I grew up under the impression that life was a journey. That I was on my way to some finish line, with clear checkpoints along the way.
But over the past couple of years, this mindset has come into question.
Just a few months ago, I wrote an article that I called Embracing the Journey. And in that, I struck the idea that maybe it’s the process of moving towards a goal that actually matters more than simply the end game or the finish line.
Heading into 2018, I’ve been further toying with this idea, and I recently came across a video that captures this mindset better than anything else I’ve seen (courtesy Kevin Rose).
If you haven’t seen this before, it’s well worth the 4-minutes it’ll take to watch.
(Note: although my previous post and this video are titled almost exactly the opposite, the core idea is actually very similar)
This video speaks to me because I’ve seen firsthand the temptation to view life as a race. And the damage that can do.
When I look back on my life, I see so many times when I’ve felt the urge to push towards a finish line. I see semesters in school when I couldn’t wait to finish my last exam. I see days, and even weeks that I wished away, waiting for a big game or a vacation to come.
And every time that I’ve allowed myself to wish away the present, I’ve been disappointed. I regret every minute that I’ve spent living in the future, and the happiness that I’ve lost because of this.
Fortunately, I don’t fall into these traps often. I’m typically able to maintain perspectve and enjoy whatever I have going on in the present.
But I see the temptation to constantly push towards arbitrary deadlines and checkpoints, and I’ve certainly gone down this path more often that I would like.
Through the years, I’ve tried to figure out what it is that causes me to wish away time. What is it that makes me watch the clock, waiting for a day of work to end? Or why did I sometimes feel that I was in such a hurry to get through high school?
And I haven’t really had a good answer. I knew that it was sometimes more convenient to focus on the negative than it was to remember the positive. But I didn’t have a complete answer.
Until this video finally nailed it.
When I find myself missing out on opportunities to enjoy my life, it’s almost always because I’ve gotten stuck thinking about my life in terms of finish lines and checkpoints.
It’s understandable. I’m naturally an achiever, and my years of academic and athletic training prepared me to be incredibly productive.
And for the most part, that’s a good thing. I’m proud of all of the things I’ve been able to accomplish in my life so far, and I’m excited about what the future has to hold.
But life passes me by when I get stuck with a blind focus on the next achievement.
I vividly remember one day when I was working on a paper during my senior year of college, and I remember wishing for graduation so I wouldn’t have to deal with any more group projects. I couldn’t wait to be done.
But as soon as my head cleared and I gained some perspective, I realized just how stupid this thought was.
Sure group projects were tough sometimes, but it was silly for me to lose sight of all of the great things I had going for me. Rather than looking forward to being done with college, I should’ve been enjoying it while I was there.
As Watts puts it, I should’ve been singing while the music was playing.
The tough part is that there’s almost always something to be looking forward to.
Just a year or so after college, my wife and I were living on our own in a different part of the country, and we decided that it was time to head back home near our friends and families.
When we were gone, it was so tempting to look at the highlights of our friends’ and families’ lives, and to imagine how much better our lives would be if we lived closer to them. We would see a party that we missed, or a big announcement that we weren’t around for, and feel bad for missing it. It seemed like things would be so different when we moved.
But as soon as we got back to Michigan, it was obvious that nothing had really changed.
I mean, from a literal perspective almost everything was different.
But nothing had actually changed.
I was still fundamentally the same person that I had been while we were in South Carolina. Sure I started a new job and suddenly had more time to spend with friends and families, which was great, but the novelty wore off quickly. Any big changes that we had anticipated really weren’t nearly as important as we had expected, and for every positive aspect that entered our lives there was a matching negative consequence.
Simply put, we were still the same people, just living in a different state.
And I think that’s part of what Alan Watts is getting at in the video.
It’s easy to think about life as a mission to make progress towards a destination, and at a smaller scale to think about the different checkpoints that we can hit along the way.
But if we aren’t careful, this type of thinking can cause us to miss out on the present.
For myself, I’ve found that the real joy comes in the development process. It’s great to have goals, and objectives that we’re aiming for, but it’s critical to remember that the end goal is just a small part of the process.
Striving to graduate from college is great, but you can’t let that take away from your ability to enjoy the time you have in college. Just like it was fun for me to think about moving back to Michigan, but it would’ve been a shame if I had allowed those thoughts to diminish my experience in South Carolina.
It’s easy to get caught in the habit of thinking about how much different, and better, things will be once something happens in the future. But living in the future too often is a great way to miss out on the present.
So as we’re kicking off 2018, I’m going make it a point to keep this idea front and center. When I’m working towards securing a new contract at work, or when I have some project or trip planned, I want to make a conscious effort to enjoy every step of the way.
The point isn’t to stop planning, but rather to avoid letting future plans take away from the present.
And I hope that you consider doing the same.
Let’s head into 2018 remembering to sing while the music is playing.