Over-preparation and Mindfulness
August 14, 2011
This afternoon I heard an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, from the public radio Humankind program, that is helping me frame a response I've been thinking about over the last few days. On Facebook, I posted: "Over-preparation only guarantees that you don't have time to live in the moment. That you don't have time to make a better world today, or to appreciate God's handiwork just beyond your nose and all around. From a comment to a friend after I asked for advice on pursuing an MBA. Thoughts?"
The two comments received were certainly thought-provoking and appreciated. Since I haven't asked for permission, I won't quote them directly, but rather attempt to paraphrase. The first felt like this was an ascetic ideal that should not be imposed on the modern Western life. The seond person did not believe that over-preparation is possible. The full comments from both make valid points.
The initial thought was purposefully vague, omitting most context and not trying to explain itself. Ever since I graduated from the University of Texas, I have frequently thought about going back to school for one thing or another. I love learning; I loved the environment and missed it. One of the areas I have consistently given thought to is business. I am a business-oriented programmer. An MBA arguably could do some good, especially if I should try to move into management. However, for a programmer this is not at all a cut-and-dried path to a solid career. It is expensive and time-consuming, with no guarantee of a payout. I've talked with many managers, directors, and vice presidents who did not have MBAs. A few who do. It is coming clear that there are only two reasons to take that path: because I need the specific skills, or because it is a literal impediment to the future of my career.
Coming back to the Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn: he spoke of being aware of the Kingdom of God with every breath, in, and out. Of delighting in the blue of the sky. Of making peace each day because we do not know when life will end, for us or others. Of helping someone, and of building community. Several times he used this phrase "Kingdom of God" – in spite of being a Zen Buddhist who ostensibly does not believe in God in anything like the Western sense. Unfortunately the full interview is only available for purchase, so I cannot do it justice. But this is what I was getting at.
Preparation for life is without a doubt important. I would not be where I am without the significant prep-work that I put in. Nearly every day I attempt to improve myself through self-training and self-study. And yet, if I am always looking to the next thing, I risk missing out on what I have. In the very practical sense, time spent on an MBA is time not spent on so many other things. It is possible to live in the moment while out driving, while studying, while working – at least to some extent. But these things, especially studying and working, tend to challenge our ability to be mindful. And they certainly challenge our ability to be out in the world doing something (as does the separation from society entailed with asceticism).