As we live and get older, we learn a lot of things about life. Good and bad experiences serve us lessons and make us more equipped when dealing with our unpredictable future. We can also tap other people’s experiences to open us to new ideas. These thoughts were highlighted one day when my wife said that she appreciated my calm demeanor even though things are not going well. While I am not always like this, when I think about it, I attribute this behavior to one principle: living life on the path of least regret.
You may have heard people talk about bad things that happened to someone else. “Poor guy, he lost his job“, “She was diagnosed with breast cancer“, or “They lost their child” are some of the examples. When this happens we may feel shocked and sad for the other person. We may even think “Thank God that did not happen to me!“.
But what if it happened to you?
Shadow boxing is an important technique used in combat sports, especially boxing. It does not involve any equipment, only yourself. Typically you do this with an imaginary opponent, or you can just do it in front of a mirror (so your enemy is you). This can even be used to “simulate” an upcoming fight against an opponent as you imagine him standing in front of you.
Where are you are going?
Steve Jobs once said in a speech:
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.
I have confirmed this as well and I am pretty sure you can too if you think about it. Imagine yourself 10 years ago. Back then I resigned from my first job, depressed, without any significant savings, not knowing what I want to do with my life. Forward to 10 years and now I have a beautiful family, work that I love, and a good financial foundation.
Looking back, I had no idea that the actions that I took then will land me in where I am today. I left my first job only to find that its difficult for me to find another job that will use my previous experience. That prompted me to “start fresh” again and went to software development. This led me into a string of jobs and opportunities that eventually resulted in a time-independent, fully remote work where I have a significant impact in the company. Along my journey I also met my future wife and new lifelong friends.
During those years when I was switching jobs it certainly did not feel like premeditated actions. I am just going through the flow, taking in changes and opportunities as they arrive. There is no thought on what may happen in the future or if what I am doing is right or wrong.
When we hear about someone who landed a good career, won a prize in a game or a contest, we often say “that person is lucky!“. What is luck anyway? According to a dictionary definition:
luck (noun) – success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.
Note that the definition says that it is only apparently brought by chance, which means that it may not be the whole truth. On the surface, these successes or failures seem to just happen randomly on the individual but as we think about and analyze the situation, their actions did have a significant impact on their “luck”.
Like a roll of the dice, you can’t expect the outcome to be exactly what you want it to be. You have to roll it a couple of times (often more than you want) before you finally get the result that you desire.
Other people may seem to be “lucky” and get their results in just one or two rolls. But you may never know the number of rolls they have already done in other games that you were not in.
Instead of just aimlessly wandering around, hoping to find your destiny, wouldn’t it be better to just search for it?
Searching for something triggers unconscious biases. If you search long and hard for something, you may find it eventually. However, the results that you get are greatly affected by your mindset.
Let’s say you are madly in love with someone, or have been through a break-up. Suddenly the world seems to constantly remind you of the other person. The radio suddenly plays your song. You play a random game and one of the characters has the same name of the other person, and so on. In reality these events are just normal occurrences, but since your mind is fixated on the other person, anything that remotely reminds you of him/her gets front seat in your head.
If you want to convince yourself that you want a certain path, you actually don’t need convincing at all.
Letting it go
Instead of actively searching, I think it is better to just let life unfold. Trying hard to aim and grasp at something sometimes result in tragedy. This may sound fatalistic, but it is better for your mind if you learn to let go and let the events happen as they should be.
If you suddenly have an opportunity in life, don’t think too much about it. If your gut tells you to move forward, then take the opportunity. It may result in a failure, but when you look back decades from now, that opportunity may be the key to land you where you want to be.
To see opportunities, you cannot just lie down and wait for the universe to hand your destiny to you. Opportunities (and “luck”) happen only to people who are moving. Even if you can’t see any obvious signs of an opportunity right now, continue where you are on. Continue working at your job. Continue doing what life has been giving to you right now. Eventually, a path will open up to you but you need to keep moving to see that path.
For weeks I have been struggling on what to post this month. I have been thinking of topics that I want to write about but I can’t seem to get any ideas. Then one random night with a friend solved my problem when he asked the question: “Do you search for it or does it just stumble towards you one day?“.
Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash
Dale Carnegie is also the author of one of my most recommended books, How to win friends and influence people. So when I found out that he also wrote a book about worrying and anxiety, I knew that I am going to learn a lot. The concept of living in day-tight compartments was actually discussed in the very first chapter, but this idea was the most influential for me. If you feel like you do not have the time to read the whole book (which is just an excuse), give the first chapter a chance and you will not be disappointed.
What does living in day-tight compartments mean anyway? This term was first coined by Sir William Osler based on a quote that changed his life:
It is not our goal to see what lies dimly in the distance but to do what clearly lies at hand. – Thomas Carlisle
The Past and the Future
People have a natural tendency to try and see what is going to happen in the future. We are naturally curious and gifted with analytic thinking. We plan the things we want to do in the future, or are even able to “go back in time” by accessing memory from what happened in the past.
Thinking about the future often results in worrying that the outcome of things will not go the way we plan. We also worry that there is something that is going to happen that will change the course of our lives. In the same vein, people also think a lot about what has happened in the past, wondering why it happened, why it happened to them, and wondering how things today could have been different if the past did not happen the way it did.
Both of these, being anxious about the future and revisiting what happened in the past, are not helpful at all. The past is already gone and cannot be changed, and the future cannot be fully determined no matter how much we try.
Living in day-tight compartments means that we only think about and focus on the current day. In a compartment, the walls on the left and the right side are closed, meaning we cannot see or go through them. This is the same as time: we cannot go back to the past or see the future. The only thing that matters and what we can control is only what happens within the compartment, in the present moment.
