How to give the best gifts to your past, present and future selves.


Gifts for the present

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself in the present moment is your complete and immediate focus.

The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience. - Eleanor Roosevelt

Focus is what allows you to get things done. A paranoid obsession with the future is the parasite of your joy. It's easy to over-optimise for our remembering selves and create memory structures that rely on competitive cognitive artefacts.

That's a pretty loaded sentence. I'll explain. In behavioural psychology, per Daniel Kahneman, we have two selves: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self only exists in the present moment. The remembering self tells stories of the past. Often we make plans in anticipation of our remembering self, opting for activities that will be memorable. There is nothing wrong with this. The quandary is when our experiencing self and remembering self are misaligned or sub-optimised.

One example of possible misalignment is the peak-end effect. Due to memory bias and recency bias, we are most likely to recall the most intense moment of stimuli during an event, and the final moment. These two points form a snapshot that characterises our recollection of the experience. In the context of Kahneman's study, colonoscopy patients were more likely to retrospectively ignore the discomfort of a rod up their bum for an extra minute, because their remembering self superseded the experiencing self.

We are not choosing between experiences themselves but between memories of experiences.

This is where cognitive artefacts come in. Cognitive artefacts are tools that help us think - you can do maths in your head, or you could use an abacus or even a calculator. All three are tools, but the difference in value is in the impact they leave behind. When it comes to memory, your phone is a competitive cognitive artefact. Relying on it as a cue to retrieve memories becomes a crutch.

During the pandemic lockdown in London last year I began frequently walking and reading audiobooks as I walked. Many of these walks were memorable, but I notice a significant difference in recollecting non-fiction vs fiction.

When I read non-fiction I often keep my phone out, taking notes. When I read fiction, my phone stays in my pocket. My attention is solely focused on the magic of what I'm reading and on the world around me. When I think back on the 60 books I read last year I have vivid recollections of the passages of fiction I took in. The passages that made me laugh and the ones that touched me deeply.

"Why, the man is mad! or he thinks us fools, every one. And do you imagine that beautiful young lady, that healthy, hearty girl, will tie herself to a little perishing monkey like you?"

I read this drag from Wuthering Heights on a winding road through the woods on a Saturday morning last summer. I remember exactly where I was, the colour of the trees, the way I looked around to make sure no one saw me cackling maniacally to myself.

I remember where I was during the final act of My Sister the Serial Killer, the inciting incident of Stay With Me, the opening scene of Ask Me No Questions. These moments sprint back to me soaked in life and colour. Meanwhile, my memory of non-fiction is largely referential. I still remember the where, but much of the intangible magic of those moments are lost to my preoccupation with note-taking.

That's a trade-off I'm willing to make. Encyclopaedic notes from great books I encounter add immense value to my life, the fruits of which have peppered this newsletter for over a year. Cognisance of that trade-off allows me to focus entirely on what matters to me. But what about the memories that I don't need a working record of?

Yesterday I was running in the woods, dog in tow. We raced at least 6 or 7 times. I made a few poor attempts at recording them. I had no real plan to share these videos, but like many of you, I've built a muscle of defaulting to chronicle any moment that could be mildly instagramable. Looking back, the memories I have of races where my phone was in my pocket have far greater fidelity. When I relied on my phone to capture the memories for me, viewing the moment itself through its narrow lens as I tried to keep objects in focus, my memories are more fractured.

Be careful and intentional in what you optimise for and the tradeoffs you make. Will your remembering self-value this moment more than your experiencing one? Will a digital record be of greater value over time than your visceral physical recollection? That's your decision to make.

Just remember that over-reliance on competitive cognitive artefacts diminishes your ability to build and retrieve complex memories.

Don't be afraid to live in African time, defining each moment by the activities it contains. The Swahili call this 'Sisa'. Time within touching distance; time that can be experienced.

To most people the present moment almost doesn't exist, because what they are really interested in is the next moment, or the one after that. So they live always towards the future. They live, towards the next moment. And unconsciously, they regard the next moment, the next moment in time they need to get to, as more important than this moment - not realising that the future moment they are so desparate to get to will soon become the present. We fail to recognise that the future has no form of existence other than as a thought form. Something outside the present moment. - Eckhart Tolle

Gifts from the past

Be slow to accept gifts from your past self. It's easy to fall for the sunk cost fallacy. It's hard to let go of what you've already invested in; things you've already committed to.

From a previous issue:

Once we start a course of action we feel compelled to finish it - not because it will bring further reward, but because we take pleasure in being consistent. Changing your tune can mean admitting you were wrong... The pain of changing course seems greater than staying put.

Seth Godin refers to the sunk-cost fallacy as a gift from our past selves. We made a decision we thought would benefit us in the future - now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can choose to accept that gift or change course.

An idea I've been waiting to cover at length is the end-of-history illusion. It's a psychological fallacy affecting people of all ages. We acknowledge and happily boast of the profound personal growth and changes in taste we've had over the years, but consistently underestimate our capacity to grow in the future. Simply put, we make decisions for people that don’t exist yet. The future you may not be the person you expect them to be.

