The Importance of Forgetting

In such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable. This is the last time I shall ever remember it myself.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

At its best, memory helps us sustain greatness, ensures that we learn from our mistakes, and allows us to build upon past success. However, at its worst, memory is one of the greatest barriers for transformational change that is essential for the sustainability and growth of our organizations.

Memory ties us down to structures that limit creativity: a school schedule that we have accepted because it’s always been done that way, a curriculum we’ve used for many years, a development plan that wastes more money than it raises.

The greatest innovators of our time have been those who dared to forget, to abandon the collective memory and to try something new. They are known as “disruptors.” Instead of always asking, how has it traditionally been done, what method have we used before, they look outside the box. It is precisely their freedom from memory that has changed the most basic paradigms. In today’s world, they have brought about new ways to access knowledge, to communicate with others, even the ways we make purchases and access entertainment. Things I never imagined as a child are simple aspects of how we function today—because innovators were courageous enough to shed their memory and engage their creative imagination.

Memory prevents us from trying again when an idea didn’t fly the first time around. We hesitate to try a risky, non-traditional style of teaching, like overnights for younger kids. We give up even approaching a donor who once said no, forfeiting money for a specific effort that didn’t appeal to donors a few years back. We are afraid to try something, even though it has great potential, because it didn’t hit the target the first time around.

Memory keeps us from making necessary staff changes that could be the key to moving our schools forward. How many times have we been reluctant to be honest with a faculty or staff member about their lack of fit with the organization because they are perceived to be the key to institutional memory, or the one that alumni remember from the good old days? We fear a severed relationship with the alumni because one employee holds those bonds, whether or not that employee is helping the school fulfill its mission.

Most critical of all, memory keeps us from making important existential decisions for our organizations. In their book Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey liken our reaction to the prospect of change to an immune system fighting off disease. In the past 20 years, how many small day schools have floundered and closed rather than try a radical approach like merging with other institutions? They fear the loss of their sacred identity. They resist joining up with others who are different—to the point that they resist their way out of existence. But what they fail to see is that the other group may have strengths that they lack and in turn may benefit from aspects of the flailing school. Together, both institutions may be able to form a single entity that is much healthier and more dynamic than either one could be on their own.

The school I lead was formed in 2012, the product of a successful merger of a Reform day school with a Schechter school. Today the school is a thriving, pluralistic day school, twice the size of its legacy schools combined, with enough students for sports teams and robust social opportunities. But in 2010, proposals for a merger were met with adamant resistance by members of both school communities. I reacted like the others, holding on to the past and unable to envision the future.

The biggest barrier to our merger was not logistical or financial. It was our memory: our resistance to reimagining what we knew, and envisioning not loss, but opportunity. Even after we decided to merge, memories of the old clouded our ability to see the future. Locked into the mindset of denominational schools, we saw ourselves as a combination of Reform and Conservative. It took years, and the fresh eyes of a new director of Jewish life, to teach us to imagine that being a pluralistic school could be an asset.

I remember well the excitement I had when I heard him talk about the value of pluralism. This new paradigm was something we could be enthusiastic about? It was an asset? When we remembered, we engaged our minds in all that we lost; we mourned for too long. It kept us from dreaming forward. When we gave ourselves permission to forget, all of a sudden we were able to see, to salvage our institutions and to thrive.

What would day school education look like if we cast aside memory? We tell our students when they make bad choices that they get a fresh start every day. We nourish the innovator inside each of them and teach them to recalibrate, rethink and reiterate when their first version doesn’t solve the problem. We teach them that anything is possible, and they should dream big. Day schools would be well-served if we lived by our own advice.

The questions day school boards and leadership teams should be asking are, What would need to be true in order to make this change? What could we gain from reimagining our institution? What seems impossible but would be our dream? We should be engaging in exercises of the imagination that stir creativity and innovation. I am curious about what we might create if we could just forget for a few minutes and break free of the structures that we have grown used to. If we could suspend our memory and engage our brains in creative dreaming, we may be able to take our missions to a much higher level.

During our holidays, we are tasked with remembering our past. Rosh Hashanah is even called Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, for God and for us. Surely, memory can be an asset; we should not discount the value of reflecting on where we have been and how our past has shaped our present. But we must not allow our memories to keep us from doing the important work of growing, transforming and being open up to opportunities of the future. In order to accomplish that work, forgetting can be as important as remembering.

Author
Cheryl Maayan
Issue
Organizational Memory
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership