The Present by Spencer Johnson

The Present

The Present is a story about a young boy and his friendship with a wise old man. The old man tells the boy that The Present is a gift which, of all the gifts he will ever receive, ‘is the most valuable of all because it offers the opportunity to be happy and successful. The boy wishes he will someday get The Present. For now he is just happy to play.

The boy is growing up and although he has received many gifts over the years, the joy they bring is short lived. As he reaches his teenage years he starts to feel more dissatisfied with his life. Visiting the old man one day, he remembers The Present and asks his friend why it is so special. How could it make him happier and more successful?

The old man defines success as: progressing toward whatever you think is importantand the boy realises that this idea allows him to decide for himself what he wants to succeed at.

As the story continues and the boy becomes a man, he frequently returns to visit his wise, elderly friend who imparts little snippets of wisdom but the young man does not take time to reflect on what the old man is saying. He wants to know where he can find The Present and does not understand why the old man will not just tell him where to find it. The old man tells him:

‘No one can find The Present for someone else. The Present is a gift to yourself. Only you have the power to discover what it is’

Disappointed in the reply, he leaves.

Sometime later, determined to seek The Present, he reads books, scours the Internet and talks to others. His search is fruitless and he gives up.

Passed up for promotion and in a failing relationship the disillusioned young man returns to the old man for help. The old man suggests he takes a break to spend some time alone, reflecting on his life. This he does and discovers the beauty of everything around him. He notices things, like the carefully crafted fireplace and can almost feel the love laboured on this piece of work; that the creator must have enjoyed building it.

He suddenly realises that The Present is the present moment. The old man had said before that:

‘When you are fully engaged in what you are doing your mind doesn’t wander and you are happy…you are intent only on what is happening at that moment’

The young man could see the value in this but was puzzled on its application when you are in a situation that is unpleasant, not permitting you to enjoy the present moment.

The old man talks to him of ‘tuning out distractions…paying attention to what is important now…and creating your own present’.

The old man imparts a little more wisdom:

Anytime you are unhappy in the present or feeling unsuccessful…It is time to learn from the past or plan for the future.  Look at what happened in the past. Learn something from it. Use what you learn to improve the present’

He tells him that the past cannot be changed but if you learn from the past then the present will be better. Do not repeat the same mistakes. He also tells him that:

No one can predict or control the future (but) the more you plan for what you want…the less anxious you are in the present. Picture what a wonderful future would be like. Create a realistic plan to help it happen. Put your plan into action in the present’

As the young man grows older he finally sees the value of the old man’s teachings and puts them into practise, becoming happier and more successful (remembering this definition is a personal one). He comes to realise that:

‘Success is becoming who you are capable of being…progressing toward worthwhile goals. Each of us defines for ourselves what it means to be successful’

The Present originally published in 1983 as ‘The Precious Present’ is a short, easy to read book with a very simple message, but one which takes quite a lot of personal reflection to fully comprehend. It is wonderful to believe we can decide our own interpretation of success rather than the assumptions made by others where success is often considered in monetary terms, academic achievements or our position in the hierarchy of society.

Sometimes, of course, the present is just too painful to inhabit. The current climate of terror attacks give testimony to this and time is needed before the present becomes, once more, an acceptable place to reside. However, speaking for myself, a lot of present discontent can be eliminated if lessons are learnt from the past (and it’s not always easy to see where things may have gone wrong). The present moment of the future can also be better if a strong vision of what we would like to achieve is considered, and determined action taken to work towards the desired outcome.

If you read The Present I hope its profound message resonates with you too.