The Experience vs The Memory

Table of Contents
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Quick Takes:

  • Is life about material things, or about the experiences they bring?
  • Maximize the value of your experiences and be conscious of who you're sharing them with
  • Be mindful of your past so your memories of the present and future aren't tarnished
  • What's more important: the past, present or future?

“All we are is what we have thought.” - Buddha

The tide goes in and the tide goes out, so I’ve been told. Things happen, we react, more things happen, and we react again. Or we react, and then things happen, depending on what comes first.

We wake up, head into our day job, go home, maybe go to the gym, watch TV, eat dinner, and go to bed. We wake up again, head back into our day job, go back home, hopefully hit the gym again, watch some more TV, eat another dinner, and go to bed. On the weekends, we wake up and hopefully do something different. Hopefully.

The rat race, as it’s been called, has become a synonym for life. We get into a comfortable routine and chase the dollar, it seems, with the goal of doing just that: chasing the dollar. But why? Have any of us asked ourselves that? Why are you going into work? Why are you making money? Why are you saving it? Why are you buying things with it?

It’s commonplace to forget the real reason why we’re here, and even more commonplace to never have known at all.

Work isn’t the reason, and neither is money. But what is? Most of us, myself included, walk through life in a daze, following a predefined script - either because we've never thought to do otherwise, or because we’re too afraid to brake away from group think. What a shame, right?

The only legitimate reason I can think of as to why we’re here is to maximize the value of our time. There’s no point to life other than to extract the most personal value from every minute. So, whether you extract the most value from playing video games or working 16 hours a day for a hedge fund, that’s what you should be doing.

In this way, it’s the experience that’s most important in life. The experiences you have in the moment - ones that give you the most value in that moment - is what life’s all about. Am I right? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

If you focus on the experience, and ensure you’re sharing that experience with meaningful people, than I’d say you’re living a life of true value. At the end of the day, when you’re on your death bed, you won’t have money, you won’t have things, you won’t even have status. All you’ll have is a collection of experiences and the people you shared them with.

I learned this the hard way through the death of a close friend, as I’m sure many of us have. Through the perspective of mortality, the normal lifestyle we live doesn’t seem quite as important. What’s important is feeling alive, through connecting experiences.

The question I now wrestle with is this:

How many people will be at my funeral? 

But, in a way, the above logic can be used to argue that money buys happiness. If happiness is maximizing the value of your time, and if you value driving a Porsche over all else, than to you, money would buy happiness. Which brings up another point:

Although the point of life is to derive the most value from the experience of the moment, sometimes short-term gratification can be delayed for greater long-term value. It’s a nuanced point, but lets explore:

If the act of playing video games gives you the most value in the present, then you should play video games and forego a job that makes your work long hours. In fact, you should only do things that allow you to play video games as much as possible. But, not only is there a diminishing return to the value you’d receive from playing an increasing amount of video games (hey, even amusement parks get old when you’ve been there 500 times), you’d also be giving up the potential for a greater reward down the line.

What if, instead of the instant gratification and value of the experience of playing a video game, you instead decided to get a job that teaches you how to create video games? Sure, in the moment, you’d be giving up the maximum value possible, but your future return would be an even greater experience: creating a successful video game that you love.

So, although life is about the experience, and value is gained through the maximization of your time, sometimes its important to forgo immediate value and gratification for a future experience with greater reward.

If this is true, then the meaning of life is to balance yourself so that overall, you’ll have a collection of experiences that will consistently increase in value. Again, it’s a nuanced point. You don’t want to give up the present for the future, but you also don’t want to give up your future for momentary gratification in the present. It’s about balance.

Experiences are all that matter, but don’t have so many instant experiences that you forgo the potential for amazing future experiences. And in turn, don’t give up the present for a future you might not want anyway.

But, as we think deeper, experiences themselves might not be the point of life. Let me tell you a story:

I had an amazing week once. Top five of my life. It was one of those moments where your friends were going on a road trip that economically didn’t make sense, but you threw caution into the wind, dipped into your savings, and said “screw it.” All about the experience, remember?

So we were traveling, meeting people, connecting with old friends, and having so many experiences that our lives were truly enriched. In the moment I was convinced that life was all about the experience and the people you share it with. I still am to an extent.

And then something happened on the last day of our journey. My friend got arrested on some BS charges, a felony actually, and of course, his life would change for ever. Although me and my other friends weren’t directly involved, it changed the entire meaning and memory of the trip.

We had experienced four days of pure joy and were gaining a collection of experiences that were changing our lives for the positive, and on the fifth day everything changed. We returned to our homes sullen and sad, lamenting both our friends luck and the inconsistencies of the judicial system that’s meant to “protect us."

Rather than thinking about the amazing experiences we had, all I could think about was the arrest. It was almost like the upside never happened, and only the downside. It’s still all I can think about when I reminisce on the journey.

So then, is life all about the experience, or is life all about the memory? If it was all about the experience, then the multitude of positive ones we had on our trip should outweigh, or at least counterbalance, the negative one. But this isn’t so. The memory of the trip is consumed by the negative.

Although the overall experiences on the trip were good, the memory of the trip is bad, and its the memory of the trip that matters to me. In this sense, life is about how you remember your experiences.

In essence then, life really is about balance. You need to live in the present and enjoy the moment because that’s all we really have: the moment. You also need to treat the present in a way that will give you fond memories of your past, because although life’s all about the present moment, the present will become the past, and your memory of the past is how you’ll ultimately value your life. And finally, you need to live in the present in such a way that it still increases the potential of your future.

The present is the catalyst. It’s all that matters. If you died tomorrow, how would you live today? What would you think about your past? That’s why the present matters. 

But, thankfully, not all of us will die tomorrow. Some will live long lives. So, we need to live in the present in such a way that we maximize the value of the moment, create building blocks for our enriching future, and remember the past fondly.

Only through a balance of present, future, and past, will we live lives that matter.

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