Are You Living in the Spectacular Now or Playing It Too Safe?

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The Spectacular Now and Living in the Moment

My friends and I drove for an hour to watch The Spectacular Now in Los Angeles two weeks ago. I’m not trying to sell you this movie, but I really connected with the protagonist and it got me thinking a lot. That’s something most movies don’t really do to me, at least not on this level.

It made me question what it meant to be enjoying the present versus failing to plan for the future. Then I thought about what happens when you try to fix someone, an issue I know all too well.

Where People Mess Up Carpe Diem

Living in the now can be very liberating for an individual that’s been living all his or her life with the mindset that you should always be careful, thinking 10 steps ahead.

Yes, foresight will get you far, but it can also drive you insane. It will make you more risk-averse than what’s healthy, not to mention you’re not going to be living a very exciting life. Sure, you won’t be dead, but I don’t think you’d be living either.

When it comes to sayings like carpe diem (seize the day,) people like to choose sides and they flock to the extremes.

Living in the now becomes acting reckless and endangering yourself or others. Opponents of the phrase will play life a bit too safe.

How do you find that happy middle? The area where you’re enjoying the present moment and each opportunity that presents itself while still maintaining clear sight of what’s ahead. The place you want to be so you can avoid being called boring while still being the life of the party.

It’s hard getting there.

Playing It Too Safe

I grew up playing it safe, only with a minor sprinkle of recklessness, but I assume that’s because I was a kid who didn’t understand the concept of safety. I still remember one specific instance from my childhood. It’s something I can still close my eyes and see clearly.

I was on a slide and decided to lie down with my legs off to the side, or something like that. I fell off the slide at its apex and I still recall how the world looked as I spun a full 360 before landing on my back. The sky suddenly became the ground, dirt became what was above me, and suddenly I saw the sky again.

Whoops.

Despite my minor incident, I played it safe most of the time. I wouldn’t dare speak my mind against someone who was older than me out of fear of the consequences. Respect your elders get drilled in our heads a lot, but I never believed in it. I experienced first-hand from a young age how often adults could be wrong. A lot of people will disagree with me on this, but that’s okay.

At this point I should make note that “respect your elders” meant adults could never be wrong, so you couldn’t talk back. You should be respectful towards everyone, but people often took advantage of the adage so they can oppress and absolve themselves of responsibility.

Outside was a mask I wore at all times because I thought it was the worst sin to speak up even when you know someone’s wrong. So, I kept it in all in. I played it safe. This made me “live” in my head where I wasn’t really in-tune with what was going on at any given moment. My mind would be fixated on what had already happened or thinking about what could go wrong later.

I’d be constantly thinking about how I was wronged for wanting to speak up but never afforded the chance. This is where my insecurities grew.

Living in the Spectacular Now

Then high school came and I suddenly found myself tired of being afraid. I feared what others thought of me. I feared how my actions could lead to consequences. I feared what’d happen if I spoke my mind. I became tired of living in my head.

So I decided to adopt a live in the moment attitude. Homework would get blown off for instant gratification. I would say things out loud without caring who heard me because hey, not my problem. Someone older than me was blatantly wrong? Screw that! I’m going passive aggressive style or I’ll let them know outright.

Feeling were hurt, bridges were burned.

Then I’d challenge my own mortality. I would be on a bike and do the most insane things without considering how close cars came to hitting me multiple times. One time I got hit by a car when I decided to take the cross street during a red light (I was in the wrong.)

The guy was scared for his life, a girl who saw from the other side of the street screamed, and the whole street went silent with no one daring to move their car. Good thing he was going less than 20 miles per hour. I just waved at him and told him it’s alright, it was my fault, etc. and then I walked my bike off the road.

I still shake my head and wonder what was going through my head.

Somehow I had survived up until this point. I was still fixated on living in the now, the spectacular now. Did I really care if I were to die?

It’s really difficult to convey just how little I cared about everything. The now. The present. Live in the now. That’s all I worried about. I had slipped too far.

Looking back, I believe I had been living in the moment so I could be selfish, toss my hands in the air, and say, “It’s not my fault. I’m just seizing the day,” effectively avoiding responsibility for my actions.

