“If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And, if you improve on the present, what comes later will also be better …”
“Where religious values might be relative, intellectual values fleeting, moral values ambiguous, and aesthetic values dependent upon an observer, the existence of any thing is infinite.”
Grendel, John Gardner
“Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
Well. I believe most ‘live in the present’ advice is absurd. I also believe Eckhardt Tolle, author of The Power of Now, is a nutjob with an unrealistic view of how to practically live life. All that said. I believe we, in business, have a wacky relationship with the present. While we espouse getting shit done each day is the step by step way to create the future you desire, we have an uncanny ability to not actually value the present until it has become part of the past. That doesn’t mean we don’t value what we do in the present it just seems to have a higher value when we look backwards and assess it. Maybe this abstract relationship with the present is driven by the fact businesses cannot make up their minds to live with the decisions they have made .. or crucify the decisions that have been made.
** note: there is a direct relationship between improving on your present and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44272/the-road-not-taken
Suffice it to say the present takes on some fairly absurd dimensions in our minds. Oddly it can expand and contract depending on what we want to do and how we want to view it (ranging from a ‘for now’ caveat to ‘this is it’ declarations).
That said. While it seems like ‘looking backwards’ is almost a disease for most people, oddly, far less often do people actually view ‘the present’, in the present, as something we will ever come back to (that is one of those crazy time paradoxes which, if unraveled, could most likely resolve a lot of our perspective issues). Regardless. That seems kind of crazy to me. Crazy? Well. If you know you can’t go back, or doubt you will, maybe you would view it a little more closely and maybe (if you know you cannot go back) you may actually value the present as, well, valuable.
It is quite possible our problem with valuing the present for the value it deserves resides in the fact each present is actually fragmented by vector choices. What do I mean? In general, any business leader can do multiple things at the same time <as long as they are aiming in the same general direction> and, yet, time after time a business leader is faced with two roads and want to travel … well … both.
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood …
A lot of other business people smarter than I expound on grand visions and organizational charts with milestones and specific initiatives <an important aspect of vector choice decisionmaking>. I just think of each business treading a road with roads traveled or less traveled to choose from. Maybe its because of that each present can be overwhelming so, well, we diminish the choice importance and in conjunction diminish the present value of each moment.
Look (part 1). There is a lot to be said for “keeping your head down and focusing on what needs to be done and do it well.” That is a version of living in the ‘now’ and, in fact, I would guess, having been a manager and watching other managers, 90% of management advice to employees is saying exactly that.
Maybe the most famous quote for this advice is:
“If you did not look after today’s business, then you might as well forget about tomorrow.”
And you know what? That’s not bad advice.
It may not be the best advice nor is it the type of advice that guarantees ‘what comes later will also be better’, but in the scheme of things getting workers to focus on what they need to do now and do it well now at least keeps you out of the proverbial ditch.
Okay. Let me take that back. It doesn’t keep you out of the ditch.
Huh? Try walking in an open field one day just by looking down. If you walk for 5 minutes, I can almost guarantee you will <a> not have walked in a straight line and <b> walked directly toward what you may have sighted on before you put your head down.
Keeping your head down and focusing does have some merit, but it is not the end all be all nor does it guarantee you actually end up in a place you want to be or should be.
My point? Doing well in the present is significantly different than improving on the present. The former tends to provide value in the moment while the latter tends to increase value in moments. I do believe we consistently undervalue the present in the present, but overvalue the ‘past’ present in reflection. That seems out of whack to me, but, that’s me.
Look (part 2). The present provides choices and the future provides opportunities to reflect upon those choices. If you set aside regret, I tend to believe all of us often want to go down both roads at once, but since it’s impossible to walk down two roads at once, we have to choose one road. But the reason I added in this part of the poem is the narrator is actually showing regret and rationalizing BEFORE even taking one step down either path. So the present actually diminishes in value through choice regret (the one not chosen has an abstract future embedded value).
“doubted I should ever come back”
Anyway. Sticking with the road metaphor, each present, each ‘one road’ can lead to another, and then another, until you end up very far from where you started. You cannot go back so you may as well value the present decision at the value it deserves – at that time, in that place, you are where you are and go where you will go and never return to that particular present. If you can figure out how to properly value the present, i.e., you don’t lose sight of the value of that moment (the moment in the present), you will most likely have to go back and reassess the decision value (or as I call it “the return on choice’ – ROC ) for any more value than that moment actually deserves.
In the end.
Improving on the present is difficult because you actually have to value the present properly to insure you actually improve it. In addition, we seem to fail to understand you cannot improve the present from a future place – looking back.