Matters of the present and future

Posted on February 22, 2015. Filed under: Uncategorized |

I read this piece by Oliver Sacks in the times last week, and have reread it 5 or 6 times since. It’s a reflection upon learning that he has terminal cancer. Read it before continuing, it’s beautiful.

I couldn’t figure out exactly why it spoke to me so deeply, but now I know. Sack’s sets up a framework between living in “matters of the present” vs. “matters of the future” which rings very true to me. Friends, travel, enjoying each day…these are matters of the present that anyone alive can choose to prioritize. There is common wisdom that guides us to “live in the present,” and workaholics are always warned of the hospice nurse who reminds us that “the dying never say ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’” Peace in the middle east, global warming…these are matters that belong to the future. Unresolved…but hairy problems that are only of concern to someone who will be here tomorrow, or next year when solutions are more in reach.

I found it fascinating that Sacks has chosen to live in the present in his last months, not because he wishes he had done it differently before, but rather because he can no longer have a role in matters of the future. I love the notion that matters of the future, when put against the present, represent struggle and effort…that matters of the future are work…and focussing on them is…by definition…not living in the present…yet Sacks obviously valued his participation in these matters as, if not more deeply, than those of the present. I loved the gratitude he expresses around having had “an intercourse with the world. The special intercourse a writers and readers.” I take away form these words that work and struggle, and toiling with the future is a great privilege…and that “living in the moment” while such a privilege is available to us is to forgo a right granted to all with a tomorrow.

I live this privilege to toil with future…everyday…as I go to work…and struggle…to answer questions unanswered…

Not everyday does it feel like a privilege…when your run down, and tired, and the answers aren’t coming fast enough…when the next meeting on you calendar looks like a brick fucking wall…remember what a deep privilege it is not to be traveling…not to be living to enjoy each day…you are exercising your right to deeply participate in matters of our future. Sacks had the intercourse of writers and readers, and we have the intercourse of startups and users…and when we reach the moment where necessity commands we give up this right…when we have to travel, and enjoy each day…we will look at this intercourse with the deepest gratitude, and not wish we had done more yoga and bike rides…There is an army of youth who surrender to matters of the present before required…they are surfing and meditating and seeing the world…and when they face the moment that they can no longer concern themselves with matters of the future, they won’t even realize the privilege they lose…

Some days…when living in matters of the future is particularly hard…when the struggle has been the struggle for too many days…I long to surrender my privilege…to move to the mountains and live moment to moment…how much easier life would be without the toil of tomorrow…but I will not…until i see my end as clearly as I see what could be.

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One Response to “Matters of the present and future”

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Hey Jordan,

Stefan here. West-coast, world-traveling, bicycle-riding, epicurean-thinking hedonist. And big fan of Wildcard). We had a few email exchanges late last year.

This was a very interesting piece, I really enjoyed it. I can tell from reading it that you and I are very different people. And that’s fine. My present/future focus is probably around ~70/30, whereas from what I can tell yours would be closer to ~20/80.

Very few ideas have really made me think in the past few years like this idea of living in the future vs living in the present, which you articulate so well.

I like a lot of what you say even if I disagree with it. But I also feel there are a few major flaws in your thinking, and thus the conclusions you arrive at.

1) First, to fully comprehend the future, one must strive to fully understand the present. And the only way to truly understand the present is to let your soul become completely immersed in it. Steve Jobs understood this, which is why he packed his bags full of LSD and went on a spiritual trip to India. He has stated that if it wasn’t for the total awareness of self he attained on that trip, he would not have been able to see or shape the future. Page & Brin have said essentially the same thing about Burning Man.

2) Second, and more importantly, future & present states of mind are not mutually exclusive. Eastern philosophy teaches this. In fact, this is a very big part of yoga (not the Bikram yoga or the EDM-fueled dance yoga, but real yoga.) You learn focus on your “Ujjayi breath” (which is a deep, intense focus on the moment), while simultaneously reflecting on your self, your soul, and your larger place in the world (a deep focus on the future)* But you don’t need to do yoga to understand this. You can find inner peace through riding your bicycle to work, taking time to stop & smell the roses, or spending a day lying in the grass, reading, thinking, doing absolutely “nothing.”

This isn’t hippie shit. These aren’t cliches. This is rooted in tens of thousands of years of human history. This is real.

Allow me to propose the following scenario: Let’s say you have two individuals – one who lives his life 100/0 in terms of present/living in the future (a pure hedonist) and one who lives his life 0/100. Can we honestly say that the latter is better than the former? If this is not ideal, then why strive for it? Why aim for this vs a life that is more balanced?

There’s also an animal argument in favor of epicurean hedonism. This argument essentially says:

A) Animals live day-to-day,
B) Animals are generally happy creatures
C) Humans are animals at heart, thus
D) A hedonistic or epicurean view of the world is justified by virtue of the fact it is ingrained in our biology.

But this could easily be countered by the fact that humans are certainly unique in the animal kingdom. While many animals are known to “make future plans,” humans certainly take this to another level; for better or worse.

And on that note, my purprose here isn’t to determine which approach to life is “better” or “worse”; there is probably no way to truly judge this, nor should there be. I’m just throwing some thoughts out your way. Like I said your post made me think, and hopefully I’ve done the same. (Otherwise my philosophy minor will have gone to waste 🙂

Take care, keep up the good work, look forward to reading more of your thoughts in the future (<– See what I did there?) Feel free to email over any follow-up thoughts. I have a unique name and you should have my email.

– Stefan

*There's an argument that western cultures, especially American culture, is too focused on the future; Thinking about it, worrying about it, stressing about it, and that this state of mind causes mental anxiety, physical stress, sleep disorders, existential crises, and both mental & physical disease. There is a good book on this called, "Why zebras dont get ulcers" which is definitely worth a read.

Then again, on the other hand, focusing too much on the here & now can lead to self-centeredness, selfishness, and consumerism. So again, while I lean towards epicureanism, I strive to (and believe it's wise to) find the right balance in life.

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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