Yes, I will admit it all worked out in the end. I’m still alive. Most of my issues with others I worked out. I abandoned the 100% live in the moment attitude and started running towards the middle of the spectrum.

The Consequences You Never See Coming

But most people aren’t so lucky when they try to live in the spectacular now. You start buying into your own bullshit stories when you seize the day, every day and these things become a part of who you are. You forget what’s true and you change. Then you start telling yourself “I don’t give a fuck” when you really should give one or two.

Remember that phrase? IDGAF. It can work, like I’ve pointed out before, but it’s easy to delude yourself when you start using that phrase for the wrong things (like things you know matter in the long-run.)

Another side effect of living in the moment that still sticks with me today comes when I’m saying goodbye. I’m… Too good at it. It doesn’t faze me. I’m so used to it. So numb to the feeling (or rather, the lack of.)

I love all my friends and family to death, but it never hurts me to say goodbye. I rarely linger on it. Maybe I’m too rational because I know I’ll see everyone again in a few short months, but I know that may not always be true. It’s been like that for years now so saying bye really becomes easy. I’m used to moving between different places and every few months which means saying goodbye to family and friends over and over again.

Detachment can be lonely on the inside. You can’t tell looking on from the outside because all you’d see is a person having fun. I’m taking these people for granted, you know.

I said goodbye to four of my close friends last night at 2am. We had just gotten back from karaoke. I didn’t think about how the next night I’d be on a plane and not see them for another 4 months.

So I left that car with a casual “see you guys later” and a smile. On my mind during that time was “Wow, that was fun! Time to check some emails, maybe catch an episode of Friends and go to bed. This was a good night.” An outside observer would make the assumption that I don’t care about goodbyes. That’s not so.

Last time I was in town, back in December, my friends asked me what I wanted to do as my final hurrah. I told them I wanted to treat it like any other day. We’re not saying bye because as far as I’m concerned, we’re just having a good time right now.

Today, I’m sitting here writing this instead of having one final goodbye with my best friends. I love all of them a lot, but yet, I’m not reaching for my phone right now to have a final hurrah to end an already perfect summer.

Actually, this summer was quite groundbreaking. I had one goodbye that actually got to me on the emotional level. I’m slowly unlearning all that carpe diem stuff and veering more toward the middle. I kept reflecting on the past and how amazing our adventures were.

As I was writing this I just got two goodbye texts from some of my close friends that I hadn’t seen in the last few days. I felt an emotional “ouch.” Maybe I’m getting closer to the middle than I thought.

Anyway, I strayed off topic.

You were expecting me to tell you how I figured it all out, huh? How I learned to find that happy middle between living in the present and understanding how to plan for ahead. How I realized that goodbyes should be emotional and that perhaps me being so uninvested in farewells is wrong. Things could change, you know? There are no guarantees you’ll see someone again.

The truth about this whole balancing thing is that I still don’t know. Just as much as how I don’t know if I’m only detached because I fear I may lose the ones I care about. I don’t think that’s the case, but maybe I’m buying into my own story. What do you think?

I don’t think any of us really have our balancing acts figured out. We all swing too much towards either side. We’re still figuring this all out as we go along. Some people may look like they’re perfectly in the center of the spectrum, but they know that’s not true.

But hey, I’m much better at balancing now, I promise. I’m closer towards that middle, although still more towards the left. It was a big deal for me to feel an emotional yearning when saying goodbye. There are still a lot of byes I should give out today, but I won’t. I’m just going to relish the spectacular now while I can.

I’m trying to get something important across to you. Can you feel it?

I’m telling you we’re all people trying to find that happy middle between balancing the spectacular now and playing it safe. You may not have realized—and I hope I demonstrated it well enough with my own stories—that veering to either side leads to a huge snowball effect on other parts of your life. You’re going to have to unlearn a lot of what you thought you had figured out before. For me, it took me a long time to realize I was using carpe diem as a shield against responsibility.

I’m also hoping that you would stop worrying so much. Get out of your head. We’re all struggling. That’s a part of the human experience, but it shouldn’t swallow you. Cheer up. The middle is so much better than either ends anyway.

