The Most Important Lesson You'll Ever Learn

An unusual message from a Holocaust survivor.

Posted Jan 20, 2015

My dad, Boris Nemko
Source: My dad, Boris Nemko

The year was 1939. The town was Sierpc, Poland. My father was a teenager living with his family. One day, there was a knock on the door and it was two Nazis in black boots. Unlike in the movies, they didn't yell. One was silent and the other whispered: "You will be out of your house with only what you can carry on your back by noon tomorrow or else."

The next day, there were 12 Nazis but now they weren't whispering. And they went into the Jewish households and threw the able-bodied people on one truck and the old, young, and infirm on another.

My father never saw his parents again.

At the end of the war, my father was dropped in the Bronx without a penny to his name—no English, no family, no education. Only the scars of the Holocaust.

What did he do? He took the only job he could get—sewing shirts in a factory in Harlem. And at night, he went to Roosevelt High School's night school to learn English. And on the weekends? He went to the owner of the factory and asked, "Can I buy the shirts I sewed for you during the week and sell them out of a cardboard box on the street?"

He used that money to pay the first and last month's rent on the only storefront he could afford: 105 Moore St in one of New York City’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

It was so small that he had to display most of the merchandise on folding tables in front of the store. And on the weekends, when kids were out of school, they'd come by, grab clothing from the tables, and run away.

So when I was old enough, on Saturdays, I'd play security guard.

And I remember standing in front of the store one day with my dad and asking him, "Daddy, how come you so rarely talk about the Holocaust?"

I’ll never forget what he said: "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more.

"Martin, never look back. Always take the next step forward."

That lesson was valuable to me 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 my next step forward?” That has stood me in good stead.

My clients have also found value in “Never look back; always take the next step forward.” It's been particularly effective with people who have had a lot of traditional psychotherapy. That encourages people to look back, and if only inadvertently, to blame their current problems on their immutable past—being ignored or abused by parents, being dumped by husband, or other issues related to their race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Therapy may have given these people insight into themselves but they often report that it didn’t improve their life much. Indeed, I’ve found that many of my well-therapized clients have been rendered more inert from all that exploration of 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—ever substituting forward movement for backward thought—made his painful bad memories an ever-smaller part of his consciousness. It’s hard to think back to the Holocaust when your life is filled with thoughts about upcoming work, relationships, hobbies, and fun.

Each of us has had bad things happen to us but I've had the privilege of having been career counselor to some of our most successful, contributory people as well as to some real strugglers. And one of the differentiating factors is that most of the successful ones follow my father's advice: Never look back; always take the next step forward.

I’ve recently added a phrase to that: “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. Might you want to stop comparing yourself to others or to societal norms and, instead, focus on, “What’s my next step forward?”

In sum, I can offer no better advice than, “Never look back; never look sideways; always take the next step forward.”

Dr. Nemko’s nine books are available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.