One of the most powerful themes of the self-help movement is the joy of living in the moment. If we obsess about the future – or even worse, the past – then we will probably miss the pleasures and possibilities of the present. Seneca put it well: “The greatest hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon tomorrow and wastes today.”
It is certainly a danger, and can be seen most vividly in the compulsion felt by some of society’s most talented people to become a big success. Seneca also said, “While all excesses are in a way hurtful, the most dangerous is unlimited good fortune.”
So is planning for the future harmful?
In Praise of Strategy
To ask the question is to answer it. No, of course not! If our forbears had not planned for a better future through deliberate striving, and through the exercise of creativity, we would not have the affluence enjoyed today. We would still be skulking around in our caves, stumbling around in the dark, subject to famine and attacks by wild animals. Without abstract thought, without science, and without discipline of the mind we would never have arrived at the inventions and conceptual breakthroughs that have transformed and hugely enriched human life. Without the accumulation of capital – deferring gratification for a better future – we would never have had the industrial revolution. Without planning for the future, it would never have arrived.
In short, we need strategy. We need a road map of the possible routes our lives – and our careers and our organizations – could take. We need to fashion a route that might work and is worth putting effort behind. If it doesn’t work, we need to modify the strategy in accordance with the feedback we’ve received from “the market” – other humans. We need to be opportunistic as well – but unless we are looking for opportunities, for ways of making the future better than the present, we are unlikely to make much of a dent on reality.
So was Seneca wrong? Are the self-help writers fools? Is the emphasis on the present moment just another of the “New Age” nostrums that sound and feel nice, but when examined, when subjected to just a modicum of intellectual rigor, collapse like a house of cards?
No, I don’t think that’s right either. If we examine our lives and look into our past and our personality, it’s likely that we will see times when we have been, and still are, missing out on what is happening around us, because we are preoccupied with some future objective. Planning can definitely go too far. Warren Buffett famously compared obsessing about one’s resumé (CV) to saving up sex for one’s old age. There really is a place for smelling the roses and all the other awful clichés. As someone said, ultimately our lives comprise the days we spend, and how we spend them defines what we do with our lives.
So where does that get us? Is it impossible to live in the moment and also scheme for a better tomorrow?
I think there are three ways of squaring the circle.
Division of Labor
One solution is that we pay certain people to worry about improving our future lives, so we can get on with the ordinary business of living our daily lives.
This already happens. The future thinkers are inventors, scientists, engineers, strategists, “symbolic analysts”, reformers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs – anyone who crafts a better way of doing something we do at the moment, or a way to do something not done before.
These people tend not to live in the present, at least not to the same extent as most of us. The image of the absent-minded professor is based on reality. The French mathematician Henri Poincaré once solved a knotty problem while talking to a friend and stepping on to a bus – the answer suddenly came to him. You can be sure that his subconscious had been working overtime to provide the answer, because dear old Henri was absolutely obsessive about solving the theorem. That is absolutely marvelous. But you wouldn’t have wanted Henri to drive the bus. He was jolly lucky to have made it onto the bus in one piece.
Some people live more in the present than others. That benefits both groups.
The 80/20 Principle
Whenever there is something to be said for both sides of a conundrum, salvation comes from the 80/20 principle. What do I mean?
In a word, selectivity.
Live in the present for most of your time.
But live in the future – be concerned about building a better life for yourself and the people you truly care about – for the vital moments when you can make a difference.
When you make the decisions that may change your life, and that of others.
Choosing a life partner. Deciding on a career. Accepting a job offer or rejecting it. Helping a friend in need. Starting a business. Inventing a new product or service. Cultivating a new friendship with someone who can possibly change your life, and certainly enrich it.
These are all examples of decisions and activities that are of crucial importance. Making the right decision is a highly leveraged action. A small amount of time will have a huge influence on the future.
But these decisions don’t come along all that often, or consume – even in total – a large proportion of your time.
So live in the present moment most of the time – perhaps 95-99% of it.
But plan for the future in the 1-5% of your time that can have an impact out of all proportion to the time. When it comes to those decisions, stop smelling the roses. Think as carefully as you possibly can. Heighten your instincts. Seek help in making the right decision. Be utterly mindful. Be as skillful as you possibly can. And be utterly committed to the decision.
Let most decisions – the unimportant ones – take care of themselves.
For the vital decisions, put everything you have into making the right call.
Knowing What You Want
The third way of squaring the moment with the future is to be crystal clear about what you want to get out of life.
It’s banal but true – this is not a rehearsal. The vital decisions you make will determine whether your life broadly achieves what you want, or not. But the decisions themselves must be informed by a higher level of will. Henri Poincaré desperately wanted his mathematical proof. That’s what he did. That gave meaning to his life.
You can’t care about many things or many people (the 80/20 principle again).
You must know what you want – or you are unlikely to get it.
Do you want to make a lot of money, or spend your life with a partner for whom you have great respect and affection? Which is more important?
Do you want to create a great business, or become a world-class musician? Or would you rather smell the roses?
Do you want to invent a new way of thinking? If so, you will need to study very hard and learn to deploy your most creative side. Other things will have to go by the board.
When you are 20, you are unlikely to know exactly what you want. Many people who are 60 still don’t know. I don’t know the ideal age to decide – because experience and experimentation are necessary to make the best choice. But I do know that it helps to decide before you die. I suspect that knowing the answer will prolong your life as well as enrich it.
The notion of living in the present moment is not claptrap.
But neither is thinking about the future, and what you want to achieve.
The balance – or more likely the imbalance – between the two will determine what you make of life; and what life makes of you.