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I’m struggling with two competing challenges: being present and mindful, while also chasing the ego-driven aims of “success” and “productivity.” Is there a middle ground?

I reached out to my dear friend Mathias Jakobsen, author and creator of Think Clearly, to dissect this competing pull between these two desires. This is the conversation.

Two Competing Challenges: Present vs Future

Sarah: I’m struggling with two competing challenges. It seems there are two challenges affront, ahead of me, right here. I tackle them daily, I deal with them on the regular. They are sworn opposites, or at least, I have not figured out how to accompany them both.

On the left we have Present. Present is my desire to be here, to be present, to be grounded. To touch base with myself, to write, to surrender, to meditate. To dwell in the taste of the now and know that even if I were to do nothing for the rest of my life, the sweetness of being where I am and who I am would be treasure enough.

Present is my desire to be here, to be present, to be grounded. I want to pause and taste the riches of the living, and feel what’s happening right now.

Present is the call that masks itself as adventures and oceans and beaches: to escape, not as escape from reality, but to escape the endless thrust and chase of the ‘productive’ world, the ‘ego’ world, and to sink into being. I want to pause and taste the riches of the living, and feel what’s happening right now. Present reminds me of itself in the call to meditate, to practice yoga, to commune with friends, to taste food fully.

Present is the call to transcend the ego, to transcend the mind.

On the right we have Future. We might also call it Ego or Productivity. Productivity wants me to plan, to build, to dream, to DO. I must do to be worthy; I must create more. Productivity is the siren call of success; the ladder of ascendence.

You are never enough, because you are always climbing.

Our companies and corporations and economies are built on Productivity. We must chase the next goal, the next metric, the next objective, the next project. We champion growth above all else.

The humans at the center of this Productivity Machine are exhausted. They are also — although they don’t know it — expendable, just another part to the machine that doesn’t matter in it’s uniqueness. We can find another human to dispose of and use up.

I work and live in a world that idolizes Productivity. Productivity is all about the future: dreaming of what could be, what can be, and what will be. It manifests as if only, and when, and how. The American Dream is built upon this reality: you can have more things, you can have a bigger house, a bigger backyard, a better job. We are slow to realize that the thing being sold is a dream, and what we’re all really doing is running, running, running in place. We have our arms outstretched, unaware that we are on a treadmill. The focus on the future has left us lost of the present.

How do we wake up from the monotonous strum beat of the future, banging it’s dream so loudly in our faces? How do we let the worries and anxieties, most of which are all born by dreaming in the future and worrying about how to change from where we are to where we want to be — how do we let them go? How do we work within them, or embrace them, without them overtaking us? Is that even possible?


Mathias: First, let’s look at this idea of present vs future. This one actually seems rather straightforward to me.

I agree with you on the present-stuff — even though it is extremely hard for me to really taste food when trying to entertain my nine-month old Uma, get some extra food for my 27-month old Noah, wipe up something from the floor, and also have a conversation with my wife.

But it’s practice in headwinds and uphill.

As for the future and productivity and ego stuff I also agree with your analysis. We live in a world dominated by this. But the problem is not that it’s dreams and future. The problem is that we implicitly think that only by making these dreams come true can we feel whole and complete and successful and happy.

The problem is that we implicitly think that only by making these dreams come true can we feel whole and complete and successful and happy.

But here’s my hack: dreaming about the future can also be done very consciously in the present. By dreaming very precisely and without bounds it can be immensely pleasurable to imagine the future. The focus then, is on the dream itself and there is no fear of not being able to manifest this future since the maximum pleasure that can be derived from it is already done in fantasy.

The mistake is the implicit belief that these dreams are only valuable when turned it into goals and plans and actualized.


Sarah: Mmm, yes. Dreams aren’t invaluable in and of themselves. It’s when you lose sight of the present, and the process, that the dreams can become unwieldy. Relying on the achievement of a dream, only once actualized, to make us happy, is dangerous.

Mathias: Exactly right. That doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t actualize our dreams. I’m hugely proud of some of my big dreams that I have made happen.

But I am not deriving joy from the new reality as much as how I have grown in myself along the way. And even if a different future had materialized then I could still have grown in the pursuit and thus found capacity to enjoy the present.

Goals and plans and dreams. It’s amusement. It’s fun. It’s like LEGO. You don’t build with it to make a house you can keep. But you also don’t just put bricks together at random since that’s not particularly interesting (except as one particular experiment maybe once or twice). You build a house to see if you can build a better house today than when you built yesterday. Maybe today better is a bigger house. Or better is taller. Or better is smaller. Or better is more elegant. And you succeed in your pursuit or you don’t.

But it’s just LEGO and tonight you break it apart and tomorrow you build another one. And when you’re satisfied with your houses you begin building cars or planes or something else. But the cars and the planes and the house don’t matter. They only serve to make the building process more fun by giving direction. But building is always in the present.


Sarah: Right, the building is again, about the process and the journey. This makes so much sense to me. We lose sight of the purpose of dreaming about the future when we completely let go of the present. But we do not need to forgo dreams and plans, because they can inform who we are and how we behave in the present.

How do you translate this into the working world? What do you do about organizations that are organized around achievement? How do you address the urgency of achievement, the need for more productivity?

Mathias: [In my work], I’m not sure what we are building exactly but I find plenty of pockets to just enjoy the building process and I try to let others enjoy it too. Some do. Others keep being frustrated because they feel that others are getting in the way. But I’m not participating in the war on either side.

As for the kids and future, I think I just look further ahead where there is more clarity and less worries about the mid term. I enjoy little goals in the short term — amusement — ego boosting entertainment. Long term I see this time with kids as a time to try and not accomplish that much in the sense of external achievements, but to build up myself and my character and my spine.

That’s also why I don’t get too worried about my job performance and the conflicts and tensions. They affect me, of course, but when Noah throws up in the middle of the night I know that this is the real growth opportunity. When Uma is sick. This is where I need to be. How to deal with this situation with joy. This is where my wife and I can grow together. This is where we have conflict. Conflict and blame and issues. And then we must solve and dissolve and heal and grow stronger.

This is the real deal. Uphill. Headwinds. Training for the soul. Coffee and coca-cola gets me through a lot of things :-)

But I know we are loving more.

It’s a thrill. It’s for real. I love when I can still be fully present and open and loving and giving with Noah or Uma or Pernille in the midst of craziness. And I forgive myself the many times I can’t. It’s life!

I’m more tired and more alive than ever in my life.

That’s all for now.

What about you?

What does this conversation stir up for you ?What are your take-aways? What will you begin doing? Stop doing? Keep doing but perhaps in a different way?

Mathias Jakobsen is a Learning Designer at Hyper Island and the creator of Think Clearly — a newsletter that helps you get unstuck. He loves notebooks, bakes bread and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son and daughter.