What Matters Now? (My Third Open Letter To My Teenage Sons)

When poker professionals head into the second last day of a major tournament they are keenly aware that they can’t win the tournament that day, but they can lose it. Most amateurs understand that to mean that they need to survive that day at all costs; only by surviving will they have the opportunity to win on the final day. That’s close, but not right.

What professionals understand is that the risk had better be worth it. The upside better clearly outweigh the downside. And that concept can be hard to put into practice because, well, poker players like to play poker. Every hand we are dealt offers us that opportunity. But folding doesn’t satisfy that desire. Playing does. And all we have to do is call or raise the bet before us and we get to “play”.

It is that desire to play that can get us into trouble. The urge for instant gratification. The largely destructive urge for instant gratification. For many players that urge colours their assessment of the cards or the situation. When to play, and when not to.  We make decisions that satisfy that desire for instant gratification, and we lose.

Turns out teenagers and poker players have much in common. You can view life through that same matrix. Boiled down, you need to be aware of What Matters, What Matters Now and the siren call of Instant Gratification. It may not be the secret to the universe, but if you can master these principles success is all but inevitable.

What Matters

What matters is easy. And fun. This is where we get to dream. Want to travel? Europe? Asia? Get a university degree? Have strong friendships? A life partner? Kids? Play guitar for a living? Play in the NFL? Start and grow your own business? Run for office? Save the planet? As teenagers you couldn’t have a more blank slate. You get to create and then direct your future.

Dream big, or dream small. Dream constantly if you like. Don’t know what you want? Don’t hesitate. Pick a goal, make mistakes and learn from them. Land somewhere and then change your dreams as you grow and accumulate life experiences. I bet you know what you want next month, so start there if you have to. But picture your life as you’d love it and write it down when you settle on something you actually care about.

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

You may wonder if you can you do absolutely anything you can think of? To be honest, there are limitations. But you can do far more than you realize. And the real question is what you want to do in your heart – not What Matters, but What Matters to you. More likely than not, you can do that.

This is really the “what”. The long-term story of your life. Long-term could be years, but it could also just be weeks, or even days, for smaller goals. And as I say, it’s the easy part. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

What Matters Now

This is where the challenge is. This is where the hard work begins, and sometimes it seems that it will never end. This is because the steps you have to take to get to What Matters have to be taken Now. They can’t be taken in the future, because the future doesn’t actually exist. Only Now exists. So you have to decide what to do Now. Not this week. Not today. Not this afternoon. Now. What do you need to do to advance towards What Matters? What are you going to do right now?

That is the most important decision you’ll make today, and you’ll make it repeatedly — if not infinitely. Every decision you make will alter your life. Most don’t alter it much, but when you add them all up, your decisions determine, with almost mathematical precision, whether you will ever get to What Matters. It all comes down to Now. What Matters Now, and whether you have the will to do it, determines if you are some day going to get to What Matters.

Instant Gratification

The third element of your life, instant gratification (IG), is commonly depicted by Hollywood as a little devil standing on your shoulder. This may be the one thing that Hollywood gets right. Instant Gratification is almost always either fun or easy. It is a real and constant option. It often involves doing nothing because “doing” entails effort or risk. IG triggers endorphins, it’s what you want to do, what your friends want you to do. It is truly that little devil standing on your shoulder.

By contrast, What Matters Now is rarely fun or easy, and while it can trigger endorphins, they are hard earned endorphins and rarely instantaneous. IG can be achieved by watching videos, snap chatting, Facebooking, consuming junk, drugs or alcohol, listening to music, playing video games, hanging with friends during your spare instead of studying, ditching a work shift to go to a movie, skipping a workout because there’s a party, losing your cool and unloading on someone, not practicing guitar until you’re told to, sleeping in, staying up late, quitting studying when you’ve done “enough” to get by, or even just doing nothing because you’re too tired to do What Matters Now. The list is practically endless.

