I have a problem. It causes me an endless amount of headaches, frustration and pain. Not just me either, but the people in my life as well.
It’s a common problem. It’s also very simple.
I extrapolate things.
The Stoics would say that it’s not external things that are our problem but our assessment of them. I would push back and say it’s our extrapolation of things that ails us.
Extrapolation is when we project our known experience into the unknown and conjure up some vision for the future. It’s when we look at one little thing and extend it out into some global judgement about the universe. In psychology they even have a name for it: fundamental attribution error. It’s a cognitive bias.
How does this actually work?
Let me give you a personal but somewhat unusual example.
When I run down things I have argued with my girlfriend about—our biggest fights—almost every one of them was not about the thing itself. Because that would have been a quick, clear and probably level-headed discussion. Instead one or both of us think we are defending some vague principle. Of course what we were really doing was extrapolating. We took a single instance and said: I will not stand for this going forward.
We weren’t talking in the present, we weren’t even referencing the past. We were projecting forward an unpleasant future and fighting about that. How much better we would be if we could exist in the moment, to deal with the thing itself and not the baggage we brought to it or fear would accumulate if left alone. How much better it’d be if people didn’t make value judgements based on single instances.
But that’s what we do. The sad truth is that we do this to many of life’s problems. And make them so much worse as a result.
There is a solution. The next time you are frustrated, the next time you feel acute pain or resentment or unfairness, all you have to do is remember one thing.
I don’t even know where I first heard it but this line is one of the most profound and true statements about the human condition.
This moment is not your life. This is just a moment in your life.
That’s it. That sentence will help you endure much. It will help you let so much go.
Someone cuts you off in traffic. This inconveniences you for what, four seconds? Yet it matters because our mind suddenly starts thinking, “Am I going to let people treat me this way?” And now you feel like you need to do something about it. When you’re sick with the flu, it’s particularly awful because it feels like it will never end. We’re taking a moment and mindlessly extending it out indefinitely.
Elsewhere, that crap day at work becomes “I can’t live like this for another forty years, man.” So your job seems so much worse than it is. You get dumped or you strike out with prospects and now you tell yourself you’ll never find anyone, ever ever again. Why do you think Millennials have such a problem taking shit jobs when they first start? Because they wrongly play out a lifetime of being at an entry level position.
It’s not just bad things. You do snag a job and you start adding up how much money you’re going to earn over the next year. Stuff is going well, so you plan a future where they will always go well (counting chickens before they hatch). I love looking at start-ups’ growth projections on Angel List. They’ve been in business two months and they’re confidently (and graphically illustrating) how much money they’re going to be making in 2017.
This of course is silly. And it only sets them up for ridiculous expectations and likely disappointments.
The present is more than enough to justify dealing with the future prematurely.
What we need to be successful in life is to be able to see things clearly, to be able to push past the petty frustrations that hold others back and to focus wholly on what is in front of us.
These are also the ingredients to happiness and contentment. Their antidote—their enemy—is extrapolation. It is a toxic, unproductive force that we can cut out.
Or maybe not cut out but counteract. That little saying is the closest thing I’ve found so far.