The Better Letter: The Relentless Now
Thinking about longer-term thinking.
When a company reports better-than-expected quarterly earnings results, analysts and investors often congratulate the company’s leaders by telling them, “Great quarter, guys!” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos shared his thoughts about these sorts of exchanges in 2017.
“When somebody… congratulates Amazon on a good quarter… I say thank you. But what I’m thinking to myself is… those quarterly results were actually pretty much fully baked about three years ago…. Today, I’m working on a quarter that is going to happen in 2020, not next quarter. Next quarter, for all practical purposes, is done already and it has probably been done for a couple of years.
“And so if you start to think that way, it changes how you spend your time, how you plan, where you put your energy. And your ability to look around corners gets better. So many things improve if you can take a long term [view]. By the way, it's not natural for humans. It's a discipline that you have to build.”
We all struggle for the discipline to delay gratification and think longer-term. It’s a problem and a condition that applies to countries, cultures, communities, companies, and citizens alike. You, too. And me. Especially me.
These sorts of conflicts between short, intermediate, and long-term goals are the focus of this week’s TBL. As I have written before, the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan once said of Dorothy Day that she lived “as though the truth were true.” If we did the same, our actions might look a lot more like our aspirations.
May it be so.
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The Relentless Now
How’s your diet going? Your workout regimen?
Me, too. It’s hard to get up and go to the gym. It’s hard to say “No!” to cake. It’s hard to focus on the long-term.
Important change is mostly incremental and thus largely unseen. Compound interest is amazing but takes time. The pounds do not fall off. Bad relationships don’t fix themselves.
Philosophy aside, anyone with even a bit of experience in the real world will recognize presentism as an apt description of an affliction with which all humans suffer, at least much of the time.
We do not learn adequately from our past mistakes. We do not plan sufficiently for the future. Instead, we remain excessively fixated on the present and its incessant demands and distractions. This focus, dangerous though it is, is understandable because, as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has explained, “the long-term is not where life is lived.”
Our presentism is exceedingly hard to escape. In our lives and in the world, the relentless now may not be all that matters, but it matters far more than it should.
A major finding in behavioral economics is that people are present biased, that the future is merely an ongoing string of todays. When we remember who we were and what we were like in the past, we readily recall how different we were and how much we have changed. However, when we consider the future, we expect that we’ll stay the same person — with the same values, interests, and preferences — we are today.
This conviction is the “end of history illusion,” whereby we think of the present as a sort of “watershed moment” such that we will continue to be who we are in that present for the rest of our lives. Everyone “seem[s] to believe that the pace of personal change has slowed to a crawl and that they have recently become the people they will remain. History, it seems, is always ending today.”
Among the places this presentism manifests itself is in our planning for the future. The problem begins with what Kahneman calls the “planning fallacy.” Our ability to control the future is extremely limited and is far more limited than we want to believe. It is our tendency to underestimate the time, costs, and risks of future actions and at the same time overestimate the benefits thereof. It is at least partly why we minimize the likelihood of bad results. It is why we think it will not take as long to accomplish something as it does. It is why projects tend to cost more than we expect. It is why the results we achieve are not as good as we expect. It is why I end up taking three separate trips to Home Depot on Saturdays and all day to finish chores that should take “maybe an hour, at most.”
As Adam Gopnik sagely pointed out, “nothing works out as planned,” and “everything has unintentional consequences.” Indeed, “the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out.” In essence, then, what history generally “teaches” is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they are making it.
There is more to it than that, of course. Truly long-term thinking is difficult because the long-term feels light years away in the moment. Many are dedicated to taking advantage of this tendency. Instant pleasures – both small and large, relatively innocent to catastrophic – surround us and are broadcast around us day and night.
We too often pick what is easy, what is expedient, what pleases right now rather than what is best overall and for the long-term. We like cake. We like splurging. We like likes.
There are excellent bits of instruction available all around us, of course, that suggest – implore even – that we do things differently. It is simple common sense.
There is Mr. Micawber’s famous, and oft-quoted, recipe for happiness from David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
The Book of Proverbs spells it out too: “Moderation is better than muscle, self-control better than political power (Proverbs 16:32).”
