My battle against time
I attribute most of the success in my life to date, as well as all the anxiety, to being future orientated.
About 18 months ago, I was required as part of a business course to take an online personality test based on the Myers-Briggs framework. While I went into the test rather dubious, the eery accuracy of my results blew me away.
I could write a whole series of posts reflecting on my diagnosed traits as an “Architect” (from my ego to being romantically inept), but I wanted to explore one characteristic in particular:
INTJs are defined by their tendency to move through life as though it were a giant chess board
If ever there was an image that reflected the inner workings of my brain, this would be it. To give you an example at a very micro level:
Suppose I’m choosing a sandwich to buy for lunch. Most people choose their favourite, a go-to meal-deal, and be done with it. Minimum energy exerted. On with the rest of their shopping and lives.
For me, this scenario plays out very differently…
I would go to grab the chicken and stuffing, stopping to consider that I had planned chicken for dinner that very evening. Is that too much chicken?
Next I would begin to wonder what my lunch options were for tomorrow. How does this affect my present decision?
I might re-assess and make for a BLT — but wait. What if I decide to make bacon sandwiches for breakfast?
The analysis goes round and round. And I still have to settle on a soft drink and bag of crisps (or alternative snack) to complete the trinity.
You can appreciate why I spend so long buying groceries.
Playing for higher stakes
Take my curse of over-thinking and apply it to the real life decisions:
Which university did I want to go to?
Where am I going to live next year?
Or those existential questions that hang over us all: How do I want to spend my life? Should I start a blog? The outcome is a lot of wasted energy and unneccessary stress.
The outcome is paralysis.
Being future orientated is linked to perfectionism. At least in my case. When you are so focused on the final product, the pressure you place on the process can be immense and debilitating, even toxic. At university, I would spend three hours in the library rewriting the introduction to an essay I hadn’t even started yet.
I’m afraid to admit that, until recently, any romantic prospect of mine has always subconsciously received the same scrunity. I didn’t date because I was blinded by the bigger picture. Could I have a relationship with this person? At that early stage, you can’t know, it’s impossible, so I didn’t ask them out.
I was completely self-defeating.
Looking back on it, I suspect my current (and first proper) relationship ironically came about because of circumstance. I was expecting to move back home in a few months. Whether or not I realised it at the time, this was a psychological get-out-of-jail card. It forced me to date without worrying too much about relationships and scary serious things. When you take this pressure away, things develop naturally.
The fear of the future orientated
Since graduating, my future planning has predominantly revolved around the career I want to carve out for myself. I share the predicament of a lot of people my age: I’m crazy ambitious but fiercely impatient by nature. (So much so that I have a post-it note up on my wall that reads “Patience…” with a countdown beneath to some self-imposed milestone I’ve constructed for myself.)
To look first at the positives, my chess-board approach to life has me making moves now with the bigger picture in mind. I am less concerned with short-term gains. I didn’t seek the highest paid graduate job, but the one with the most responsibility. To save on rent, I’m currently living in a flat worse than my student accommodation ever was. I’m playing the long-game and making sacrifices.
My present-orientated friends are off on post-university gap-years, working behind bars and tills to save enough money for plane tickets and airbnbs. While I’ll have climbed a rung on the career ladder, juggling side projects and certifications, accumulating savings, their bank balances will be lighter and their CVs the same.
I hate myself for typing that.
I’m not criticising them. I envy them. I admire them for it, I really do. But I’m wired differently. I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it. I think in years, not months. I’m putting in the work now for some imaginary pay-off later, whenever that might be. Whatever that might be. It’s how I get up in the morning.
I think every future orientated individual has a sneaking suspicion, a fear that we might have got it hideously, tragically wrong. That they are right after all.
There is really no larger gamble in life.
The stakes do not get higher.
Only time will tell. Not too many years from retirement, my Dad has warned me as much. Tim Ferriss in The 4 Hour Workweek makes a compelling case against deferring your happiness.
Stop wishing your life away
I can’t fundamentally change who I am. I’m not quitting my job and getting on the next flight to Bali. But I can definitely work on appreciating what’s right in front of me. We all can. Not everything has to be a play in the big game. We can take time-outs now and again. Make moves for their own sake.
This post was provoked by a chapter in Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is The Way. In the following sentence, I felt like he was calling me out directly:
But you, you’re so busy thinking about the future, you don’t take any pride in the tasks you’re given right now.
He’s right. Going back to the narrative of this amazing career I’m promising myself. I’m already thinking about the next job — and the next one after that. As I said to a colleague and friend today, what if I left tomorrow for something that turns out to be a lot worse? What if this job is the closest I ever get to my dream job?
I should make the most of it. Or I’m not doing myself justice, or any favours.
Ryan’s statement is so much more than a cliché about living in the moment. He’s saying that the person you want to be tomorrow is brought forth in action today. If you don’t commit to exceeding in your current station, how can you hope for higher things? However grand your ambitions, the dirt comes first.
Maybe my favourite quotation from the book:
How you do anything is how you can do everything.
Thinking of the tasks you have on your plate as not a means to an end, but an end in and of themselves, gives them meaning and value. Mundane chores like me sweeping my floor this evening become small victories. The sense of achievement in doing anything to the best of your ability can become your source of purpose.
There’s no need to delay this satisfaction.
We shouldn’t sacrifice the present for a non-existent future. At the end of the day, our intentions and goals don’t matter. We are measured on our actions.