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The past is not precious
On habit and hallowed ground.
For the last 1,189 straight days, I've filled out a short survey that I made for myself about what's going on in my life. Some fleeting curiosity in 2019 led me to wonder if the events and moments that I thought were important as they were happening were things that I’d actually remember or care about later. To figure that out, I needed a log of contemporary predictions. So I created a calendar event, attached a Google form to it that asked me to describe and score the most notable thing that happened that day, and set it up to recur daily, forever.
For the first few months, I diligently responded to it. The ninety seconds it took to answer a couple questions felt like a worthwhile price to pay for what would surely be an interesting archeological record to one day dig through.
Today, I still complete it every night—but now, I do it because I did it yesterday. Despite this exercise dragging on for much longer than I ever expected it to, I've never looked at the data.1 I suppose I might, someday, but it's not on my to-do list. The survey itself, however, remains a daily task to be done, mostly because I haven’t missed one yet.
For better or for worse, maintaining momentum like this—or, less generously, refusing to resist inertia—is a defining feature of my life. If I do something once, it's an experiment. Ten times, it's a pattern. Fifty, a streak.2 But a hundred times, and it becomes my identity. It’s no longer a thing I do; it’s who I am. I become someone who gets good grades; who has perfect attendance; who doesn’t smoke or swear; who faithfully goes to Barry’s and SoulCycle; who only wears black; who doesn’t eat refined sugar; who doesn't use social media; who publishes a Substack about data every Friday.3 Changing these behaviors is no longer about breaking from a habit; it's about breaking from who I am. And so, out of respect for what I’ve done—framed, often, as a demonstration of grit and perseverance, traits that can themselves become self-reinforcing identities of their own—I forgo the things you might want to do: Blow off a test; skip a class; get high and drop f-bombs; sleep in; buy a flamboyant flower-patterned jacket; eat a Birthday Cake Remix™ at Cold Stone; share photos from a trip on Instagram and make jokes on Twitter; write a weird blog post that’s decidedly not about data.
Though this persistence may make sense in some chosen circumstances, like when we make an intentional investment in who we want to become, the things I hold on to are rarely carefully considered or rigorously researched. Like my survey, they were instead built on haphazard bits of experiential driftwood that wedged themselves in my head—and eventually, into my identity. An offhand comment in 2012 about a former coworker turned into a standard of performance that I felt I needed to live up to, which metastasized into the defining feature of my relationship with work. A lunchtime presentation at a 2004 conference in Tallahassee changed how I present myself, which changed how I want to be seen. A casual 2010 New Year's resolution never got forgotten. A circumstantial friendship from 2011 became an interview for a job in an industry that I had no particular passion for, which became a career, and eventually, a professional identity.4
Though I've never been a religious person (in high school, I was an insufferable teenager who’d read a couple hackneyed paragraphs of Bertrand Russell), we all worship something.5 My religion is habit. Cobbled together, my routines make up who I am—not because I chose them, but because I kept making those faces, and froze that way. And once entrenched, their humble and happenstance origins no longer mattered. They were the way it always was; thus, the way it is; and then, fatally, the way it should always be.
A couple years ago, a good friend of mine told me something that stuck with me ever since. “If someone really wanted to,” she said, “they could completely change their life in 48 hours.” Though we often feel bound to various weights—our jobs, our relationships, our possessions, our homes, our habits, even our identities—those anchors aren’t nearly as heavy as we think they are. It’s our belief that we aren’t ourselves without them that keeps us attached.
In other words, to paraphrase DJ Khaled, we Stockholm Syndrome ourselves. Our sense of identity imprisons our inconsistent inclinations, and we convince ourselves that those divergent desires won't make us as happy as staying in character. I want to change careers…but I can’t, because my family and friends expect me to be a doctor. I want to get a divorce…but I won’t, because proper people like me only get married once. I want to stop reading this book…but I shouldn’t, because I’m the type of person who doesn't quit.6
In behaving this way, we—as individuals, and teams, and companies—become captives of our history. We mortgage the promise of our future for the familiarity of our past. We sacrifice the living at the altar of the dead.
But the future is precious, not the past. It's the opportunities in front of us that we should protect dearly, not the routines and traditions that are behind us. What we did and who we were only matters insofar as they inform what we want to do and who we want to be.
This isn't an endorsement of some carpe diem philosophy, where we should live life like there's no tomorrow. Quite the opposite: We should live life like there's no yesterday. If our habits, our preferences, and even our identities help us do, like, or be the things we want to do, like, or be next, hold on to them. If not, let it go.
Easier said than done, though. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that endurance is a virtue. Once a pattern’s been established—a streak created, a process standardized, an identity forged—the righteous thing to do is to keep it going.
In some cases, absolutely. The best views are at the end of long hikes;7 often, we have to endure tough valleys to get to higher peaks.
In other cases, however, we’re on the road to nowhere. We’ve lost the trail, and are walking in circles. That grind pays no dividends. We’re just Stanley Yelnats, digging holes and refilling them, and neither us nor the world are any better for it. But if we’ve always been digging holes, or we come from a family of diggers, or we used to like digging, or started digging because we were looking for something, putting down the shovel can feel like giving up. In the face of wandering interests, waning desires, or wavering circumstances, it would be weak to succumb, and noble to persist. Keep going, we tell ourselves; dig on.
Inertia, however, is not strength. We can convince ourselves that it is, because the more something has endured—the longer the streak, the more developed the habit, the more embedded the identity—the more admirable we treat its continuation. Often, the opposite is true. It takes more energy to stop a train than to keep it rolling down the tracks. And the longer it's been building speed, the more courage it takes to stand in front of it.8
Personally, that courage still eludes me. Tonight, I’ll fill out another survey. Next week, this blog will return to its usual fare of hapless commentary on data contracts, or universal semantic languages, or the need for SaaS tools for data teams.9 Simply deciding to stop, after we’ve been going for so long, is an awfully hard thing to do.
There are some moments, though, when the courage finds us. Some external force stops the train, and we have to decide if we want to start it again.10
In those times, rather than clinging to the past and grieving who we no longer are, we should look to the future, and think about who might become. In some cases, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and a pause in momentum only confirms our commitment to where the train was headed.
In other cases—more often than we probably realize, if we let ourselves see it—our guiding stars turn out to be little more than random teapots we put in orbit. They’re not heavenly objects, but atmospheric flotsam;11 we arrived here by dead reckoning off of yesterday's habits. Or, even if they were once noble ambitions, honorable traditions, or good ideas, they’ve since lost their original luster. And then, regardless of how long our shared history is, we should thank them for their service, and let them go. As my friend said, we’re much less bound to the past we know—and much closer to the future we want—than we think we are. All we have to do is realize that the most hallowed ground is not the trail behind us, but the open field in front of us.
Of these eight things, three apply to me.
Of these four things, four apply to me.
I am now an insufferable blogger who’s read a couple hackneyed paragraphs of David Foster Wallace.
Of these three things, one applies to me.
Actually, the best views are out of airplane windows, but why get unnecessarily worked up about that?
Of these two things, I still enjoy one of them.