around the past. While we all want to believe we have an open mind to the possibilities and opportunities of the future, our behaviors are slaves to the past. That’s why real breakthroughs are so rare.

It’s the reason you can drive down any street and identify the decade when each house was built. You can do the same with nearly any photo–polyester leisure suits; must be 1975. The patterns of the past define us, our lives, the way we work, our behaviors, and ultimately our expectations. In short, we like known patterns and we are drawn to them! That’s why we cling for dear life to the past, long after it’s outlived its usefulness.

“if there is one thing that I’ve learned, that’s essential to moving forward, it is to see opportunities to grow rather than problems to be solved.”

But patterns are also our nemesis. They narrow our field of view and limit our options; they establish boundaries of what’s possible and rational. In short, patterns stifle our ability to innovate–our companies and ourselves.

What’s truly amazing is how quickly we develop rigid assumptions of what the right way to approach a problem is based on the way we’ve always gone about solving it, and how soon we abandon the creativity needed to view the opportunity as opposed to the problem. And if there is one thing that I’ve learned, that’s essential to moving forward, it is to see opportunities to grow rather than problems to be solved.

Better Isn’t Good Enough

For example, When Apple first introduced the iPod it was considered ridiculous to use a hard drive as opposed to flash (solid state) memory. Hard drives where considered larger more prone to malfunctions and more expensive than flash memory. In addition storage capacities were measured in terms of hours and megabytes. If your MP3 player could hold few CDs worth of music you were doing pretty good. After all, the MP3 player wasn’t going to replace you entire CD collection!

Every MP3 players was trying to solve the problems of the past.

Apple stepped in and saw the opportunity of the future. Jobs didn’t ask “What can Apple do to make MP3s better?” That would have been solving the problem of the past and that wasn’t good enough. He asked “Why not?” or, more specifically; Why not store more than a few hours of music? Why not use the MP3 player for all of your music? Why not use hard drives which had so much more capacity? Why not build a new business model for the music industry that served the consumer?

You can imagine that every one of these was questions was greeted with stares of indignant disbelief followed by the answer, “Because that’s not what people are buying. In other words, that’s just the way it is!”

Here’s a hint, whenever you hear “that’s just the way it is and always has been!” think opportunity. Nothing is more likely to create pent up opportunity than a well worn pattern which has outlived its usefulness.

That’s why Tony Fadell, who had shopped the idea of an iPod like device to nearly every MP3 player company was turned down over and over until Jobs brought him on board to architect Apples iPod in 2001.

Whether it’s the radio, the telephone, the light bulb, the iPod, or even our own behaviors, we are absolutely oblivious to the impact that innovation can have and the extent to which we can change the way we look at and experience the world.

That’s why when familiar patterns are disrupted, it seems that the disruption always comes from the most unlikely candidates for change. Remember, Apple was the consumate outsider when it came to the music industry. It’s as though only a virgin set of eyes, untainted by the knowledge of the past, are the only ones foolish enough to see the opportunity that the future can bring.

While we are surrounded by these kinds of unlikely successes, we never cease to be amazed by them. Amazon redefines the way books are bought and sold; Google redefines the way we learn; Apple redefines the way we experience music, Uber upturns the taxicab industry. In each case an outsider that stood no rational chance against the incumbents, overtakes them by light years. Like an amnesiac with no long-term memory, we awe at the phenomenon, no matter how many times we experience it.

The Key To Breaking Free

So, the question is, “How do you break free of the patterns of the past?”

The answer is amazingly simple. You start with a fundamental change in perspective; turn problems into opportunities. This applies to nearly every challenge, personal and professional. Once you label something as a problem you become reactive rather than proactive. That means you start to limit your ability to be creative because you are responding within the confines of the existing problem. Apple didn’t try to make MP3 players better, they decided to exploit an opportunity MP3 players couldn’t touch. Which is exactly why every MP3 player company had to label Apple’s approach absurdly expensive, impractical, and unsustainable.

Oh, and because they did that they painted themselves into a corner (called the past) and were stuck addressing the problem and never transitioned to the new opportunity. Cab companies, are you listening? Of course not!

Yes, we all want to believe that we can see the opportunities of the future; the key is not to believe it but to behave it.

Form a company in Ireland

This article was originally published on Inc.

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

Leave a Reply