Living in the Present

January 19th, 2021

The paradox of success, living in the present, and redefining success.

It’s amazing how small changes can have a big impact in our lives; one thing can change everything if that one thing transforms your mindset.

As I’ve begun to adopt a more minimalist lifestyle, I’ve started to realize how the clutter in my life was redirecting the process of reaching my goals. I’ve begun to live by what I knew the whole time — our experiences mean so much more than a medal.

The Paradox of Success

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author Greg McKeown explains the paradoxical nature of success.

He breaks this paradox into 4 distinct phases. First comes success; we are clear about what it is that we are striving for and we achieve the desired outcome. What follows is where it becomes troubling. In the second phase, we gain a reputation for success that while broadening our opportunities, inhibits the internal processes that created our achievement in the first place by inflicting external pressure. Furthermore, these added opportunities and external pressures place demands upon our dwindling time and energy. And finally, we become distracted, or as McKeown states, “the effect of our success has been to undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.”

“The pursuit of success can be a catalyst for failure. Put another way, success can distract us from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.”

Greg McKeown, Essentialism

As I looked at the walls in my room — cluttered with race bibs/numbers, news articles, medals, and awards — I began to feel as though my previous successes were undermining my present circumstances. Everyday, I had been distracting myself from the present by reinforcing moments from the past.

While I thought I was being open to change and transformation, it turns out that I was attempting to follow a path that led to success in the past, despite circumstantial change. I wasn’t truly living in the present.

Living in the Present

I decided to take down the accomplishments of the past that cluttered my walls and store them away for the time being. While this may not be the true way of a minimalist (as I have not entirely let go of them) — they are no longer a daily reminder of “what has been” in the way of “what is”. When my running career comes to an end, I’ll make the decision as to what I want to do with these material possessions, but for now they are out of sight and out of mind. In the words of Jeff Bezos:

“It’s always day one.”

Jeff Bezos (Amazon CEO Philosophy)

Since doing this, not only has my sleep improved (as my walls no longer proliferate thoughts/emotions that make falling asleep difficult), I feel more present in my approach to running and life.

In Be Water, My Friend, Shannon Lee describes her dad’s (Bruce Lee’s) philosophy about living in the present.

Living in the present is about being empty. It’s about opening yourself up to the pursuit of “what is” by letting go of “what has been” and “what lies ahead”. Lee explains, “the practice of mindfulness is focusing one’s awareness on the present moment and experiencing it fully.”

“The notion of emptying your cup is the idea of letting go of the past and the future in favour of the present. When we gently accept and acknowledge feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations while participating in what is happening, we are in touch with what my father called “what is”. We are participating in what is unfolding right now with our full attention.”

Shannon Lee, Be Water, My Friend (The Teachings of Bruce Lee)

By living in the present, I no longer feel attached to the accomplishments of my past. I feel the excitement that I felt in the beginning, because I approach every moment as being new, different, and full of possibility.

Redefining Success

By living in the present, I have redefined my idea of success. My new outlook on success and achievement mirrors Olympic figure skater Craig Buntin in his TEDx Talk, Redefining Success: Pre and Post-Olympics.

“I realized that it wasn’t about getting that medal. It wasn’t about winning. It wasn’t about walking away a champion.

It was about setting the bar that high — ‘2.5 years I’m going to the Olympics’. It was about setting that goal, taking that leap, working as hard as I could, and looking back with no regrets.”

Craig Buntin, TEDxMcGill — Redefining Success: Pre and Post-Olympics

If 2020 has taught us anything that we can learn from going forward, it’s that we can’t rely so heavily on an outcome to dictate our definition of success. We can set goals to pursue these things in life, but we should not define success or failure by the mere achievement.

Redefining success is about living in the present and embracing the pursuit. In the words of legendary decathlete Ashton Eaton (and one of my favourite quotes):

“The beauty is the pursuit of the limit, not the limit itself.”

Ashton Eaton

It is by living in the present that we receive the most joy, fulfillment and sense of purpose in life.

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