If your organization sends the signal that its best days are in the past, even if inadvertently, don’t be surprised that your most creative team members grow frustrated, disillusioned, and eventually just leave. Furthermore, unmitigated nostalgia—the kind that is never interrogated—will suggest that the challenges and opportunities of the present are reflections of declension, of the struggle to get back to some previous status of health, success, etc.
Nostalgia is one of the most powerful forces that prevents both individuals and organizations from moving forward on mission. To be more specific, a deeply emotional attachment to a meaningful past can severely restrict forward momentum. Yuval Levin has rightly pointed out the ways in which varied forms of nostalgia in American life have served to fracture our national identity, driving us further into our political polarization and keeping us from finding healthy pathways forward.
That said, it should be noted that nostalgia is not a negative thing in and of itself. The reality is that many of us, both as individuals and organizations, have moments and people in our past to which we sense a deep attachment, a fondness of memory for what those represent to us. Some of those memories are more accurate than others. After all, human beings have a remarkable ability to construct memories that are increasingly distant from the truth as time passes. We are prone to romanticizing the past, sometimes because we find the present so challenging or disorienting. But those dynamics of the human experience do not negate the reality that there is something good and right about rightly remembering and honoring the good in the past. And there certainly is something real about a measured grief or lament over the loss of those seasons or loved ones.
I will be the last to suggest that we are excessively historically conscious in the West. That is hardly the case. But historical consciousness and nostalgia are not the same thing. While historical consciousness is essential to shaping meaningful knowledge, nostalgia hits a different part of the human heart and mind. Nostalgia touches not just our minds, but our emotions—our deepest fears, insecurities, loves, and ideals. As such, it can be an incredibly powerful force for good. However, if nostalgia is allowed to be a dominant force in the life of any individual or organization, it will undermine the ability to fulfill the mission. Nostalgia is inescapable. But it has to be subordinated to the mission. Here are just a few ways in which nostalgia can derail your organization’s focus.
Nostalgia Can Confuse Core Values
Organizations that spend an inordinate amount of time trying to preserve the past eventually suffer an identity crisis. That’s largely because they have gradually slipped into mistaking where they’ve come from with who they are. The same is true for us as individuals. Our histories do indeed have a shaping influence on who we are. We never can really escape the past.
But who we are gets are the root of why we exist. Organizations that lose sight of this eventually begin to define their identity based on all sorts of cultural preferences and memories. Again, these factors are not necessarily bad or signs of any weakness. But they are poor substitutes for the core values that have to animate any organization and shape their culture.