One of billionaire Peter Thiel’s secrets to success is asking himself the contrarian question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
In similar fashion, but nearly a century earlier, Mark Twain said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
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When you hear or read something—even this very article—it’s good practice to consider the opposite of what is being said. In many—even most—cases, you’ll be safer zigging while the masses zag.
The Sexiest Lie of 2015
Most lifestyle “gurus” have sold us on the idea of living for the moment—that right now is all that exists—and that we should only do that which makes us feel good.
Although this advice is alluring and justifying, it often fails to produce desirable results in the real world. Actually, in many cases, it ruins people’s lives. Living for the moment is the reason people leave marriages, lose control over their health, and why America is trillions of dollars in debt.
Instead of living for the moment, it is better to live for the past—as you’d prefer to remember that moment, and your life in general. Indeed, time is fleeting. The present moment barely exists. The moment you become conscious of it, it’s over.
If you find yourself defending your past, this article is probably for you. Although our distant past may not be pretty, our recent past is a clear indicator of our present circumstances.
How have your last two years been?
How have your last two months been?
How have your last two days been?
Today is tomorrow’s yesterday. Are you living today to give your tomorrow-self something to build off? Will you have momentum tomorrow based on your choices today? Or are you just putting off needed change until some future day?
Living for the past is really living in the present. It’s realizing that—as a forward thinking person—you’re living in the past right now. What you do right now determines the future you hope to create.
Living for the past informs how you live in the present.
When you live solely for the moment, you act on impulse. Your behavior is the product of circumstance rather than conscious choice. As a result, you often make regretful decisions.
Conversely, when you live for the past—for your memories—you consider how you want to remember the experience you’re having. As a result, you live intentionally in the present.
As strange as it may sound, our memories of our experiences are more important than the experiences themselves. For instance, as I write this, I am currently on a family vacation at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. It’s amazing to watch our three foster kids excitedly meet all the fun characters and ride the rides.
But do these moments last forever? Before we all know it, the day is over. The vacation is over. The year is over. Our kids are grown.
But we have pictures and memories of these moments that last a life-time and forge our relationships. And these memories are actually the reason we have experiences in the first place.
How do you want to look back on today?
How do you want to look back on this year?
How do you want to look back on your entire life?
These questions are better at informing your present decisions than acting based on impulse, circumstance, or your current emotional state.
In a very real way, our lives are the story we ourselves are writing. The present moment is simply the pen on the pad, leaving an inky trail. And one thing is for certain, you can’t stop the pen from writing. So why not consciously decide the story you want to be written?
It’s baffling how often we make choices without considering how they will be remembered. We often act as if the past doesn’t exist at all. All the while, our memories are the very fabric of our identity.
How you feel about your past determines your confidence in the present.
If you’ve had an incredible morning, you’ll likely continue succeeding the rest of the day. Conversely, if you hit the snooze button a dozen times, and wastefully drag through your morning, you’ll likely justify mediocrity the rest of the day.
How we feel about our past in large measure determines our confidence in the present moment. Thus, living every moment in a way you’re proud of cyclically improves your confidence to continue succeeding in the future. Humans are momentum-based beings.
Living for the past allows you to design your ideal future.
One of Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is to begin with the end clearly in mind. In order to do so, Covey invites you to consider your 80th birthday party. The purpose of the party is for your loved ones to honor you, to express their feelings, and to toast a life well-spent.
Imagine you are the person being honored. What would you like your loved ones to say about you and your life? What would you like them to say about your character and contributions? What achievements would you want them to remember? What impact would you have liked to make in their lives?
Covey argues we should start living today with that vision of our own 80th birthday party clearly in mind. Thus, even when considering the end of our lives, it is framed by how we will remember—how we will look back on—our lives.
Indeed, living purely for the moment fails to comprehend the holistic nature of time. The past, present, and future are not distinct and separate entities. When you live for your past, you consciously design your ideal future and simultaneously live intentionally in the present. You fail at one, and all are impacted—they are mutually dependent.
You can have any future you want. More importantly, you can have any past you want. And your past is what dictates your present.
You can be a person you’re proud to be.
Living for the past empowers you to make harder and better choices.
It’s so easy to justify poor decisions in the moment. It’s easy to break our personal commitments. Sometimes we can’t control our anger and we yell at our kids. Sometimes the cookies look too good and we just can’t say no. Sometimes we’d rather veg than work toward our goals. Sometimes we’d rather sleep-in than go to the gym.
If we do this long enough, our whole life—our past—will not be what we intended it to be. As J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, has said, “The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it.”
However, when you live for your past, you will consistently make better, often harder, decisions. You’ll choose to be happy even if you don’t feel like it. You’ll choose to get up rather than sleep-in. You’ll choose to work while others play. You’ll choose to save rather than spend. You’ll choose to stick it out rather than quit, over and over again. You’ll choose to fight for what you believe in. You’ll choose to do hard things because they are the right thing to do.
You’ll choose the road less traveled. And yes, it will make all the difference.
This post originally appeared on BenjaminHardy.com and was republished with the author’s permission. The views expressed within are his. Benjamin Hardy is pursuing his Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology at Clemson University. To learn more about him, sign up for his newsletter and follow him on Twitter.