Don’t Discount Your Past on the Path to a Successful Career

We love the rags-to-riches story, where the protagonist comes from humble beginnings and overcomes numerous obstacles to have an impactful, fulfilling, and lucrative career. I think we are drawn to these stories because, at some level, we recognize that our pasts shape who we become. Ask a successful person how they achieved success, and they will recount how their past shaped them, motivated them, and helped them overcome challenges. Psychological research suggests that these kinds of life stories are a fundamental way people make sense of and find meaning and purpose in their life experiences.

Even though we can all think of ways that the past has guided us in our careers, there are times when we may feel that to accomplish our goals we must stop reminiscing about the past and instead focus on the future. I remember feeling like this in college. Whenever I felt lonely or had difficulty adjusting to the academic rigors of my classes, I’d find myself mentally time-traveling to happier times, when things were simpler and less stressful, times when the love and support of family and friends was more readily available. Eventually, I’d come to my senses and tell myself that to be successful, I must stop reminiscing and focus on the future; I’d remind myself to concentrate on the task at hand and think about what I must do to actualize my career goals.

It wasn’t until graduate school, when I started studying and conducting research on the psychological impact of nostalgia, that I realized my tendency to daydream about the past was not only normal but psychologically functional. In his book, Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live a More Meaningful Life, Clay Routledge argues that people can gather the strength needed to plan for and pursue their future goals by reflecting on personally meaningful nostalgic memories. Like my college self, people are more drawn to the past when they experience big changes in their lives, like going to college or starting a new career. Nostalgia functions to ground us. It reminds us of who we are, assures us that things will be okay, and confirms that we are in control. Once our sense of agency is restored, we can envision a positive future and work toward making our aspirations a reality. Indeed, research indicates that nostalgic reflection promotes a general sense of optimism and inspires the confidence that people need to pursue personally meaningful goals.

Nostalgia and College Optimism

Psychological researchers (myself included) have started to explore the applied value of nostalgia’s capacity to promote future goals for career progress and success. For many, the start of the career path is college. Every student experiences stress and faces challenges en route to a college degree, but for some students, like students from working-class backgrounds or first-generation college students (who are the first in their immediate family to attend college), struggles touch on personal fears of not being fit for college. I wondered whether nostalgia could help remedy this situation by promoting a positive future-oriented mindset.

To test this potential, I ran a pair of experiments instructing first-generation college students to complete a brief activity where they either brought to mind and wrote about a nostalgic memory or a non-nostalgic memory. Following the memory reflection task, students were asked about their feelings on their potential to find belonging in their college community, as well as their optimism for college success. Students who recalled a nostalgic memory, compared to a non-nostalgic memory, had a more positive outlook about their potential to fit in and be accepted in college, which in turn was associated with feeling more expectant about college success.

Nostalgia and Career Motivation

Of course, college is only the beginning of a career path and for many not part of the career path at all. Could the future-orienting power of nostalgia also contribute to career success? Studies have begun to uncover the utility of nostalgia in the workplace. Similar to the research on college students, reflecting on personally nostalgic experiences has been linked to a positive attitude and approach to work. One study, for example, found that employees who reflected on a nostalgic memory were more internally motivated to persist on work tasks and put more effort into completing work compared to employees who reflected on an ordinary memory. As a result of this internal motivation, nostalgic employees were found to put more effort into work tasks. Nostalgia’s capacity to inspire internal motivation and subsequent work effort was especially strong for employees who felt they were being treated unfairly by their supervisors. Thus, nostalgia helped working adults facing challenges in the workplace find internal reasons to perform up to their potential.

Research examining the future-orienting power of nostalgia in the workplace has also focused on organizational nostalgia. Organizational nostalgia is a sentimental longing or wistful affection for past experiences in the organization where one works. Research has found that organizational nostalgia is linked to feelings that one’s work is meaningful and less of a desire to quit, particularly for employees experiencing high levels of burnout. Once again, nostalgia appears to inspire strength and a positive outlook for employees facing work-related challenges.

Another study found that employees who had many nostalgic memories of their organization were more dedicated, absorbed in, and energetic about their work. This stronger engagement led to better performance in regular work tasks and was predictive of organizational citizenship behaviors, such as being willing to help out by taking on extra work, being courteous to fellow employees, and being willing to be a positive representative of the organization. This stronger engagement was also predictive of a creative approach to work, as well as support for positive organizational change. Thus, employees who have a nostalgic attachment to their workplace are more likely to advance because nostalgia stimulates commitment, performance, creativity, the ability to overcome challenges, and an openness to embrace organizational change.

Figuring out how to harness the power of the past via nostalgia can be an asset along the path to a successful career. But how does one go about doing so? There is some evidence that keeping a nostalgia journal or being effortful about regularly immersing oneself in nostalgic memories is an effective strategy. However, tapping into the future-orienting power of nostalgia may be as simple as embracing the tendency to mentally revisit better times when facing challenges along our career path. For example, remembering the support and success we had at a past job when struggling to adjust to a new position and workplace can help instill the positive mindset we need to relentlessly pursue our career goals, engage in effective problem-solving, and embrace change.

Given the benefits of organizational nostalgia, workplaces may also look to create experiences that allow employees to feel important, respected, accomplished, and connected. For example, giving employees meaningful roles on projects/initiatives to benefit the organization and rewarding their successful contributions with awards, raises, and promotions can help create positive memories of achievements employees can draw upon when facing setbacks. Also, activities such as organizational retreats could help employees bond with one another creating memories of feeling connected with and supported by their colleagues and supervisors. Employees can then bring to mind these memories when feeling disconnected from colleagues amid personnel changes. Doing so could remind employees what a supportive place the organization can be, and inspire them to reach out to connect with new hires. Such positive experiences may help employees develop nostalgic memories of the workplace that can in turn help them sustain the internal motivation necessary for a fulfilling career.

Andrew Abeyta
Andrew Abeyta
Andrew Abeyta, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Social and Existential Motives Lab at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, and a fellow with the Flourishing in Action project at the Archbridge Institute’s Human Flourishing Lab. He is a social psychologist who studies how people satisfy the psychological needs for meaning in life and social belonging. Dr. Abeyta’s research focuses on psychological factors, like the experience of nostalgia, religion, and supernatural beliefs, that promote social belonging and meaning in life. Additionally, Dr Abeyta’s research is interested in the implications of the needs for meaning in life and social belonging for human flourishing, psychological resilience, and human agency. Dr. Abeyta earned his BA in psychology from Colorado College, his MA in experimental psychology from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, and his PhD in social and health psychology from North Dakota State University.
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