How can I be better this year than I was last?
Every year, at this time of year, for the past 25 years, I think about what to do differently in the coming year. I am on a personal crusade to become a better person. The turning over of a year is really no different than the turning over of any other day. Even so, the feeling of a fresh start is ever present as we careen through the Christmas holidays on our way to a New Year's eve tipping point.
This year I am not resolving to do anything different. I am now old enough to appreciate the futility of willing new behaviour into existence. January 18th is a brutal reminder of that futility (the mean-time-to-failure of the typical New Year's Resolution). But today, like any other day, I can plant the seed from yesterday's dying flower for a new version of me to sprout tomorrow.
This Christmas, I've been having a little personal Christopher Nolan film festival: Inception Interstellar Batman. His metaphysical wit is notoriously hard to follow. His fascination with epistimology and time flow dynamics found a new gear with Tenet.
It's about time.
After watching just the first scene, I had to take a break to catch my breath and research what had just happened. I left the subtitles on for the rest of the movie, which I watched dazed and confused. (In fact, watching the original stoner movie Dazed and Confused would have been much easier.) I did more research after the movie ended. I'm still not sure, exactly what happeed, but I recognized the genius while it was unfolding in front of me.
Tenet is about the illucid flow of time from the past through the present to the future and back again, but it's not really about time travel in the Back to the Future sense. Someone in the future has invented a machine that allows people to rewind and fast forward through time like a cassette-era version of the White Album. While it's alway been possible to communicate with our future selves–all we have to do is leave an artifact like a note, a journal, a diary or a memoir for our future selves to find–it's not so easy for our future selves to communicate backwards. It's easy to see the trail of popcorn signs looking backward. There is no such trail looking forward. The machine in the movie allows future versions of characters to give their past versions the tools and information they need to become their future versions. So yeah, it's a standard, super-loopy, Christopher Nolan film romp. My head still hurts, but I bought the movie so I can do what I did with the Matrix series and watch it dozens of times.
Better decisions today make for better impacts tommorrow.
Helping people make better decisions is the primary function of any coach. I've long been interested in the metacognitive part of self-awarensess and personal growth: thinking about how to think better. Part of that work is expanding the container in which my leaders are making their decisions. The expansion happens in two temporal directions, forward and backward in time.
Looking back, my life has been a long series of experiments in which I have said and done many things and seen what works and does not work. Some of these lessons have been very painful and some very rewarding. Some I have learned from others. I've lodged these complex patterns of feeling-thought-action-observation deep into my psyche as a vast repetoire of best practices. When I'm being my most conscious and constructive, I am reflecting on what I've learned from my past experiences and accessing that wisdom to make better decisions in the present. My yesterday-self informs my today-self. The further back I can go while remaining present in the moment, the better.
Looking forward, I am making many plans for a better future, predicting what I think will work in a world that is uncertain and fundamentally unpredictable. This involves a series of new experiments and a degree of foresight. If I've done my work to understand what I want and where I am going I'll likley make fewer dumb decisions and do much less dumb shit. When I am being my most conscious and contructive self, I am not just reflective of what is likely to work best but proactive about what is most important to me. Not only does my yesterday-self inform my today-self but my tomorrow-self does as well. The further forward I can go while remaining present in the moment, the better. I am floating my boat between two piers (or two peers if you want to get even more loopy).
Every day is a struggle between my yesterday-self and my tomorrow-self.
In every moment, the future passes through the present to the past in a very linear-seeming process. I make observations. I make decisions. I have feelings. I take actions. I generate impacts. These are my action loops and they flow forward. The predictions I make about the future reflect what I've learned from my past as I attempt to proactively apply that to what's important to me in the future.
Some of this is not very sustainable. My yesterday-self is sometimes the wise man with a long-term perspective who's learned the hard lessons of the past. But he's also the highly reflexive man with a very short-term survival instinct: a less-than-fully-present organism just trying to get his immediate needs met in the most expeditious and efficient ways possible.
For example, my today-self has been suffering from an increasingly severe chronic migraine pattern. My future-self understands the brutal reality that sugar causes significant inflammation in the brain and is a factor in this pattern. My yesterday-self is addicted to sugar; when the metabolic itch strikes, he's the one in charge of scratching it with chocolate croissants. Future me is also brutally aware that sugar is a major factor in the early onset of Alzheimer's disease for which I have a genetic predisposition. My future-self pleads with my suger-addled past-self but the screams go unheard. My tomorrow-self understands the importance of saving and investing for the future, but my yesterday-self has the Amex. He spends; my future-self pays the bills.
Our tomorrow-selves decide what's possible. Our yesterday-selves decided what we deserve.
That's the daily dance. Your tomorrow-self has already figured out how to achieve something your yesterday-self won’t let you have. You just haven't got there yet. But you will. It's inevitable. The only question is how fast and how big you play your game. It's only a matter of going through enough daily experiments and action-cycles, where each version of you becomes a bit better than the version who went before. Maybe some clues will help decipher the code.
(Trigger Warning: this next paragraph will read like a Christopher Nolan screenplay, but stay with me.)
Your yesterday-self was once the tomorrow-self that figured out how to achieve everything your today-self has currently achieved and everything your yesterday-yesterday-self wasn't letting you have. Your today-self managed to transcend the limitations your yesterday-self imposed. You fought through. If your yesterday-self could have rewound and brought something useful back to your yesterday-yesterday-self, your today-self would be much further ahead. The scope of your impact would be even more impressive.
What key would you bring back from your future to unlock the habits of your past?
With a little imagination and some work, I can transport myself forward into some time in the future. From this perspective I get a little gilmpse into what the long series of my tomorrow-selves have managed to create. If I do this well enough, I can bring back a little of how it feels to be in the future I have created, what it smells like and sounds like, and what sort of strengths I've needed to overcome the obstacles a long-series of my yesterday-selves have placed in the way.
If I could just somehow feel like I might feel overcoming the challenges of tommorow, I just might have the fuel I need to overcome the challenges of today. As abstract as this might seem, it might in practice be much simpler: What I want to being back from the future is the feeling of gratitude and appreciation.
I am worthy of what I want to create.
My yesterday-self is tugging on the psychic strings of my today-self to abandon this faith and simply play the small game. My collection of old habits works to some degree. I am getting my needs met at some level but its not what I am fully capable of. My tomorrow-self understands this but not how to wrestle the wheel from its more safety and security-conscious younger version.
This is the season of Christmas leading into the reset of the year. If there is a figure emblematic of grace and charity, surely it would be the namesake of this very holiday. One need not be a literal Christian to appreciate the spirit of the times–the spirit of "undeserved favour"–the gift of love.
We don't give love to each other because the other has done something to deserve it. We do it because it's in us to give. In any moment we can give this gift of charity and grace to each other:
Cut some slack.
Make some space.
Forgive a trespass.
If we struggle with that, it's because our lower yesterday-selves get caught up somewhere on the spectrum of greed, somewhere between the self-indulgent and cheap. There is no real appreciation to be felt there.
This coming year is a gift. The people who passed on this year did not receive it. You can squander the gift or honour it. Today is the same gift. I used this day to create this gift for you. I hope you make the best of it.
If you've got something important to say and do today or this year, let's get to it. There is something sweet in the doing and saying of it. You can eat the chocolate croissant after, if you're still hungry.
All the best from our family to yours.