Plato offered his own version: “the victory over self is of all victories the first and best while self-defeat is of all defeats at once the worst and the most shameful.”
Even the Dalai Lama gets in on the act: “A disciplined mind leads to happiness, and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.”
Despite all this good advice, as the Apostle Paul explains, we do not follow it very well. “I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time (Romans 7: 18-20).”
Consider Dwight Howard, the prodigious basketball talent who has never come close to reaching his immense potential, and who recognizes that his failings are due to a lack of self-control. As he has acknowledged, “one thing I’ve learned is that eventually, what you do off the court will affect what you do on the court.” As Paul implies and as Howard demonstrates, it is a deep and universal problem.
Retirement planning may be our supreme test in this regard. Adults are asked to put money aside for decades instead of spending it for (seemingly?) important or fun stuff right now to fund an unknown, uncertain, and often far-off future. We are not very good at such hyperbolic discounting. There is broad research support for the idea that people prefer smaller immediate rewards over larger delayed rewards to their economic disadvantage. Moreover, the more abstract the future reward (e.g., a “better retirement”), the harder it is to delay gratification, and the greater the cognitive load, the harder it is to resist temptation.
Most of us assume raw talent is the most important characteristic when it comes to achieving success in life. However, talent is largely at the mercy of self-control. Even the smartest students still need to do their homework. The most talented athletes need to train. The best musicians need to practice. Nearly all of us need to put down the fork.*
What can we do to get our aspirations and our actions more in-line?
I have long recognized that my besetting sin is a failure to pay sufficient attention. It turns out that psychologists have concluded – long after parents recognized – that the crucial skill for self-control is the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the “hot stimulus,” we might focus on something else. The desire is not defeated — it is merely displaced. If your child is having trouble focusing on homework, take the phone away. If you are on a diet, don’t keep potato chips in the house.
Most mainstream behavior change programs follow this approach, but it can be hard to maintain over the long haul, which is why even successful dieters often end up gaining the weight back. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is very promising in this regard. The idea is that one having a craving should say aloud, “I am noticing I am having the thought that I have a craving to smoke right now.” This mindfulness approach helps the subject acknowledge and prioritize the available choices.
My much-better-half’s fifth graders get nervous on Tuesdays. Each student has a standing meeting with her every Tuesday to review progress, ask questions, and generally check-in. That consistent accountability makes them nervous. Accountability – like commitment contracts, accountability partners, and accountability structures – can help us live up to our expectations.
Odysseus, wishing to hear the singing of the Sirens but fearing their powers, bound himself to his ship’s mast to prevent being seduced by them to steer it into the dangerous shoals. Like Odysseus, we may prospectively adopt strategies to reduce the likelihood of confronting temptation and to decrease the likelihood of indulging in temptation when it is encountered. For example, people deposit money into “Christmas club accounts” that pay no interest yet charge early withdrawal fees. As Tim Ferriss explains, “creating systems that make it next to impossible to misbehave is more reliable than self-control.”
Accordingly, since many workers decline to enroll in their defined contribution plans and since many fewer people will opt-out than will choose not to opt-in — doing nothing is a crucial default (see here, for example) – Congress enacted the Pension Protection Act of 2006 in part to permit employers automatically to enroll workers in 401(k) savings plans. Employers should do so. In that scenario, inertia works in favor of savings. Moreover, many of us do not fret much about this type of withholding — out of sight, out of mind — making it easier for us to stick with it.
Employers might also consider higher default withholding percentages and using contribution matches (or, better yet, increased contribution matches) as employee incentives and rewards to get even better results. As Duke’s Dan Ariely told me, “we know that if we relied on our mediocre cognitive ability and thinking and demanded that every month we make this decision, the odds are we will never make this decision. Or at least we’ll make it very infrequently. So, by creating a system that takes this decision out of our hands we actually do much better.”
Unfortunately, once we start spending at a given rate, it can be hard to consume less. Thus, the idea that workers should just decide to contribute more is not all that realistic overall, even for those who understand the value of doing so.
