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Why “being present” is overrated

Posted in the following categories: Creativity, Failure

“Being in the present moment” is all the rage these days. Meditation is decidedly in. It seems like everyone and their cousin has picked up a meditation habit to battle stress and help focus. The devices that make us very unpresent are now loaded with apps to help you meditate, with millions returning to their breath with a collective om.

To be sure, meditation has numerous benefits, and I don’t mean to discount them. I meditate most mornings. My beef isn’t with meditation itself. Rather, it’s with the underlying message that people get from the incessant bombardment of messages about mindfulness and being present: It’s wrong to drift away and leave the present moment.

Here’s why I disagree.

Drifting away and daydreaming serve crucial purposes. If Einstein was forced to “be present” while working at his desk in the Swiss patent office, he may have processed more patent applications, but we probably would have missed out on the theory of relativity. It was through disconnecting from the present moment and getting lost in thought experiments—What would it be like to chase after a beam of light?—that Einstein achieved most of his breakthroughs.

Most of my ideas arrive while daydreaming or drifting. I came up with the idea for this article while sitting, bored out of my mind, in an introductory course for transcendental meditation (yes, the irony). The speakers were droning on about the benefits of meditation (which I already knew) and reading out loud their PowerPoint slides (please don’t do that). Instead of being present, I decided to drift away and think about what to write next.

Leaving the present moment can also help us cope with failure. We’re genetically programmed to focus on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right: The rattling in the dark, the smell of gas, the sight of smoke, the screeching of tires. Our pupils dilate, our heart starts pumping faster, and stress hormones are released. When we fail at something, these stress reactions create tunnel vision, an acute focus on the present.

But in the present moment, failure is painful. It’s embarrassing. It can be helpful to zoom out of the present moment and mentally travel into the future, as Wharton professor and bestselling author Adam Grant recommended on my podcast: “Zooming out, I know that next month, this failure is not going to sting as much as it does today. In a year, I might have even forgotten it, if I look at my past experience.”

What’s more, all this talk about “being present” makes me feel incompetent. As I catch myself daydreaming or drifting, a phantom monk starts yelling “Shame on you!” at me (even though I’m fully aware that monks aren’t the type of people who throw temper tantrums at subpar pupils).

In my view, leaving the present moment isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s unintentionally drifting south to negative town. I’m as guilty of this as the next person: I frequently battle the jerk who has set up permanent shop inside of my head. Sometimes, that jerk turns into the most boring person I’ve ever met, making asinine mental remarks or regurgitating conversations I had days ago. We all need a mental hazmat suit against this type of mental drift, and mindfulness is one tool that can help.

But the other type of mental drift—positive daydreaming, fantasizing, or conducting thought experiments—can help you unleash creativity and cope with failure.

The next time you start daydreaming, embrace it. You never know where it will lead you.

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