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Never Look Back

By Marty Nemko

My father is a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family to the Nazis. After the war, he was dumped onto a cargo boat and dropped in the Bronx, with no English, no money, no education, and knowing no one. His first job was sewing shirts in a Harlem factory. On the weekend, he sold shirts he had sewn on the streets of Harlem, out of a cardboard box. He did that until he had saved up enough for the first and last month’s rent on the tiniest, smelliest store in New York City:
105 Moore St.
, Brooklyn. On one side was a live chicken market, spewing the aroma of stale blood. On the other side was a Puerto Rican deli. So the blood smell merged with that of chiccarones (deep-fried pork intestines).

When I was about twelve, I asked my father, “Dad, how come you never complain?” His response was the most important lesson anyone has ever taught me. He said, “Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won’t give them one minute more. Martin, never look back; always move forward.”

That lesson was so valuable because every time I’m tempted to look back on the bad things that happened to me, I immediately think of my father, then say “Stop,” and think, “What’s the next positive thing I can do?” That has stood me in good stead. My clients have also found it valuable. It has been particularly effective with my clients who have had a lot of psychotherapy. Therapy encourages them to look back, and inadvertently, to blame their current problems on their past: being ignored or abused by parents, being dumped by husband, or issues related to their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Therapy may have given them insight into themselves, but their life is no better. In fact, I’ve found that many of my therapized clients have been made inert from all that analysis of their past pain. Like a muscle that gets bigger the more it’s used, therapized patients’ past pains take up an ever larger part of their consciousness until it turns them into what I call, therapy paralytics. My father’s approach—constantly substituting forward movements for backward thoughts—made his painful bad memories an ever smaller part of his consciousness. It’s hard to be thinking back to the Holocaust when your life is filled with thoughts about upcoming work, relationships, hobbies, and fun. I’ve read, listened to, and watched many interviews of highly successful people. The vast majority of them minimize the impact of the bad in their past. They’re always saying things like, “I guess there probably was some racism but I just didn’t focus on that.” I’ve recently added a phrase to my father’s dictum: “Don’t look sideways.” I know people who don’t live in the past but are saddled with such thoughts as, “I’ll never be as successful as my brother.” Or “I feel so bad that my fellow classmates are all investment bankers, lawyers and the like, with nice houses and nice cars, and I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.” That sideways thinking is no more productive than looking backward. Don’t compare yourself with anyone or societal norms. Simply ask yourself, “What is the next positive step I can take?”

So, never look back; never look sideways; always move forward. I can offer you no better advice.

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