I’ve traveled to a lot of cities. I’ve also lived for more than a few months in several of them. It would seem obvious that the places I know best be the ones that I spent the most time in.
But strangely, this often isn’t the case. I did far more sightseeing and tourist activities while in Beijing for two weeks, than I did spending almost four months in Kunming. Other times I’ve stayed in a place for years and still not taken advantage of some of the opportunities short-term travelers do.
From people I’ve met, I know I’m not alone in this experience. When you travel to a place short-term, you recognize that you have a limited opportunity to see things and tend to do a lot as a result. When you live somewhere for awhile, you may tell yourself you’ll get to it later, believing you’ll always have more time.
However sometimes you’ll spend months or years in a place, miss the opportunities and then leave without having experienced them. The feeling that you’ll always have more time lies to you right up until the end.
You Don’t Always Have More Time
Sightseeing is relatively trivial, but I see this as being indicative of a larger problem in life. When we’re in the midst of things, we often don’t recognize their significance. We squander opportunities as they are occurring because of a complacent feeling that tells us there will always be more of those opportunities in the future.
I think a powerful attitude to have can be to flip this on its head. Instead of telling yourself you always have more time, tell yourself this is your only chance.
The Attitude of Solitary Chances
In reality, this attitude is also a lie. But sometimes it can be a useful one since it can encourage you to buck complacency and really take advantage of whatever situation you find yourself in. I’ve found that applying this approach has benefited me more than it has hurt in many ways.
When I was in university, I applied the attitude that I would only be in school once, and for a short time, so I should do everything you can only experience while in college. I lived in a dorm. Played drinking games at house parties. Worked on student council. Dated exchange students. Studied abroad for a year.
Now, with some space between me and my college life, I realize I didn’t always do the right thing, but I’m glad that I did lots of things. I’m older now, so going back to college couldn’t be the same, even if I wanted to do it. That moment in life has passed.
After I graduated, I started the MIT Challenge. I realized that it might end up being the only original, interesting thing I do in my entire life. When else would I have the opportunity to be the first person to do anything? I took advantage of the opportunity and worked my ass off to finish it in twelve months, just as I said I would.
Later, my friend and I talked about traveling the world learning languages. We both recognized that there probably won’t be another opportunity to ever do this again. We decided to go all-in, opting to not speak English to accelerate improvement and decided to film mini-documentaries for each country.
Now I’m in the very early process of writing a book and I want to adopt a similar mindset. That this book will be the only book I ever write, so I shouldn’t make it a half-effort, believing there will be another book in the future I can do better.
Too Much Pressure?
There are probably some domains where having this attitude puts too much pressure. Perhaps particularly on those traditionally overly-obsessed moments of where to go to school, which major to choose, which career to pick or whom to marry. Those moments are important, but there’s probably more marginal benefit to be extracted from taking the neglected moments more seriously and the serious moments with more levity.
I think the best approach is to apply this mindset on the very areas we’re likely to overlook. To imagine the everyday, humdrum, stretching-into-the-endless-horizon moments and see them as scarce. Recognize that one day they too will end and we’ll wonder back how we managed to squander them.
Sometimes this attitude will push you to work harder—by recognizing that you’re at an incipient moment with your career, a new business or project. Other times it will push you in the opposite direction, towards enjoying life more and having more adventures before you lose the chance to do them again.
What are you doing right now? What if this were the only chance you had? Would that change how you approach things? Share your thoughts in the comments.