[Versión en español disponible aquí]
Those who know me well know that one of my guiding principles is embodied by the quote “discipline is just choosing between what you want now, and what you want most”. I have always thought that having a strong willpower is much easier when one keeps the big picture in mind, and frames each small decision in the context of the broader goal. It’s the kind of silly thing that has always helped me maintain a workout regime, adhere to some of the weird diets I have tried during the years, or persist with some more serious endeavors when, as it happens from time to time, all you can think about is quitting and just go lie on your bed and happily look at the ceiling.
Several times I have been asked whether this philosophy amounts to just “keeping your eyes on the prize”. And I personally believe that, while the message on the surface might be the same, the deeper one is not. When you just keep your eyes on the prize you cannot be enjoying the journey at the same time. The process becomes just a necessary pain to reach the end of the game. I believe that the process and the journey should be the main focus of any endeavor, because in the end, while you might be working towards something and indeed thinking about the bigger picture can help you stay on track towards what you really want… well, you might never get there. And then you face the issue of the apparent lack of sense of everything you have been doing – after all, if you only wanted the prize, now that you are empty handed, how can you possibly be satisfied?
This “paradox” between looking at the long-term and the big picture in order to frame the short-term and small decisions, yet making a conscious effort to choose a journey that you enjoy, to stop often just to savor the small milestones and to appreciate some of the little things that the process brings to you, is one of the issues with which I have grappled the most when thinking. It is a delicate balance that between ambition and complacency. And one of the key aspects of this relationship is perhaps the other side of the same coin: the balance between planning and the need for structure, and complete adaptability.
I cannot help but plan my life continuously. I am one of those people that tend to look at any significant life decision through the 1-year, 5-year, and lifetime lenses. That has resulted in several decisions being delayed as much as possible, or the time to think about an issue being used as much as possible in a never ending quest for the key piece of information that will make the decision obvious. Of course, after several wrong choices one should end up learning that this key piece of information does not exist (it never does), and that most of your planning will be useless.
Yet, I don’t know about you, but I certainly can’t stop trying to plan my life.
Eventually I realized that it’s not about the plans themselves but about the planning (as it often happens, someone thought about it earlier – this particular nugget of knowledge belongs to Dwight D. Eisenhower, through the quote “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”). It’s not so much about the particular path you’ve chosen as it is about the time you invested in thinking about why you wanted to choose that particular path, about some of the many ways in which it could go wrong, and about –of course– what you would do if/when that happened. And that’s because, in the end, life is simply not predictable –and I think it takes a particular kind of honesty with oneself to truly understand this. It will take many more twists and turns than you can expect and accommodate for in advance. And so, the ability to turn all your plans upside down at a moment’s notice, together with the ability to keep planning anyway, signal the perfect balance (though I’m not sure I would call it a balance, after all, this is about going to both extremes at the same time!).
I honestly don’t know what my life will be like in 5 years. Heck, I’m not even sure about where I am going! And not because I haven’t thought about it, but precisely because I already have many, many times, only to see everything suddenly change and then turn around my plans correspondingly. This post is, in fact, a post that I have been meaning to write for the past 9 months, though I never have been able to crystallize it until today. A couple of years ago I didn’t even know that my current employer existed (much less what it did), and I was fully committed towards earning a PhD in Theoretical Physics after my master’s degree. Funnily enough, I had to change masters and move mid-year to a different city after what I consider one of my lowest points in decision-making (luckily, I met a couple of persons there that today make me glad of having chosen wrong in the first place), to start a different masters, in a different topic, but still intending to stay in the PhD track. As you probably know, I ended up changing course one more time: after the masters I left the academic world to join McKinsey, moved back to Spain from Germany, and essentially rebooted my (if it can be truly named like that) professional career. This story made for me the entire point about plans and planning all the more relevant: I have been now for several months on a path that I didn’t even conceive a couple of years ago, yet the transition felt easy and painless because the entire time, the journey has been that of a ship steering its course rather than that of a sudden transformation.
That’s why if you were to ask me where I’ll be in 5 or 10 years, I could give you an answer. But being honest, I think I agree with Richard Feynman when he said that it’s much more interesting to live not knowing that to have answers that might be wrong.
Bonus: I thought about ending the piece here, as it is long enough anyway. But I think that one of the most powerful quotes that I have ever read is almost necessary at this point. It comes from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a young poet, probably my favourite book (and I can think of few things I can truly call “my favourite”), and one of the cornerstones of my life once I had lived enough to start grasping the truth that its words unveil. Here are some of its most famous words:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Live the questions. Love the journey. And of course, remember that discipline is just choosing between what you want now, and what you want most.
And you, what do you want most?