The Dichotomy of Moments: A Mental Model to Remember

God it's so painful

Something that's so close

And still so far out of reach

Tom Petty

It was day four of seven-day trip to Miami, and there I was: run down from travel, lack of sleep, and probably one too many vodka drinks. I was experiencing some kind of brain fog combined with lightheadedness, yet I found myself walking into a pool party at the Surfcomber Hotel in South Beach. There’s something about Miami that just seems to melt my brain, light my heart on fire, and leave me burning on pure emotion. Maybe it’s my most human form.

As I shuffled through the crowd, I had my own personal drummer inside my head banging away on the snares, hi-hats, and cymbals. He was using my cerebrum as the bass drum, and I was wondering how long I’d be able to take it. Then, out of the corner of my left eye, I spotted the silhouette of an attractive woman. So I did what any single guy would do: I took a second look and side-stepped a few feet closer. It was on the third look that I realized I’d seen her before. As I squinted to make sure I was seeing clearly, she turned her head at the same time, and it was like a scene straight out of a movie. My ex-girlfriend, who I hadn’t seen in over five years, was looking me straight in the eye.

I’d been dragged to this pool party by friends, I was running on fumes, Ringo Starr was pounding away in my head, and now I was face to face with someone I hadn’t seen in five years. Not just anyone, though. An ex-girlfriend I’d first met at this very same pool party nine years earlier. Coincidence at its finest. An ex-girlfriend who’d caused me many sleepless nights, yet whom I’d also shared many amazing nights with. An ex-girlfriend I’d sworn I’d never see again, yet whom I’d thought about countless times. An ex-girlfriend I now suddenly found myself excited to see.

I had a decision to make: what do I do with this moment? How will this interaction play out? How will this moment be remembered? Do I embrace it or ignore it?

Meet the dichotomy of moments.

Moments don’t last forever, but they live with us forever.

It’s hard to appreciate the uniqueness of any one moment while you’re in it. The hustle of life pushes you around. Move over there. Go there. Do that. Our appreciation for these short-lived experiences is as fleeting as the experiences themselves. Stop and think about the moments? Who has time for that? Yet these are the memories we end up cherishing forever. The memories we’re left to think about as we lay our head on the pillow at night. They’re what we’re left with as we move through life. Memories burn inside us forever. Moments are just the kindling for that fire.

Yes, it was this chance encounter with an ex-girlfriend that made me stop and think about moments and memories. Since then, I’ve spent some time thinking about how we can garner more appreciation for moments in the moment and create better memories. I’ve come up with this 3-step mental model.

1. Awareness. You have to recognize the moment.

There’s a saying that really bothers me: “Back to reality.” People often use this saying to declare they’re “back” from some euphoric experience. Maybe a vacation, concert, or a day in the sun at a pool party. Possibly I’m being tongue and cheek, but the maxim fails to acknowledge that this is all reality. Your reality is everything that you’re experiencing.

This makes awareness the key element in all we do. Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen the rise of meditation and mindfulness. I don’t think you need to meditate, but you should always be mindful. When you become conscious of the idea that the moment you’re in right now may never happen again, that moment can become really powerful. It’s your awareness of the uniqueness of the moment, combined with the uncertainty of life, that amplifies the moment.

2. Acceptance. You have to accept your true feelings in the moment.

In 2009, palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware wrote a book called The Top Five Regrets of Dying. She cites the #1 regret as, “I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

It would have been very easy to pretend that seeing my ex-girlfriend didn’t make me feel excited, happy, or good. But turning your back on the truth once you recognize it is the definition of suffering. You can’t be afraid of what you feel in any one moment. To garner maximum appreciation, you have to embrace your true feelings. You have to live true to yourself.

3. Appreciation. You have to fall in love with the moment.

Why? It might never happen again. All moments have finality. They end. They’re over. They go by. It’s this finality that makes moments special. It’s the finality of life that makes memories special. Finality is a powerful tool for appreciation.

Once you’ve recognized the moment and accepted how you feel in the moment, it’s your responsibility to drain every ounce of appreciation out of that moment. Remember, this is the memory you’re going to live with forever. Ware’s #3 regret of dying: “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” So how do you express appreciation? By expressing your true feelings with your actions. Your actions create the memory you will think about forever.

Wait–but I want more great memories!

Now let’s assume you’ve embraced this 3-step mental model and you’re ready to maximize moments and create better memories. I’d imagine you want more opportunities for those moments that create “great” memories. Right? I do.

Well, there’s one question left to consider.

Did this moment make me feel good? (What moments made you feel good in the past?)

It’s a simple question that I don’t think we ask ourselves enough. I get that there are some challenges here, but the question shouldn’t change. You and I are human. We humans do things for the way they make us feel. Just “feeling good” is about as good of a reason as any to do whatever it is, again. (Remember that next time you see me doing something stupid, now you’ll know why.) Sure, there are many things that make you feel good that are bad for you. You’ll always have to consider those trade-offs. But if you’re willing to accept the responsibility that comes with asking yourself this question, honesty it takes to answer it, and courage it takes to act on the answer, then you should ask this question as much as possible.

I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t think you do, either.

What I do know? You’re going to die one day, and the moment you’re in right now isn’t going to last forever.

You should be striving to spend as much time with the people who make you feel loved. The places that make you feel alive. The things that make you feel good. There might not be a more important objective, given the finality of it all.

Oh, and about that moment with my ex-girlfriend. It only took one look and one remember-when story to make me instantly aware of the unique and special nature of the moment. I spent the rest of the day laughing, smiling, and dancing with someone who makes me laugh, smile, and dance. I forgot about how sick I was and accepted how she made me feel in the moment. I realized the potential brevity of it all and appreciated every minute of six hours at a pool party I didn’t think I could last six minutes at.

So what if I had to sleep for 16 hours, and then max-dose on Airborne, and ibuprofen after it ended?

It’s a memory that will live inside me forever.