One example that the book gave about this concept is a story about a lady whose husband had died and she is now facing financial difficulty. Because of this heavy burden, she dreaded life and constantly feels overwhelmed. She worried how she can pay the bills, how to keep the car payments, and other related problems.
She found a job that requires her to travel to different places and she thought that going out will help her forget about her troubles, but it doesn’t seem to help. Eventually she discovered the concept of living one day at a time when she saw a sentence in an article:
Every day is a new life to a wise man.
She pasted that sentence in the windshield of her car that she uses for work. Every single day reminded her to forget about the yesterday and not think of tomorrow. She found that it was not so hard to live only one day at a time.
A personal decision
This new year I decided that I will apply this principle in my life. I have been studying Stoicism for the past few years, and this definitely fits in what I would like to have as a philosophy of life.
I see myself as a planner and an organizer. I have a tendency to have a plan on what I am going to do for the rest of the day, the week, and the month. What often happens though is that unexpected, uncontrollable circumstances come in and disrupt the perfect plan that I have in my mind. When this happens, I become agitated, frustrated, and stressed.
I found that this kind of thinking is counterproductive. There are times when everything goes according to plan, and I feel happy when this happens. However, the negative feelings I experience when things do not go my way seem to be stronger than the positive feelings when they do. Because of this I find it more useful not to be so attached to the plan in the future.
We cannot predict what will happen in the future. Even if we think we have total control of the situation, circumstances may change, people may change their minds, the environment may not cooperate, and so on. These things are outside our control but they have a direct impact on what is happening in our lives. It is a foolish endeavor to be affected by things that we have no choice or control on.
Living in day-tight compartments forces me to stop thinking ahead of the current day. The only important time is the time I am living in the present.
Personally, I now think of this at the start of the day: my life will end when I sleep. This may sound morbid or too fatalistic, but it helps me to regain my perspective in life: that tomorrow is not guaranteed. And so my decisions throughout the day, how I treat others, how I appreciate the moment, anchor on the thought that it will all be over when I fall asleep.
Is planning for the future bad?
This does not mean that planning for the future is a bad idea and should not be done. We should definitely plan for the future:
- Save money for a child’s needs
- Save money for retirement
- Purchase an insurance plan for unexpected situations
- Think on ways to improve our health and well-being
The bad thing is to be obsessed with what is going to happen in the next day, the next week, or next month. Being anxious about things in the future produces unnecessary stress in the present. These stresses sometimes even become the agents themselves in making the future become what we are anxious about.
We need to plan and set up things in the present for events in the future. However, after that we need to let go and not to worry about the things that are going to happen. We will find that most of the events in the future are things that we do not have any control, so worrying about them will not yield anything beneficial. Most of the time, these events that we fear most do not actually happen, so we are essentially wasting our lives worrying for nothing.
The Present Day is Enough
In the book How to stop worrying and start living, Dale Carnegie gave two examples from the Bible that shows that only the present day is enough. Jesus said this about worrying and being present:
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. – Matthew 6:34 NIV
And in the Lord’s prayer there is one verse that makes us think:
Give us today our daily bread. – Matthew 6:11 NIV
Dale Carnegie reasoned that Jesus did not pray about tomorrow’s bread, or complain about the stale bread from yesterday. The only request is for today’s bread.
This is a good thing for us to think about. The only life we have is the present moment, the only day we have is the present day. We need to strive to live the best life we have today.
Max Lucado wrote a good mantra for living one day at a time:
I choose joy.
I choose peace. I will live forgiven.
I choose patience—Rather than complain that the wait is too long, I’ll thank God for a moment to pray.
I choose kindness—for that’s how God has treated me.
I choose goodness.
I choose faithfulness
With prayers from family members and friends, my father was discharged in the hospital after 3 weeks of confinement. Recent laboratory tests show that his liver has recovered and is now on his way to full recovery. This experience led me to reflect the following and made me share the effects of the event to my own life.
Draw near to God
The common reaction when something bad happens to us is to ask God,
“Why are you punishing me?”
We want these questions answered, as if we should not experience any hardship during our stay in this world. Job from the Old Testament offers a very interesting perspective on this:
But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. – Job 2:10
This tells us that the attitude we have when we receive blessings from God should not change when we are experiencing adversity or bad times. This does not mean that we should rejoice when we encounter trouble, but be willing to accept it as a part of this life, regardless of what you think you have done before or if you think you do not deserve it.
Remember that the Apostles, the closest followers of Christ, have suffered a great deal and died horrible deaths. If they have gone through that, being holy and loyal followers of God, why are we thinking we are better than them and thus expect better treatment?
Draw near to your family
Problems expose an important fact that we always forget or ignore during times of prosperity: the importance of having support from your family. No matter how your relationship is with your siblings, parents, or loved ones, in times of hardship you will realize that you will have nowhere to go but to them.
When my father was hospitalized, my wife and my in-laws gave me the support that I needed so I can go back to my home town and attend to my parent’s needs. When I was there at the hospital and my mother needed help in some errands like cooking, cleaning and purchasing goods, my cousins offered their support without asking anything in return. It reminded me of a saying (I had forgotten where it came from):
When you grow old, you will be near the people around you when you are a child.
I am not sure if the words are correct, but the message is that we should not forget the people around us when we were children: our family, cousins, neighbors and our friends. As we grow and mature and set up our own lives, sometimes the tendency is for us to neglect these people as we associate with our new friends and connections in our career. However, as we grow older and weaker we will find that the people we need and those that truly care for us are actually the ones that we know when we were children.
Learn what is important
Adversity also gives us a clearer view on what is important. For me, it gave me a renewed conviction that the most important things in life are things that we do not see.
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. – 2 Corinthians 4:18