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The Present is a Gift (So are the Past and the Future)

Understanding time and how to benefit from it.

They say, “Don’t live in the past, or you’ll be depressed,” and “Don’t live in the future, or you’ll be anxious.” Some people say, “Live at peace in the present.” They say, “Live in the moment.” “The present is a gift”. What do you think about that? Discarding the past or the future (as much as the present) is delusional. First, we must understand that each time frame has costs and benefits. No one is better than the other. So having said that: how can we embrace the benefits of the past, present, and future? And how can we better manage the challenges in each time frame?

Past     

The past can be a tricky time frame. In the past, you can find both sources of strength and sorrow, some memories that you cherish and others that discourage you. Why would you want to revisit the past? Certainly, if you go to the past to compare yourself unreasonably, you’ll give yourself a hard time. If you give the past the power to label you negatively in any way, then you can be held back. One of my favorite authors, James Altucher, says: “Comparing is wearing. Complaining is draining.” Granted, past failures can be stressful—but they can be empowering if you learn something from them or address them. I can see why there’s so many sayings about being in the present. The past can cause us to lament missed opportunities, to feel labeled, or to fear change.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can believe in change and embrace it. Considering the past with the intent to take action and grow as a result is powerful. The past holds power. If Sapiens didn’t find a way to pass on the learning from the mistakes of the past, where would we be? If we look at the past deliberately to learn, change a behavior, or to take action, then the past can be a gift, too. Choosing to take action to learn and grow from your experiences is always within your reach.

In Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, writes: “Being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them. My goal is not to drive fear out completely, because fear is inevitable in high-stakes situations. What I want to do is loosen its grip on us. While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.” A lot of what holds you back from trying new things is your reluctance to make mistakes, instead of learning from them. Ed Catmull invites you to think about mistakes differently: “Mistakes aren’t a necessary evil. They aren’t evil at all. They are an inevitable consequence of doing something new (and, as such, should be seen as valuable; without them, we’d have no originality).”

Future

The future has been misunderstood and under attack lately. Misunderstood because thinking about the future is often thought of as a distraction. But being distracted is being nowhere. Being in the future deliberately, however, can help you imagine what could be. The future holds possibility. The challenge with imagining is that you can imagine both a desirable future and anticipate a future where you might fail. Imagining failure and loss can make us anxious or worried. But uncertainty and change come hand in hand. If we imagine undesirable outcomes, let’s make it a point to address them, instead of worrying about them. There’s always a gap and we’re always changing. But the imagined future is worth creating because that’s where you can innovate to add the most value to yourself and others.

I like how Peter Thiel puts it in his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, “In the most minimal sense, the future is simply the set of all moments yet to come. But what makes the future distinctive and important isn’t that it hasn’t happened yet, but rather that it will be a time when the world looks different from today. In this sense, if nothing about our society changes for the next 100 years, then the future is over 100 years away.” Nobody can’t predict the future. But you can shape it with your actions. You can reinvent yourself and enjoy what you do (and will do) as long as you imagine a future and work towards it. The key is to remain flexible to change paths and alert for the unforeseen opportunities we might encounter.

Present

And the present is no different. With so much information overflow, it is increasingly harder to focus. There’s so much to catch up on, so many personal expectations, and overall distraction that the present can be numbing. Being in the present deliberately, like the past and the future, means that you make an effort to use your time wisely and to enjoy your life—with all its ups and downs. Enjoying the present does not mean controlling how you feel as it unfolds, but rather that you believe you can deal with whatever happens. The present is a gift. And it feels like a gift when you exercise gratitude.

But there’s more to the present. The present is where you act to construct the future you imagine, and to learn from the past you’ve experienced. A deliberate present helps you move ever closer to your future through trial and error. The present can be elusive. But you can be aware about this, grasp it, and do the things that are important to you. The deliberate present is difficult—full of struggles, but full of joys. It’s where you create, have setbacks, grow, get frustrated, and enjoy life.

When we become conscious about the benefits of the past, present, and future, we become more empowered. We know that things won’t happen as we want, but that shouldn’t deter us from imagining a future and creating it today. The present is about acting, but also about being patient and tolerant with ourselves. Things take time. And there’s nothing wrong with living in any given time frame as long as we remember to focus on what’s important for us today: Do I need to learn something? Do I need to get something done? Or do I need to step back and envision a different outcome?

Juan F. Diaz

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