According to thefreedictionary.com, “onward and upward” is an expression that is defined as “something that you say in order to encourage someone to forget an unpleasant experience or failure and to think about the future instead.”
Ah, the future! It is always the place at which, when we arrive, everything will be all right. Or is it really a state that actually never arrives? Perhaps the future is more of a quest to define conditions or circumstances in which we WANT to reside. And by doing so we actually bring the future to the now via our internal voice and associated actions!
In my view, adoption of an “onward and upward” position requires a few key ingredients: optimism, empathy and curiosity.
Optimism is defined as the ability to overcome adversity. Optimists are those folks who possess the presence of mind to evaluate situations that are intense, emotional or disappointing as something you are passing through… rather than something that is chronic, constant or never-ending.
Adoption of “onward and upward” spurs a dialogue more likely to move us forward; for example, “What can I do NOW?” or “How will I reposition this event?” Those skilled in this practice often use questions like the ones I just mentioned or make statements to themselves such as: “What’s done is done,” or “Lick your wounds and move on.” In other words, they move “onward and upward”! These folks do not just relive negative or unpleasant experiences, which would be more like “backward and downward,” so to speak.
“Onward and upward” sets a positive direction—one that relies on an “optimistic explanatory style” (Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman) that is necessary but, in and of itself, not sufficient. To adopt optimism for the long term, one must possess and display empathy.
Empathy is essentially the ability to understand situations from another’s perspective—without judgment. The lack of judgment is a result of monitoring one’s internal dialogue and moving away from thoughts such as, “What an idiot” to “What feeling is driving the behavior being displayed?” “How would I feel if it were me?” and “What can I do to help?”
Empathy becomes the measure of our own ability to choose to respond rather than to react. When we focus on how other people interpret a situation, it sheds light on the best approach to help with the adoption of “onward and upward.” Trust me… If you just walk into a group or team of folks experiencing concern, disappointment or anger over a situation, simply telling them, “Hey, onward and upward!” is most likely to yield a negative response even if you claim it as positive. This is because interpretation occurs at the recipient’s end and not at the sender’s.
This is where curiosity comes in. To be effective one must be curious… curious about how people are feeling, curious about why things happen, curious about the future, curious about steps to take to navigate difficult waters, etc. Curiosity affords one the opportunity to speak non-offensively and fosters the art of asking questions effectively and skillfully. Curiosity is an intellectual pursuit that suspends judgment and inspires honest communication.
The reality is that “onward and upward” is the call of the 21st century. There is simply not time enough to waste on “backward and downward.” So, what is YOUR plan?