We make many decisions on behalf of our future selves without realising how drastically different they may be. It's something our education system encourages by pushing kids to specialise through a series of constraining choices from as early as age 15. It's no surprise that less than 30% of graduates end up working in the field they majored in.

Knowing how much we change over time is an even greater reason for pausing any time we are presented with a gift from our past selves. Think twice before doubling down on something you already feel invested in. Interrogate your 'shoulds', your accumulated wisdom, and your preconceptions about the world.

Embrace Bayesian thinking - the idea that at any time there may be more to know than the data you have before you. Consistently update your models, predictions, and approach based on the new information you encounter.

Gifts for the future

Everything compounds. Time invested in curating beneficial habits now will reduce the friction of building and maintaining them later, as well as increasing the cumulative reward should you successfully stick with them.

The time of your best decision-making is likely in your 50s. It's something of a mental prime. At this point, you should have sufficiently traversed the plane of explore-exploit tradeoffs, and have gathered enough data on what works and what doesn't to make robust decisions. An underlying assumption is that you have sufficiently experimented and encountered enough new ideas in the course of your life. Your palate has been refined. The bank of your mind's river has been hewn through repetition.

The great cost of using and developing something as metabolically expensive as your brain means that anything you don't use gets shaved away over time, and some skills are lost altogether. So it's equally vital to think ahead and ensure tomorrow's self is well equipped to navigate the world it will occupy.

The knowledge you can deploy effectively in your 50s and beyond is an accumulation of your prior decisions and experiments. To make that pool as wide as possible, start early.

As an example, the secret to becoming a Chess master is almost entirely about pattern recognition, and being able to ‘chunk’ the board into patterns you’ve seen before. You build a library of patterns over time through study and more importantly, by experience. However, your chances of becoming an International Master (one level below Grand Master) drop from 1/4 to 1/55 if you don’t start training rigorously by age 12.

Deciding whether you are someone who smokes, reads, invests, or runs every morning, is a decision you can make at any time, but the compounding impact is best felt when you start early.

If you decide to become a reader at aged 30, your older, wiser self at 50 will have a two-decade-old armoury of books from which to draw ideas.

Build muscles of saving and investing as early as possible. Save recipes and excellent quotes. Invest in relationships, in knowledge, in your health and in your finances. The compounding benefits will accumulate in a way that's hard to comprehend.

Here’s an analogy on saving money:

Starting at age 23, you need to put away just $14 per day to reach $1 million by age 67. Wait just seven years, until age 30, and you have to increase that amount by 50%. Hold off until age 35 and you’ll have to save more than twice as much as at 23.

Let's make that example more concrete. Let's say you decided to invest £100 a month, and managed to average a return of 1% a month or 12% a year, compounding monthly for 40 years. Conversely, a friend of the same age starts investing 30 years later but invests £1000 a month for 10 years with the same rate of return. In just 10 years of saving your friend who waited 30 years to start will have £230,000. However, even though you could only afford to save a tenth of what they did, by starting 30 years earlier, you would have £1.17 million. All with just £100 a month. That's the power of compounding.

The effect isn't just limited to money. The easiest time to find the best physical shape of your life is in your late 20s when your body is fully formed but still highly malleable. This isn't to say you can't get fit later in life - it's just harder.

Think about the compounding impact of maintaining good posture vs slouching, or even just the impact of good dental care. There are a myriad small lifestyle changes you can make early on that will drastically improve your quality of life as you age, thanks to the power of compounding.

It's never too late to leave gifts for your future self but starting early makes a hell of a difference.

TL;DR

  • One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself in the present moment is your complete and immediate focus.
  • Over-reliance on competitive cognitive artefacts diminishes your ability to build and retrieve complex memories.
  • Be slow to accept gifts from your past self. It's easy to fall for the sunk cost fallacy.
  • We make many decisions on behalf of our future selves without realising how drastically different they may be.
  • Everything compounds. Time invested in curating beneficial habits now will reduce the friction of building and maintaining them later.

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If you have any thoughts on bias and rigorous thinking I’d love to hear from you! Reply via email, leave a comment, or send me a tweet!

I’d also love any thoughts on what I should write about next.

Read on for this week’s recommendations >>

A woman wearing luxury bag and busy people at the background enjoying the sun in Nice: A photo by David Elikwu
Photo: by David Elikwu, in Nice
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Reading list

Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:

  1. Tribe of Mentors by Tim Ferris - read. This is the sequel to Tools of Titans, and despite owning both books in at least one digital format, I recently bought them again in paperback as reference books.
  2. Alchemy by Rory Sutherland - impulsively bought. I’ve seen a few interviews with Oglivy’s vice chairman but several marketing friends recently recommended this. My copy is in the mail.
  3. Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday - wishisted. Another book I’ve made a million notes on before reading because he’s a frequent guest on many podcasts I follow religiously. It’s fair to say Holiday has played a large role in making stoic philosophy zeitgeist.
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