One technique for increasing contributions is to do so when one’s salary increases via a raise or a promotion (which is happening a lot in the current environment). If one gets a four percent raise, increasing one’s DC plan withholding by two percent would be a meaningful improvement to retirement planning while still providing the feeling of a raise since take-home pay would still increase. The impact of even relatively minimal increased withholding can be dramatic. For example, a worker who earns $50,000 per year with four percent annual raises, a six percent employer match and an annual return on investments of seven percent, by reducing his or her weekly paycheck by a mere $16 and appropriating that money to a 401(k), would set aside about $250,000 more for retirement over 30 years. Compound interest is a wonder.
Psychologist Hal Ersner-Hershfield found that those who most identify with their future selves do a better job planning for that future. How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be?
We ought to strive to get better and be better. Of course. But while we, usually readily, acknowledge that general truth, we fail to make it specific and, thus, actionable. Rare indeed is one of us who can offer current examples of our failings. We haven’t reached any end of history. What’s happening now isn’t any sort of final verdict, making the future mostly a design problem.
We want to lose weight but eat the cake. We want to be fitter but stay on the couch. We want to save money but buy the new gizmo. We want to have stronger relationships but don’t invest in them. We want to be better parents but don’t give our kids time and attention. We want to serve others but can’t be bothered to get vaccinated.
We should love people and use things. We get it backwards far too often.
The Invictus impulse is a vital and powerful one, to be sure. Overcoming “the fell clutch of circumstance” is much of what it means to be human, from Adam and Eve in the Garden through the present. Still, a well-intentioned impulse requires action — consistent follow-through.
In the same way that Aslan is not a tame lion, our future is hardly safe. It is fraught with risk and uncertainty. That’s what makes it so valuable, why – if we want a decent chance of a decent outcome – it demands that we invest in it. Actively.
If we aren’t busy living and improving, we’re surely dying. A piece of cake isn’t worth that.
* Roughly two out of three Americans is overweight. In this respect, Meat Loaf is dead wrong – two out of three is really, really bad. Moreover, within five years of having lost weight, 95 percent of dieters will regain all the weight they lost, and most will gain a few extra pounds as well. We are not any better at exercise either. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 1 in 5 American adults meets recommended physical activity levels. Many of us want to do better. However, when resolution-makers join gyms after Christmas, 80 percent are gone within five months. The sad truth is that, for many, gym members cannot even be paid to work out.
Totally Worth It
The best thing I heard this week came from my daughter. She got an email from the mother of one of her son’s second grade classmates commending Will for standing up for her son at school. I don’t quite know what that entailed; the boy was ridiculed for “dressing like a janitor.” He had worn a blue uniform like his father for Veteran’s Day. I get crazy-angry thinking about it because our service-members and their families deserve our utmost respect, especially on Veteran’s Day. I get crazy-angry about it because I’m the son of a school janitor.
It also makes me exceedingly proud of my grandson.
This is the best thing I saw or read this week. The most powerful. The most promising. The most interesting. The most insightful. The most insane. The most terrifying. The most compelling. The coolest. The most uplifting. The most ridiculous. The sweetest. The scariest. The most surprising. The least surprising. The ugliest. The most thought-provoking. The most American. The worst luck. The biggest lies. No place to go. This might work. Really?! Flor-i-duh. California. This hasn’t aged well. If you’ve lost Maureen Dowd….
I can’t embed it, but check out this song. You won’t regret it. Диана Анкудинова (Diana Ankudinova) is only 18-years-old. Obviously, it’s not the Elvis version. She and her story are incredible.
Feel free to contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright) and let me know what you like, what you don’t like, what you’d like to see changed, and what you’d add. Don’t forget to subscribe and share.
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This week’s benediction is delightful. Enjoy Keb’ Mo’s “Hand It Over.”
The Spotify TBL playlist now includes nearly 200 songs and over 14 hours of great music. I urge you to listen and turn the volume up. Way up.
To those of us prone to wander, to those who are broken, to those who flee and fight in fear – which is every last lost one of us – there is a faith that offers hope. And may love have the last word. Now and forever. Amen.
Thank you for reading.
Issue 88 (November 12, 2021)