To be ourselves

To be ourselves we must have ourselves — possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must “recollect” ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.

Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales

the Past vs. Possibilities

When I encounter a $2.89 cup of coffee, it’s all too easy for me to recall what I paid for coffee the day before and not so easy for me to imagine all the other things I might buy with my money.

Because it is so much easier for me to remember the past than to generate new possibilities, I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible.

And that is indeed what I ought to be doing because it really doesn’t matter what coffee cost the day before, the week before, or at any time during the Hoover administration. Right now I have absolute dollars to spend and the only questions I need to answer is how to spend them in order to maximize my satisfaction. If an international bean embargo suddenly caused the price of coffee to skyrocket to $10,000 per cup, then the only question I would need to ask myself is:

“What else can I do with ten thousand dollars, and will it bring me more or less satisfaction than a cup of coffee?”

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Looking Forward by Looking Back

If the past isn’t the way you thought it was, then the present isn’t, either. Letting go of that present may make it easier to conceive of a new future. Things look different from the neutral zone, for one of the things you let of in the ending process is the need to see the past in a particular way, and in doing that you let go of the need to think of the future in the way you always have.

William Bridges, Transitions

Shadows from the Past

Feelings in relationships as we now understand them run on a double track. We react and relate to another person not only on the basis of how we consciously experience that person, but also on the basis of our unconscious experience in reference to our past relationships with significant people in infancy and childhood - particularly parents and other family members. We tend to displace our feelings and attitudes from these past figures onto people in the present, especially if someone has features similar to a person in the past.

An individual may, therefore, evoke intense feelings in us - strong attraction or strong aversion - totally inappropriate to our knowledge of or experience with that person. This process may, to varying degrees, influence our choice of a friend, roommate, spouse, or employer.

We all have the experience of seeing someone we have never met who evokes in us strong feelings. According to the theory of transference, this occurs because something about that person - the gait, the tilt of the head, a laugh or some other feature - recalls a significant figure in our early childhood. Sometimes a spouse or a superior we work under will provoke in us a reaction far more intense than the circumstances warrant. A gesture or tone of voice may reactivate early negative feelings we experienced toward an important childhood figure.

Armand Nicholi, The Question of God

Living on Past Victories

Never take it for granted that your past successes will continue into the future. Actually, your past successes are your biggest obstacle: every battle, every war, is different and you cannot assume what worked before will work today. You must cut yourself loose from the past and open your eyes to the present. Your tendency to fight the last war may lead to your final war.

Robert Green, The 33 Strategies of War

living in the past

Every day I am discovering that people are depressed and defeated because of their past failures and mistakes. They allow their past failures to dominate their present thinking. Because of some past failure, they have convinced themselves that they are no good and they are incapable of doing anything worthwhile. Not only do they doubt their abilities to accomplish anything, but they also down their worth as human beings. Anyone who lives in the past, brooding over past mistakes, will have a difficult time living in the present. If you want to be unhappy, then constantly rethink your past failures. If you want to live victoriously, leave your past failures and disappointments in the past where they belong; instead, seek God's face as you live by faith in the present.

Larry Kennedy, Down with Anxiety!

The March of Technology

The designs built into modern technology comes from savvy, white-coated engineers working tirelessly in their laboratories to create the most effective devices . Right? Kevin Kelly offers this example of how decisions made by generations past stay with us in unexpected ways:

Ordinary Roman carts were constructed to match the width of Imperial Roman war chariots because it was easier to follow the ruts in the road left by the war chariots. The chariots were sized to accommodate the width of two large war horses, which translates into our English measurement as a width of 4' 8.5". Roads throughout the vast Roman empire were built to this spec. When the legions of Rome marched into Britain, they constructed long distance imperial roads 4' 8.5" wide. When the English started building tramways, they used the same width so the same horse carriages could be used. And when they started building railways with horseless carriages, naturally the rails were 4' 8.5" wide. Imported laborers from the British Isles built the first railways in the Americas using the same tools and jigs they were used to.

Fast forward to the US Space shuttle, which is built in parts around the country and assembled in Florida. Because the two large solid fuel rocket engines on the side of the launch Shuttle were sent by railroad from Utah, and that line transversed a tunnel not much wider than the standard track, the rockets themselves could not be much wider than 4' 8.5." As one wag concluded: "So, a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of two horses' arse."

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

Shut up with your cynical, I’ve-seen-some-things attitude

You’re at the beginning of your life with the entire world in front of you. Whatever happened before reaching this point is done and unchangeable. What lies ahead is entirely up to you. Get the chip off your shoulder and walk on. Allow your past to be a source of strength and direction, not the thing that keeps you from moving on with your life.

Alex McDaniel

the advantage of thinking like a child

Great strategists.. respond to the moment, like children. Their minds are always moving, and they are always excited and curious. They quickly forget the past – the present is much too interesting.

The Greek thinker Aristotle thought that life was defined by movement. What does not move is dead. What has speed and mobility has more possibilities, more life. You may think that what you’d like to recapture from your youth is your looks, your physical fitness, your simple pleasure, but what you really need is the fluidity of mind you once possessed.

Whenever you find your thought revolving around a particular subject or idea – an obsession, resentment - force them past it. Distract yourself with something else. Like a child, find something new to be absorbed by, something worthy of concentrated attention. Do not waste time on things you cannot change or influence. Just keep moving.

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

What you’ll be like a decade from now

Why do people get ill-advised tattoos, marry questionable partners, or make financial-planning decisions they come to regret? A new study suggests that part of the reason is that we aren’t very good at predicting how much we’re going to change in the future. We are prone to believe whatever we think and value now will hold true. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert led the study and says, “People really aren’t very good at knowing who they’re going to be and hence what they’re going to want a decade from now.” Gilbert tells LiveScience.com, “At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

The Harvard University study survey of more than 19,000 people between the ages of 18 and 68. People act as if history shaped them and then ended, leaving them in their final form. The researchers call the effect “the end of history” illusion.

Younger people in the survey did not expect to change as much as their the elders changed within the same time frame. The researchers made an effort to make sure that the people in the survey were not just overestimating past change but rather underestimating future change by comparing the results to predictions made on another survey a decade ago.

Although we aren’t very good at predicting our future selves, most of us are able to see that our values, preferences and personalities are different from a decade ago. We just can’t predict how much change will come looking forward the same length of time.

We may be motivated by the desire to comfort ourselves. We tell ourselves that future change won’t be very dramatic. We know ourselves and the future is predictable. Our present selves are permanent, so this thinking goes.

Other studies show you are less likely to change the older you get, but you will still change more than you expect.

Gilbert offers this advice: Take care when making long-term decisions to include a “margin for escape”. If you are buying a ticket to see your favorite band in ten years, you might want to pause before buying a ticket.

But there is another side of the coin to consider before including a 10 year opt-out clause in your wedding vows: Research shows that when people feel they have the ability to change their minds, they're less happy with the choices they've made.

You can read more about the study in the journal Science.

Stephen Goforth