We are a species that is obsessed with memories. We spend so much time and money on inventing, creating, buying, and consuming technology centered around memories. Since the earliest times we can recall, humankind has spent countless hours and energy on memories. If we travel far back enough, we give memories the fancy term of “history”. Our modern day PR for the term is “social media”, or “news feed”, but whatever way we spin it, it is all centered around memories. Documenting what has happened, solidifying it for all eternity.
These recorded memories take different forms. History books attempt to record factual memories. Memories capture thoughts, feelings, and remembrances of the rich and famous. Period pieces attempt to paint (typically with rose colored glasses) a picture of a time long past in its prime, filled with life, mystery, and drama. Memories are rooted in the finite, of time that has been concretely shaped, of the road that has already been travelled.
The problem with spending so much of our time and mental energies on memories is that they are all in the past. We remain forever rooted to what has already come, and as a result are always looking backwards. Many of us romanticize the past (in fact, our brains do this on purpose so that we can forget the pain and bad memories of the past and instead can move forward).
Now don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a good nostalgic trip down memory lane as much as the next person. But we cannot allow our focus to remain there, cannot allow our time to be entirely consumed by our reminiscing.
Dreams on the other hand, focus on the future. They focus on things which have not yet come to pass, and keep our eyes looking forward. They paint a very different picture - one of possibility, of potential, of the expansive and the infinite. They ignore the details of what is and allow us to focus on what could be. They too vie for our time and our mental capacity. They too seek regular visitation from our consciousness, but they have a very different focus and motive.
Why it matters where we spend our time
Why does any of this matter? Can’t we simply allow our minds to wander where they will and call it a day? Why is it important for us to think through whether we’re spending our time snapping photos to edit and post on social media or thinking through how to make our dreams a reality?
The obvious one is that time is finite. This is obvious, but is also misleading.
It is true that we all have the same 24 hours in a day, and that we all go through periods of life where we feel like we’ve got all the time in the world. For arguments’ sake, let’s assume we all live standard long-ish lives (in the US as of writing, the average life span is 79 years old).
But even then, not all time is created equal, because despite wall clock time being a finite and universally equal thing, the way we experience it is not equal. For some experiences, 5 minutes may feel like an hour. A year may feel like a decade. A season may feel like an instant.
For instance, I had the privilege of taking an auto cross class, and the 73 seconds it took for me to do a lap with 4 laps had the experience feeling like it was a 15-20 one. This past year of my life has been richly filled with experiences and relationships that it has felt more like a decade than a year. For some, the past three years since the COVID pandemic hit has felt like months, and they remember 2019 like it was yesterday.
Our experience of time depends on what we do and how we do it.
This means that what we do with our time is more important than how much time we have. Explicitly, this means that instead of attempting to prolong our measurable time by tacking on additional time at the end, we should aim for prolonged experiences where time seems to stand still and stretches, and our experience of it lengthens. Instead of being an exercise nut, eating large quantities of kale, quinoa, and whatever other “superfood” is currently trendy, and focusing on extending life we should focus on adding more substantial experiences to our lives.
How do we elongate our experienced time?
I believe that time feels longer because of novelty. When experiences are new, when we experience inputs that we’ve never encountered before, and when we view the world with a different perspective than we had in the past, time seems to slow down. This is additionally magnified by our attitude towards these novel experiences - do we embrace trying new things and learning? Or are we closed off to them?
Clearly my belief is that openness is best (more on that some other post).
This is backed up by our own personal experiences. For instance, our childhood is a complete cauldron of novelty, and therefore ends up often feeling like a much longer period of our lives than it actually is. Everything is new, every feeling, every experience, every situation - all new. First loves, first breakups, first championship goal, first failure. All of these firsts are imprinted in our minds, and our experience of those feel elongated.
It is not an accident that we call those years our formative years; our childhood and early adulthood are periods filled with core memories and events that shape us and last throughout our lives. The reason? Novelty.
This does not mean we should go out seeking novel experiences all the time! While some of those experiences are perfectly justifiable, we should also be seeking novel ways to look at existing experiences. This may mean asking a friend a question you never dreamed of asking. It may mean a conversation or a new attitude towards something that has been in your life for decades.
In order to put ourselves in these novel situations, we need to dream. This is explicitly different than daydreaming. Daydreaming is for all practical purposes equivalent to wistful and wishful thinking without any action or impact on ones life. Dreaming big however is an explicit and intentional action that we take to think about our world not as it is but as it ought to be. It is a future-focused activity that prepares our mind for the possibility that something new will happen to us and in us.
A few thoughts on dreaming big.
- The wider our range of inputs in our lives the bigger the canvas we have on which to dream. By being open to a wide range of experiences, by putting ourselves in circumstances that we have never encountered, and by reading and conversing with people that have different perspectives than we do, we stretch our mind’s ability to dream and in doing so create a virtuous cycle of growth.
- Some of your dreams should scare you. Not because they’re nightmares, but because they’re so big that imagining them take hold of your life is breathtaking and borderline terrifying. This is a good thing. If you’re never scared of the possibilities of realizing your dreams, you’re not dreaming big enough.
- Dreams are best shared. Sharing our dreams with our close loved ones allows us not only to inspire others, but be inspired by others and to refine our dreams so that they can start taking shape in reality. By creating a culture of love and trust where we can share our dreams without fear of ridicule or persecution we enable ourselves to freely express, to push our boundaries, and to safely explore the vast world of possibilities out there for us.
The important question then, is what you’re doing with your time. Do you spend your time living in the past, reliving old memories, and longing for days gone by? Or do you have an adequate reverence for the past while focusing on your dreams for the future?
My sons, my hope for you is that you find that right balance that allows you to reminisce and to nostalgically relive the past appropriately, dream big about the future, and live passionately in the here and now.