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Vincent Nguyen is the author of Self Stairway. After landing his dream job with Empire Flippers, he dropped out of college and began living a location independent lifestyle (still always drawn to coffee shops though.) Don't worry, he still publishes every Monday and hasn't missed a single week since starting this site in January 2013.

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29 responses to Are You Living in the Spectacular Now or Playing It Too Safe?

  1. I used to be on the play-it-safe side growing up. I don’t think I really came out of it until after I moved away from my hometown of 23 years to attend graduate school. It was one the of the first truly risky things I had done. I guess it opened up a whole new world of adventure to me.

    I don’t know if my life will ever be in perfect alignment in the middle. While I do plan out my goals and work towards them, I leave room for spontaneity in the present. Some days, I pick up and go hiking. Others, I take a walk on the beach and shoot random photos.

    By the way, the goodbyes may get harder as you get older. In the last few years, pain will sometimes come over me after saying goodbye to family or friends. I lose a couple of hours because I’m reflecting on our time together.

    • Perhaps the instances for me where saying bye was hard is saying a lot about my growth. It’s a bittersweet feeling really, because I know I should be feeling like this more often, but at the same time it’s just not good on the old heart.

  2. Finding balance for anything is challenging.

    Being able to live in the moment while planning for the future is something I’m also working on. Tim Ferris came up with the solid idea of balancing achievement and appreciation. This sets you up for success in the future along with happiness in present day.

    But like you said man, it’s an incomplete, never-ending process. There will be no point where the stars align and your world is 100% balanced. Everything is imperfect and that’s okay. As long as some time is spent in all facets than balance is achieved.

  3. Vincent! Perhaps one can serve the other. I plan for the future so that I can take risks and toggle between the two. Goodbyes are not so hard for me either. When I am visiting, I am present, but when it is time to go, my mind has already gone to the next event. Simply personality here. Have a safe ride down the slide Monday, Vincent!

  4. Vincent, your post reminded me of an idea I was researching the other day: future-self continuity (a man by the name of Hal Ersner-Hershfield came up with the idea). Most of the research on the theory shows that people see their future self as a complete stranger compared to the person they are today. Brain scans of people who think about a stranger and then think about their future self are practically identical! Just thought I’d throw it out there – you’re definitely not alone with this! :)

    Here’s an interesting diagram about the concept: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597811001294#f0005

  5. Vincent, what a real post! I really loved it. I am in my head a lot, but I am also trying to find the balance. Extremes rarely work, and we can all find the examples that don’t fit into a particularly dogmatic mindset. It’s almost a challenge for people to try to irritate those who think My Way is the Right Way…or at least that is the way I feel. I love trying to find the balance, questioning my beliefs and actions, and trying to move slowly and steadily toward a better life. Loved this, and it’s started my day of with a sunshiney feeling. Thank you!

  6. I’m always thinking about this! Finding balance between seizing the moment and planning for the future is quite the challenge. I often ask myself if I’m using my full potential, if I’m sufficiently stimulated, and at the same time I make sure I do not over-stress myself. It’s a daily challenge! Great post.

  7. Like you mention, apathy can really be a double-edged sword. When you mess up and stop caring about things that should be cared about is when things take a turn for the worse. I always imagined carpe diem to mean having the courage to pursue your own ideal path rather than becoming a risk seeker, adrenaline junkie or rebelling against authority. But I may have misunderstood what you meant with that part of the post? Of course there are times where they coincide, but certainly not all the time, which may have been your point? Hmm.

    I also used to, and still sometimes, live more in my head than outside, still in the midst of my metamorphosis. I lived in Japan for a year, where seniority is incredibly emphasized. Which is kind of funny, because I was never afraid to speak my mind to my elders when growing up… something that is almost taboo there.

    Is it ironic that I just spent a long time worrying about this reply after having read the post? Haha.. baby steps!

    • I was trying to hint that some people interpret carpe diem to mean taking risks that aren’t 100% safe. It’s something that everyone will have a different take on and so it’s not completely defined. There are more common views than others.

