Columns, Opinions

Thomas ’21: Being present for the future

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Course offerings for fall 2018 were released a few weeks ago on Courses@Brown. As I searched through the classes each department will offer next semester, I got excited thinking of all the various combinations of classes that I could take. The next day, I shared my excitement with a friend of mine, but they offered a different perspective. The way they saw it, right now, we’re taking the classes we got so excited about taking last semester. We were so eager to register for the classes we’re enrolled in at the moment but that excitement has moved away from the present and toward our future course load.

My friend’s simple observation underscores a larger problem: Young people, especially college students, overlook the value of the present. We’re constantly thinking about the next step on our journey to somewhere else. Whereas for me, as a second-semester student, looking ahead is exemplified by course selections, I’ve seen my older peers get swept up in the search for summer jobs, full-time jobs in the “real world” or broadly anything outside of Brown. While it’s good to think about the future — as college is in a lot of ways another stepping stone on our path forward — it’s also important to be present, absorbing all of the knowledge we can and enjoying every moment of college. Now is the perfect time to turn being present into a practice that will sustain us for the rest of our lives.

Considering the future is not inherently harmful. It would be a bit unrealistic to imagine a college experience without thinking about what your degree will get you down the line. One of the main reasons people go to college is because of its implications for their future. A bachelor’s degree, for example, is necessary to find employment and enter the middle class in the modern economy. Couple the economic imperative of a college education and college students’ relentless ambition, and we have the perfect recipe for an all-consuming, future-oriented approach to life.

But what’s to come should be in the back of our minds, not the forefront. We should remember that, while our time at Brown is short, we shouldn’t discount the tools we gain here that will greatly assist us in our future endeavors. We have an incredible opportunity to be surrounded by some of the brightest minds in the world and are constantly presented with opportunities to acquire more knowledge. We should make sure that, in thinking about what lies ahead, we don’t forget about what the present provides us. Constantly looking ahead means just going through the motions and not fully making the mostof the experiences available here. Indeed, being present might be the best thing we can do in our journey toward our future.

Specifically, a future-oriented outlook runs counter to one of the major perks of college: the freedom to be uncertain. Students should take full advantage of the opportunity to explore things not immediately linked to their predetermined future career paths, especially at a place like Brown that prides itself on the open curriculum. To enter one’s first year of college with a hard plan of what one’s next four years and beyond will look like is fine, but there’s more to college than checking off the boxes to get where you want to go. If your heart is set on becoming a lawyer, not everything that you do on campus need be related to law. Instead of setting your sights exclusively on joining a pre-law society, branch out and try something you’re not so sure about. Broadening your scope and trying out things not directly linked to your future not only exposes you to new possibilities, but can also reinforce what you may have already known about your interests. What’s more, venturing outside of our traditional comfort zones will help us acquire more knowledge and experiences to draw from in our lives. But the benefits of such exploration are only obtained by striking a balance between thinking about the future and being present.

This balance is important as it has implications for our health. I wrote a column earlier this semester about how the pursuit of perfection can prove detrimental to the health of students. Staying in a future-oriented mindset has similar impacts. Psychologist Matt Killingsworth, whose work is primarily concerned with happiness, conducted a study related to wandering minds. He found that when people focused on the present, they self-reported being 10 percent happier than when they were mind-wandering. At Brown — and in college, more generally — we have a tremendous opportunity to turn being present into a sustained practice. As adulthood and life beyond Brown approach, now is the time to practice being present so that we have a handle on it before entering the chaotic real world, which places too large an emphasis on constant progress and multitasking. And as it turns out, being present is a valuable skill in the workplace. The benefits of being present include better business interactions, better problem-solving skills and increased productivity.

There’s no problem with pondering what the future has in store, but letting this inhibit our ability to actively engage with what’s happening now is a problem. Staying in the moment, in fact, will serve us once we make it to our destination. But so long as we continue to exclusively think about what lies ahead, we’ll never be happy. Instead, we must find a balance between the here and now and the future.

Quentin Thomas ’21 can be reached at quentin_thomas@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.