What Comes Next: How We Can Overcome our Past to Create a New Future

September 2021

By Mark Hinchcliffe

 

When my son Foster turned four, I bought him a frisbee. It was summer, and we’d just moved to a house with a big backyard – more room than we’d ever had before to play and run around and throw neon bouncy balls as far as we could. I figured a frisbee was the next natural step in our backyard throwing activities, so I hopped online one evening and ordered a bright orange disc. To be sure, there were lots of other colors from which to choose, but I’d had an orange frisbee as a kid, and somewhere deep in my subconscious, I wanted to recreate that experience now as a dad. So orange was the only choice.

The frisbee arrived a couple of days later. Glossy. Glowing. Ready for flight. We tossed it around until the fireflies started to come out. It was one of those perfect summer memories; one that I tucked into my mind as I boarded a flight for Brazil the next day for work. I promised Foster before I left that we’d play some more frisbee when I returned. I had forgotten that promise over the course of the next two weeks in São Paulo. But Foster didn’t.

“Can we play with the purple frisbee?” was the first thing out of Foster’s mouth as soon as I walked back through the door, my suitcase dragging behind me. “Sure,” I said, just trying to make him happy. At that particular moment, I had no interest in going outside. I was ready for a nap on the couch. But that nap was short-lived, brought abruptly to an end by Foster’s urgent request, “Can we play with the purple frisbee now?” I nodded tiredly and we headed out the back door.

As I walked out into the cut grass, it dawned on me that Foster had twice called the frisbee “purple.” “He’s still learning his colors,” I thought to myself, shrugging it off. Purple was orange. Blue was green. The simple mistake of a learning child. Frisbee in hand, I shouted to Foster from across the yard, “Ready?” and tossed that orange plastic disc from my childhood into the air. And as I watched it arc across the sky, a funny thing happened.

It was a beautiful afternoon – sun rays filtering through the gently swaying trees. The frisbee caught some of those rays, illuminating it as if it had caught fire. And there, in mid-flight, I noticed a perfectly purple ring outlining the center of the frisbee. Foster was right. The frisbee was purple. Maybe he was still a learning child, but in that moment, I realized I was still very much a learning adult.

But how? How was it possible that I hadn’t noticed the purple before? After all, I was the one who’d purchased it. And I hadn’t just purchased it – I’d studied it. My fact-finding knows no bounds when it comes to buying things. If I’m intent on getting something, I always make sure I’m getting the bestof that something. This orange/purple frisbee had been reviewed and tested by apparent frisbee experts. It was the best of the best. And it was orange. Until it wasn’t.

Our brains are primitive machines. They’ve done a remarkable job of keeping the human race alive and thriving for hundreds of thousands of years by being hyper-focused on survival. And the way they’ve accomplished this is by becoming prediction engines – not seeing reality as it is, but by projecting it into existence. If our ancestors could predict what was behind the bushes, they had a better chance of living to see another day.

Our projections come from our vast catalog of past experiences. Experiences form memories by establishing neural connections, and these neural connections then become the filters for how we see the world. For the majority of our lives, having access to a prediction engine is a wonderful thing. Predicting what’s next when the stakes are low (determining a frisbee’s color) allows our bodies to conserve massive amounts of energy. It takes a lot of effort to make sense of things.

Just take a look around – there are millions and millions of stimuli surrounding you. From sounds and colors to smells and textures, you could arguably spend years detailing life as it exists within a 10-foot radius of your body. Most of those details are inconsequential to us from a survival point of view, so our brain tunes them out. It doesn’t want to take the finite amounts of energy we have to render objective reality when a good-enough prediction will do the job just fine. As a result, the orange frisbee of my childhood becomes the orange frisbee of my present day. This is known as the human filing error. I’ve unconsciously put my past into my future. I didn’t see purple because my brain didn’t predict it. Only when my son said the word “purple” did the possibility of sensing it arise, and the filing error had the chance to be corrected. Again, a low stakes experience.

But what happens when the stakes are high? What happens when we really need to see things as they are, and not just through some distorted lens? It’s in these moments that our ability to fix the filing error becomes crucial. And the first step to putting the past back where it belongs is by becoming aware of our filters in the first place. In this sense, I’m using the word “filter” to mean an “interpreted experience.” We can’t remove these filters from our lives – this is how our brains function, after all – but by becoming aware of them, we can greatly reduce the unconscious control they have over our perception of the world.

Typically, most of our filters are searching for potential threats to our homeostasis. Most likely, these don’t show up as the threats faced by our ancestors, but the modern equivalent: the urgent work email you open at 6 A.M., the way someone responds to an idea you’ve been cultivating, etc. We’re always scanning for problems, and when we find one, we usually can’t focus on anything else. If someone gives me a compliment, I might be happy for 15 minutes. If someone harshly criticizes me, I’ll think bad thoughts about them for months.

These threats and problems become the orange of our frisbee. The more you focus on them, the more of them you see. But we can counter them by introducing our own version of the word “purple”: that is to say, when we focus and speak about what we value, we can shift our brain’s filtering to seek value.

So as you look into your own future, and the road ahead of you, make sure you’re not driving forward with your eyes on the rear view mirror. What do you care about? What is important to you? Are you willing to let go of your filters from the past to see clearly what’s possible? Are you able to see the purple? This is an invitation to begin that practice.