That’s an ordinary phrase that was elevated to the extraordinary in Aaron Sorkin’s TV series, “The West Wing,” an idealistic depiction of American politics.
Whenever the fictional president, Josiah Bartlet, was ready to move on, ready to tackle another task, he’d ask his staff that question — the implication being that the work was never done, that there were more challenges to be conquered, that they had to focus on the road ahead.
Despite understanding roughly 14 percent of what was going on, I loved “The West Wing.” And I loved every time President Bartlet asked, “What’s next?”
Not only because it exemplified everything you’d want in a leader, but because it was a sentiment with which I identified.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a forward-facing mindset.
This mindset was instilled in me by my mother, who believed it not only set the foundation for productivity, but for appreciation.
She’s always stressed the importance of having things to look forward to, recognizing that something means much more when it happens in due time as opposed to too soon.
While I was by no means neglected, there were plenty of instances when I was younger when, as many parents do, she denied me what I desired, from cookies and clothing to vehicles and vacations.
Whether or not she had the means to provide these things was irrelevant. She was driven to drive home a larger point.
She didn’t want me to be spoiled, and she didn’t want to fry my pleasure centers to the point that I could never be satisfied.
Her approach worked.
I (like to) believe I’m anything but spoiled, and I have a healthy respect for every blessing I receive.
But a part of me wonders if her approach worked too well.
Oftentimes it feels like I’m living in a perpetual state of delayed gratification.
Books I want to read, clothes I want to wear, restaurants where I want to eat, trips I want to take — I am a hoarder of potential experiences.
My DVR is backlogged with movies and TV shows I want to see but am too afraid to watch. Because I know once I do, I’ll no longer have them to look forward to.
For most people, the best part of a massage is when the trained professional with vice-grip hands is kneading the ache out of their sore spot.
Mine is right before the massage starts, because it’s the moment when the entire massage is still out in front of me.
I’ve taken my mom’s sensible teaching and injected it with HGH, inflicting on it an oversize head and acne on its back.
It’s gotten to the point where, when I do finally engage, I have trouble enjoying what I’ve been holding out to enjoy. The anticipation of an experience exceeds the experience itself.
Tonight, for instance, there’s a football game I can’t wait to watch. I’ve been pumped about it all week.
But I know the second it kicks off, at least a portion of my brain will start figuring out what I’ll be turning my attention to afterward.
This type of behavior is part of being human — and an important part at that.
Keeping our eyes on the horizon keeps us headed in the right direction. It ensures we see the big picture and fuels our sense of purpose.
But when you get as out of balance with it as I am, it becomes as miserable as it is misguided.
By focusing only on what’s ahead of me, I’m missing what’s right in front of me.
These things I keep at arm’s length, these experiences I want to one day enjoy, be it a sporting event or even a special occasion, they come and go. And they come and go whether I appreciate them or not.
What I’m excited about today will be different from what I’m excited about tomorrow.
In that way, the future is fleeting.
Whereas the present is constant. Not in terms of its circumstances, but in terms of its, well, presence.
It’s the only place we ever are, and the only place we’ll ever be.
Which is why instead of asking, “What’s next?” I need to start asking, “What now?”
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Originally published at www.brentstoller.com