Illuminated flowerpots were going to be the next big thing. Or, so thought Joshua L. Cowen – an established inventor despite being only in his twenties. At the beginning of the 20th century, he developed a slender metal tube that contained batteries in the middle and a light bulb on the end. Cowen thought you could put them in flowerpots and light up plants in restaurants or store displays.
Unfortunately, while Cowen had the invention, he didn’t have the vision. A businessman Conrad Hubert recognized the value of Cowen’s invention, but not for lighting up flowerpots, instead he wanted to put them into people’s hands. He bought the rights, started the American Eveready Company, and made a fortune selling flashlights and batteries.
In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin wrote “It is critical to regain presence and clarity of mind after making a serious error. The first mistake rarely proves disastrous, but the downward spiral of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th error creates a devastating chain reaction.” Indeed, consider the cycle that comes from ruminating on a past error. Maybe it clouds your vision through anger or embarrassment. Maybe it causes you to doubt your abilities, losing the confidence to act in the next opportunity. Or maybe you do something dumb, then justify it. Then start acting in ways to justify your justification. Regardless, it’s often how we handle the aftermath of an event that defines it’s true impact.
As Cowen saw Hubert raking in millions, I’m sure there was regret. I’m sure he was frustrated to see someone else cash in on his idea. And it would have been understandable if this created enough discontent that he swore off future inventions – maybe getting a nice, easy day job in the process.
Fortunately, Cowen kept inventing. After he designed a small electric motor for a miniature fan, he realized it would be perfect for powering a miniature train. And not one to give up on the store display market, he started selling model trains as eye-catching exhibits for shop windows. People loved them and quickly bought them as toys, creating a business that would make him a household name then, and even now over a century later.
Not as James L. Cowen. But for his middle name – the L stood for Lionel.
How Will You Spend Your Energy?
“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us,” Epictetus asserted in the opening of his Handbook. From this thought, it follows that we all have a choice in how we focus our energy. We can focus it on things that are up to us, or we can focus it on things that are not up to us.
Past failures are no longer up to us. They’re completely out of our control. It would be a poor use of time and energy to read a history book and agonize over past decisions, wishing you could go back and change things.
It’s the same with our own past. The only thing we can control is how we respond going forward. And whether we choose to create the downward spiral of compounding mistakes.
Cowen recognized this. He realized that he could spend his days ruminating on his poor fortune. Or he could respond by moving forward. He embodied another Epictetus assertion that, “it is not things which trouble us, but the judgments we bring to bear upon things.”
This doesn’t mean we pretend to be happy if we’re not. There’s no sense in deluding ourselves through sugarcoating. But it’s also a reminder that while we cannot control the past, we can always control our response.
We all inherently know that we can’t change the past. But few people stop to recognize that we can’t change the present either. You can influence where you’ll be in a year, a week, a day, a minute, or a second from now into the future. But as for the present, it’s already decided.
Which means we all have a choice. Right now, and at every present moment, we can spend it wishing that it were different. Or we can embrace it. And decide how we want to move forward.
The former option invites discontent and continued frustration. Only the latter leads to a fulfilling life. As Epictetus put it, “it is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.”
Take a Moment. And Recalculate
I made a wrong turn today. My GPS supposedly told me to turn left. And yet I made a right, much to the chagrin of my nine-year-old backseat driver.
But what did the GPS do? It didn’t start yelling. It didn’t become indignant that I ignored its advice. And it didn’t drone on about how it wished I’d made that left back there.
It simply said, “Recalculating,” and offered a new set of directions.
Every day we’re surrounded by events that are outside of our control. Whether it’s past failures or simply situations that fail to live up to our expectations, we’ll always have things that don’t go our way.
Whether it’s the present or the past, it’s now out of our control. What if, in these situations, we adopted a mindset like that GPS? What if, when we’re confronted with things that don’t go quite right, or find ourselves somewhere that’s different than our expected path, we took a moment and simply recalculated?
Recognize reality. Embrace the moment you have. Recalculate.
And maybe it would help us get back on track that much quicker.