By now it should be apparent that there is a war going on and it really doesn’t involve What Matters. It’s between What Matters Now and Instant Gratification. Those are the only players occupying the space of Now. The devil, and angel, on your shoulders. The decision you have to make in any given moment is between What Matters Now and Instant Gratification. So what does that mean? How do you win the war?

It means you need to be intimately aware of What Matters Now. Step by step. It may be trite, but you can’t chose What Matters Now if you don’t know What Matters and the steps to get there. You have to break it down and make a plan.

Want to go to university? You can’t just do that. That is the end result of a million smaller actions; actions that only take place if you make the right decisions and then act on those decisions. Decide what you think you want to study – it may change, but who cares? Which are the best universities for that program? What city do you want to spend 4 years of your life in? What courses do you need to have to get accepted to that university? What grades do you need in those courses? What other courses, or outside activities or reading, would assist you in getting the grades you need in those core courses? It doesn’t end there.

What outside activities do those universities consider in their admissions criteria? Which of those activities do you care about and can commit to? How are you going to pay for university if you didn’t win the parent lottery (travel, lodging/food, tuition, books, fees, beer money)? Scholarships? What are the criteria for those? When are the application deadlines? Savings? Do you have a job now? Will you need summer jobs? Will you have to work while you attend university? Will you need, and can you get, student loans? How and when do you apply? Do you qualify?

The list for this one goal – this one “What Matters” – is virtually endless, and perhaps daunting, but if you want What Matters, you have to start with the roadmap to how you get there. That determines What Matters Now, which gives you the tasks that stand in opposition, every minute of every day, to Instant Gratification.

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” – Leonardo da Vinci

This is really important, because IG has the upper hand in every situation. It will always appear appealing because it is fun, or easy or just what you’d rather do, instead of researching the scholarship application deadlines at UBC or Western. It is doubly hard if you are addicted to the endorphins that come from Snapchat, or beer, or even Tim Horton’s ice caps. And don’t kid yourself, we’re all addicted to things that are bad for us. And if “addicted” seems too strong, chalk it up to habit, but don’t discount the power of habit. To win the war you have to break habits that stand in the way of What Matters. If you find yourself turning to video games when you’re stressed, change it up. Take the dog for a walk instead. Work through the problem while you’re walking. Come back with a different frame of mind, instead of just distracting yourself with a screen or a substance.

So figure out What Matters to you. Then plan out What Matters Now. But most importantly you have to commit to choosing What Matters Now over Instant Gratification. At that point the work starts, as you have to follow through on your commitment.

Can you relax? Hang with your friends? Snapchat? And still succeed in life? Of course you can. Relaxation and recharging are not only OK, they are healthy and necessary. Your health requires balance.  But your decisions on how to spend your time need to be conscious and reasoned. Otherwise you’re likely giving in to IG.

And be clear, success isn’t perfection. But it also isn’t just trying. Success is progress. It is choosing to do What Matters Now – and denying Instant Gratification – more today than you did yesterday, and then a little more again tomorrow.

Success is doing what needs to be done right now to advance your life. And you have to do it day after day with What Matters as a final destination. A destination you have chosen as being part of a great life. A destination worth working for Now. Because what you decide to do Now is all there is.

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About calgaryrob

Father, husband, standup comedian, former political hack, poker player, lawyer and all around lucky guy.
This entry was posted in Character, parenting, Personal Development and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What Matters Now? (My Third Open Letter To My Teenage Sons)

  1. Tom Kent says:

    With a tweak to a different What Matters you might be on to the solution for our Millennial Dilemma!

  2. Al k says:

    Rob: how about some advice for older folks…when is it appropriate to grab for instant gratification? At what age should IG be the constant driving force of all my decisions?

    • calgaryrob says:

      Good question Al. It’s all related. Arguably IG should go up in your “twilight years”, but not if it interferes with your goals of health, longevity, time with family and, of course, cooking. Besides, I thought you got a lifetime worth of gratification when Notley was elected. No?

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