Yes, now. And, later.
How paying attention to our lives in the present compounds the value of lessons for the future.
Sometimes we meet people and we’re not sure why our paths crossed until much farther down the road. Sometimes we hear a piece of wisdom and we don’t know what it means in our lives right now, but we know it’s important anyway. Sometimes things happen to us now and we don’t understand why until later. Sometimes, that’s the point.
Last summer I found myself on a Zoom call with a professor of agricultural education. One of my mentors connected us, and I found the conversation riveting; still, I didn’t really know what to do with it. I love agriculture and developing young leaders, but I’m not pursuing a career in agricultural education. I’m not the decision-maker in a company who can choose to support FFA pursuits with time and money. Yet, I knew there was a reason for the conversation. I didn’t see it at the time, but now, nearly half a year later, I’m sure glad I took notes.
It’s easy to tune out as soon as we feel something isn’t relevant to our lives in the now. Whether it’s our high school math teacher lecturing about statistical probabilities, our parents talking about how to navigate life when we’re several decades removed from our teenage years, or a sermon which doesn’t speak to our current struggles, we tend to decide it’s not worth our time to listen to advice we don’t need in the moment. What if we’re actually missing out on some of the best wisdom because we don’t store it up for the future? I’m beginning to think sometimes wisdom stored up and brought to light later may end up being even more meaningful than if we heard it for the first time in those moments. Let me explain.
As I’m gearing up for my summer internship, I’ve been having conversations with my supervisor about how to best prepare for the projects I’ll be managing. I know my work will be challenging, but worthwhile as a result; still, I’m a bit nervous about being capable. After my last conversation with my supervisor, it dawned on me how I’ll need to rely on my network of experts in the fields of agriculture, sustainability, and education. I don’t know everything I need to know to be successful, but perhaps I know the people who do. As soon as I started to think about who I should call to ask for advice on this project, the professor from the August Zoom call immediately came to mind. I specifically remember talking about this type of project, but at the time, I was not in a position to make it happen. Yet, because we had that conversation, I know he’s exactly who I need to call. I also feel a deeper sense of meaning in my work and confirmation I accepted the right internship, because I feel like it was just waiting for me to step in and take ownership of creating something new for the company which will add value to young people, too.
The value of paying attention now in order to save up wisdom for later is severely underrated. Don’t wait until you need to know something to start learning about it. We don’t have to try to learn everything in the world right now; it’s more about deliberately being aware of what’s happening around us. As we pay attention to conversations, people, and moments, we’ll start to notice lessons pop up right under our noses. If something is interesting, write it down. Tell someone what you saw. Think about why it stood out to you, but don’t decide it’s irrelevant if you can’t figure out the answer.
If this all seems abstract, that’s okay. One really practical way to put this idea of now and later into practice is in our relationships, romantic or otherwise. My dear friend Anna has mastered the art of paying attention to her friends’ wants, needs, and preferences, and she loves people so well as a result. When we moved in together with our other FFA teammates last year, one of our first conversations was the very important one about our favorite ice cream flavors, snack foods, and desserts. I didn’t think much of it. Anna, on the other hand, was quietly making a note in her phone. The next week, Anna and I ran to the store for some last-minute groceries, and as we walked past the ice cream, she quickly stopped. One by one, she picked out each teammate’s favorite flavor and dropped it into the cart. It was such a seemingly simple thing, yet it’s stuck with me. Rarely did I ever pay attention to my friends' random favorites so I could surprise them later. Yet, this simple action meant so much to my teammates and I. It was more than just ice cream, too; Anna also knew how each of us best processed difficult emotions, the environment we needed to do our best work, and where we needed to be held accountable to becoming better friends and leaders. She noticed the needs of people around her and stored those up so when the time came to show up in exactly the right way, she didn’t need to ask to know what we needed. She made the most of the now so she could be equipped for later. I’m convinced this is one of the most straightforward things we can do to improve our friendships and relationships. We simply must decide to do it.
The present is important, both because it’s all we’re guaranteed and because if we do get the future, we can use lessons from now to help us live better lives later. Fundamentally, this comes down to one thing: pay attention. Listen, really listen, to what people say. Watch for opportunities to learn something now which will help you (or someone else) later. Notice how the world works, on a micro and a macro scale. Have conversations with people even if you don’t know what you’ll learn from them. Chances are, you’ll learn something now, and chances are, you’ll realize the lesson is even more meaningful later because you learned it now.