Investing in the moment

I watched Srikumar Rao's talk entitled "Plug into your hard-wired happiness" (embedded below) for the 3rd time last night. 

He covers a lot in his talk, and although I found myself confused at points where he made significant leaps of logic, I came away with a valuable lesson:

Most of us invest ourselves in the outcomes we want to achieve. If I do or get this, then I will be happy. And what most of us miss is that these outcomes are often beyond our control because of external influences that we can't control. Therefore, if we continue to invest ourselves in outcomes, we will continue to be regularly disappointed as these outcomes are not achieved because of factors beyond our control.

But there is a different approach that we can take. We can continue to chart our lives by striving for specific outcomes (planning and goal setting are good things, right!), but we need to invest ourselves not in these outcomes, but rather in the process of getting there.

I've heard many people say things like we should "live in the moment", or "be fully present all the time". But this is the first time i've realised that this sentiment speaks to a specific mental model that has us investing ourselves in actions that we can control, as opposed to outcomes that we can't control. And when we invest in actions that we can control, we're more than likely going to feel a sense of accomplishment every day as we carry out these actions successfully. I mean, we only have ourselves to blame if we don't succeed at something that is entirely within our control right? But so many of us are stuck in a mental model that drives us to achieve outcomes that are beyond our control, and as we fail at these outcomes due to factors beyond our control, we think we're failing generally.

This speaks to a broader Buddhist philosophy that i'm not familiar with, but I really like the principle of investing in the process as a way to achieve more happiness in our lives. I like to think of this as investing in the moment. And the question i'm going to be asking myself as I think on this in the future is "am I investing emotional time and energy into something that I can fully control?" and "am i doing the best I can do right now?"

I articulate this differently to the way Srikumar does, so i've embedded his talk below and included a summary of the talk below that.

Srikumar proposes that we've spent our lives learning to be unhappy. And the way we've done this by subscribing to a particular mental model - which is a notion that this is the way the world works. And this particular mental model is that we need to get something, so we can do something, so we can be something. For example, we need to get lots of money, so that we can go travelling, so that we can be happy. 

There are loads of examples we can all relate to in our lives, and they all come down to this "if-then" model. If this happens, then we will be happy. And the only difference between all of us is our particular "if" that we are focussing on. In fact, the difference between us now and in the past is the particular "if" we focussed on then and the one we are focussed on now.

But if we take a look at our past, we've achieved many of the "ifs" that we were focussed on, and yet where does this leave us? In a pretty similar place to where we were originally, and not in the eternal state of happiness that Srikumar describes is possible. 

I disagree with Srikumar's view that it's possible to be happy all the time, but I think he's using the superlative for emphasis, so i'll let this slide.

But I think the important thing to note here is our insatiable needs. When we get what we want, we suddenly want more. 

He goes on to explain that it is our "if-then" mental model that is flawed. But that we don't recognise that the model is flawed, so we fixate on changing the "if". And as this plays out, the "if" simply grows.

The road to recovery is as follows:

1. Understand that our actions are within our control.

2. Accept that the outcome is completely outside of our control.

And with the if-then model, we invest ourselves in the outcome. This is problematic. If we achieve the outcome, life is wonderful. If we fail to achieve the outcome, life sucks. The more we don't achieve the outcome, the more our life sucks. And this is the case with so many people who employ this mental model.

What we need to be doing instead is investing in the process, and he explains what it means to invest in the process with reference to John Wooden and what he used to say to his new basketball recruits: "When it's over and you look in the mirror, ask yourself the question: did you do the best you were capable of. If you did, then the score doesn't matter. But I suspect that if you did your best, you'll find the score to your liking."

There's nothing wrong with focussing on an outcome. And in business I know this to be a powerful tool to guide decision making. But it is investing in the outcome that makes people unhappy, and this is what Srikumar guards against.

So in terms of making progress in our lives, we continue to assess where we are and where we want to be. We can then focus on where we want to be, and use this as a guide, but we need to be careful to only invest ourselves in the process and not in the outcome. We then put everything into the process - we do the best we possibly can. And if we succeed, wonderful! And if we don't, that's still wonderful. Because we now have a new starting point, and from that starting point we select another outcome to focus on, and invest ourselves in the process again.

And when we embrace this new mental model, we'll find that every day is a blast. Because we're investing our emotional energy into processes that we can control, and that we can succeed at.