      Oh yeah, I can definitely see the huge cultural difference between Japan and where you’re used to. I’m sure the “respect your elders” thing has tons of different meaning too, but in most Asian cultures it’s more absolute. Adults could do no wrong is essentially what they preach.

      • Ohhh, I guess I just got a bit caught up in your scenario about getting hit by a car! Understand what you meant now..glad you’re okay btw. (I had this incident in Japan where I was walking through some side streets and I noticed this guy to my right suddenly stopped at the tiny intersection, so I stop too, and a freaking trailer zooms by about 10 inches from my face. Although that was just a case of me liking music too loud and not noticing surroundings rather than active risk-taking I guess.)

        Oddly enough in Japan seniority trumps age. For example, the person who has belonged to the company longest is the senior in that context… even if younger by 10-20 years. When outside of the context of work, the elder as a “senior in life’ has the highest status again. Although of course the senior will most often also be older.

  8. I’ve always found this to be an interesting paradox. On the one side you have living in the present and being content. This is the dream state. On the other side, you have planning, setting goals, and accomplishing things.

    How can living in the moment be resolved with being successful and accomplishing things in your life? If you are truly content and in the present, how do you ever get anything done? Can you have both?

    I’ve struggled with this for years, like most of us, but I think I have an answer: separate planning from living. How is it done? Take a small amount of time each day to set your intentions and determine what you want to accomplish. Then, forget about looking ahead and planning, and be present. Do one thing at a time and live in the moment.

    This way, you are acknowledging the future and making sure you are on track, but you give yourself the freedom to be in the present as you go through your day.

    I know this isn’t perfect and there is still a struggle to maintain balance in your life, but this separation of planning and doing has really helped me.

    • That’s very similar to the method I use now, Scott. It’s something that is difficult to describe, but makes so much sense in my head while I’m doing it. Thanks for putting it down to words for me. I hope it helps out some people who’ve scrolled down this far. :)

  9. Hey Vincent! I’m new here, and I’m definitely glad that I stopped by. I’m always down to connect with other bloggers who are working to make the world a better place for all of us.

    This post was a great read. Balance has always been a challenge for me, and in my younger days, I leaned heavily toward the “play it safe” side. These days, I avoid “playing it safe” like the damn bubonic plague. I used to live in my head so much, and it cost me so many potentially epic experiences, memories, and growth opportunities. I gotta say that I’m done going down that sorry route. I guess I’d consider myself a calculated risk-taker (not quite in 100% IDGAF mode, but definitely not afraid for a millisecond to go after my dreams either) which sort of puts me in the middle, right?

    Good stuff brother. I’m looking forward to sticking around.

  10. My experience of being in the now or worrying about the future is that it is not so much about the ‘act’ of thinking in the future or noticing your now, but more the meaning you place upon your thinking.

    I look to practice having experiences with all variances of thinking in the past, now and future and notice the insights from doing that.

    Aaron
    The Confidence Lounge

  11. I think it is human nature to enjoy a “comfort zone”. However, we often forget that when we were very young, EVERYTHING was out of our comfort zone and we grew in leaps and bounds in a fearless manner. Somehow, we have a “cutoff” in our subconscious that says “we are done growing”…thus the “playing it safe”. What we sometimes forget is that there is nothing “safe” about stunting growth. Great post, Vincent.

    • Playing it safe also comes into being because of past experiences. However, what got me through the fear of repeating the past is the realization that results I got as a kid can’t possibly be how things will play out today. Why? It’s simple. I’m infinitely better than I used to be. Have self-improvement in the back of your head at all times and you should start realizing you’re better off than you were.

  12. I couldn’t agree more with what you said about living in the now and living for today. People seem to think that will solve all their problems. While I agree that it’s better to live in the moment than spend it all in the past or future, it does present it’s own problems. We have to think ahead. We’re on the path to somewhere, shouldn’t we take some time to figure that out.

    I think you’re right that it’s about balance. What can we do to get the best of both worlds? That’s something we all have to take a good look at. We can’t live everyday as if it were our last simply because it isn’t our last. We have to live for tomorrow too. That’s an important thing to always keep in mind.

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