In Ray Dalio’s Principles, a distillation of the lessons, methods, and actions to approach life and work by the founder of one of the world’s largest hedge funds, Bridgewater Associates, he tells us that everything looks bigger up close. He summarizes this idea by saying, “In all aspects of life, what’s happening today seems like a much bigger deal than it will appear in retrospect. That’s why it helps to step back to gain perspective and sometimes defer a situation until some time passes.”
It’s true that some issues look large up close and actually are large in retrospect. But what percentage of issues fall into the former category? How many of them are minor and exaggerated because we see them in the context of now? Due to the hyper-connection of social media, how much of our interpretation of the world is because we’re seeing everything magnified without the ability to see how little importance the thing might have long-term?
This could be true of politics, a big move in sports, a financial decision in the marketplace, or the decision of a family member. While we watch the event unfold, we imagine it has an importance that may not actually be there. If we were to grab a newspaper from a year ago, on August 4, 2017, how many of those stories would be at all relevant today? It may be the unfortunate reality that as humans we assume ourselves more important than we are, and in doing so, attach too great of an importance on the current moment and current events. It seems to be a sort of “happening now” bias where we can’t distinguish the present from the permanent. It’s a useful trick, because unfortunately life can be mundane and slow to develop, even though there are situations where what’s developing now could have major implications in the future. Nonetheless, we entertain ourselves with loads of now, when we haven’t actually calculated what the future implications of these nows will actually be.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes, “Pain is neither unendurable nor unending, as long as you remember its limits and do not exaggerate it in your imagination.” What we can apply to pain we can also apply to our long-term interpretation of now. Just as the person exercising and fighting through fatigue — even days after their workout — might not be able to see a future without pain because their now seems so intense, with enough time and perspective they’ll be able to see the forest among the trees.
Our interpretation of the now has limits, and it is neither unendurable nor unending. If it’s sufficiently intense we won’t be able to separate it from how it will interact with the future, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more relevant to a future world. Marcus Aurelius goes on to say, “Remember too that many things we find disagreeable are the unrecognized analogues of pain — drowsiness, for example, oppressive heat, loss of appetite. So when you find yourself complaining of any of these, say to yourself, ‘You are giving in to pain.’”
Maybe I’ve overstretched with the analogy of comparing a person’s interpretation of pain in the now to our interpretation of current events and the analogy doesn’t totally work. But I do think that giving into the now feeling of pain is similar to giving into the now excitement of current events. In the long-term the pain will dissipate. We’ll realize the pain wasn’t as great as we thought it to be at the time we were experiencing it.
In the long-term our exaggerated reactions to current events will remind us that the issues dissipated and likely had little to no effect on the future. The issues were only known in the past, just like our pain.