Cannibalizing the Past

As a former Apple engineer, I have found myself having to defend an unintuitive yet apparently very wise practice called cannibalizing our product line. The basic premise is the past is always going to be consumed by the future.  Our old products will be made obsolete by new products entering into the market. This can result in a lot of obsolete inventory everywhere in the supply chain pipeline which is not a particularly profitable way to conduct business but was also considered simply a cost of doing business. 

At Apple eventually, the thought occurred, that if a company could cannibalize its own product line then we would know when it was coming and plan for it thereby saving a ton of money by reducing inventory and WIP (work in progress). In fact, it gives one a competitive advantage which is now well understood in tech industries.

Have you ever considered this is not only true about products but could apply to much more? It could apply to processes and even relationships, including one’s relationship with themselves. The new You obsoletes the old You.  

Yes, we all tell stories constructed mostly of memories but sometimes also containing wishful thinking. Sometimes these are stories we tell ourselves and sometimes they are stories we tell others but the recounting of memories does alter them. Apparently, your memory is like the telephone game, where people take turns whispering a message into the ear of the next person in line? By the time the last person speaks it out loud, the message has radically changed. It’s been altered with each retelling. Similarly, each time you recall an event, your brain distorts it. Research supported by National Science Foundation grant BCS1025697 and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health grant T32 NS047987 supports this.

It is now clear that we are cannibalizing our own past, simply recalling it. This happens involuntarily with no effort on our part. As I am approaching my seventieth year, and have told my stories to myself and others, I can not help but wonder how much of what I think happened actually happened the way I currently recall it. I guess this is simply a cost of doing the business of living for we are not the same person today as we were years ago. When we reread a book or watch a movie or listen to a piece of music from our past, we can not help bringing our present selves to the occasion, and therefore the possibility of a new interpretation.  If you are a particularly creative and imaginative person does this mean your recollections are somewhat more suspect? Or is this an opportunity?  

If this can be a constructive act for businesses, I can not help but wonder if it could also be a constructive approach to bettering ourselves. As it does seem clear that our past is going to be cannibalized by our future, could this be done in such a way as to better our future not through deliberate exaggeration or self-aggrandizement but by consciously somewhat altering our past to support our present?  How can we tell if we are telling ourselves stories that are true? Or at least mostly true? 

Very long-term relationships are extremely helpful here. Of course, when reminiscing with people you have known for a long time you will discover differences in your recollections of circumstances. These differences can be quite large or fairly tiny.  But if you have a good fortune as I do of many long-term relationships it is possible to reconstruct a perhaps more accurate story about your shared past(s).  Journaling can also be a useful reference to return to.

As an Involuntary Innovator and therefore a creative outlier, I can not help but to think it is not only a business that can consciously cannibalize its past but so can people. I have not yet determined what to do with this awareness but since blogging is like journaling the understanding of this insight can be tracked and I intend to do so, for we are involuntarily altering our pasts in the retelling of our stories simply by recalling a memory.  

It can be difficult to know what has actually occurred, making our stories a bit suspect, but at least we can be aware that there is a range from affirmation recall to having some external evidence of the way things were. 

What is more important is how you want things to be in the future and how can one constructively and consciously make use of a story, while being mindful of potential flaws in our recollections.