In 20 years from now, you won’t be the same person. You won’t care about the same things. The question is: Who will you be in 20 years? And what will you care about then?
According to research done by Dr. Daniel Gilbert at Harvard, it’s uncommon for people to spend much time imagining their future selves. Instead, people assume that who they are now is who they will always be. This is not only faulty thinking. But it leads to bad decision making.
As Gilbert states:
At every stage of our lives, we make decisions that will profoundly influence the lives of the people we’re going to become, and then when we become those people, we’re not always thrilled with the decisions we made.
So young people pay good money to get tattoos removed that teenagers paid good money to get. Middle-aged people rushed to divorce people who young adults rushed to marry. Older adults work hard to lose what middle-aged adults worked hard to gain. On and on and on.
The question is, as a psychologist, that fascinates me is, why do we make decisions that our future selves so often regret?
Your Future Self Is A Different Person
Dr. Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA has found that it’s best to view your future self as a different person. Your future self won’t see the world the same way you do. They won’t even be in the same world you’re in. Think about how different the world is now from what it was 5, 10, 20 years ago.
The worst thing you could do is assume that who you are now is who you’ll be in 20 years.
The question is: Who do you want to be in 20 years? And what decisions are you making now to ensure you become that person?
Just as importantly: What decisions are you making now, or what habits do you currently have, which clearly contradict your desired future self?
A Profound New Insight in Psychology
There is a profound new insight emerging from the field of positive psychology and it’s this: The view we have of our own future is the greatest determinant in who we are and what we do today. Said another way: What we do today is based on the future we see for ourselves.
If you see yourself becoming wealthy and successful in the future, that will shape what you do today.
If you see yourself being super healthy and fit in your 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, that will shape what you do today.
Your identity — which dictates your decisions and behaviors — is based on the future you see for yourself.
This brings up a huge problem: Most people assume that who they are today is, for the most part, who they’re going to be in 20 years from now. Dr. Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist, would call this a “fixed mindset.” Einstein would call it an incredible lack of imagination — and from his perspective, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Do You Want to be Highly Successful?
Would you like to be very successful?
If so, then you need to make decisions today that will impress your future self in 20 years from now. You need to make decisions today that will resonate with your peer group 20 years from now.
The further out you make your decisions, the more informed your decisions will be. If you want to be a highly conscious and intentional person, then you need to think about where your choices are leading you.
Every decision you make is impacting your future self. Dan Sullivan, the founder of Strategic Coach, said it best:
The only way to make your present better is by making your future bigger.
So how big is your future?
How far out are the decisions you’re making?
Do you have support around you, right now, that are helping you make informed and conscious decisions?
Evaluate Your Current Decisions + Hinge-Points
How much of your time and effort is being spent on things your future self will not care about?
I recently made a huge shift in my fitness and nutrition. Throughout my 20s, I mostly did weightlifting, which clearly has many long-term benefits. However, in thinking about my future self, I’ve decided to make a shift. I’ve decided to optimize, right now, for the types of fitness that best serve me long into the future.
This also changed how I eat. Rather than consuming lots of stimulants as I have in the past to accomplish a great deal, I’ve removed stimulants from my life.
Clement Stone, founder of The Combined Insurance Company of America once said, “Big doors swing on small hinges.” Huge results often come from small changes.
Certain decisions reflect “hinge-points” in our lives. They change our trajectory long-term. Over a long enough period of time, the compound effect always takes over — whether for good or bad. If you’re making short-term decisions in your health, money, and relationships, then you’re setting your future self up for disaster.
What single decision could you make today that would make the greatest difference for your future self?
In 20 years from now, what decisions will your future self be most happy about?
What about your future self’s friends? Who will you be surrounded by in 20 years from now? What decisions could you make today that will resonate and even impress them?
Success Is Highly Predictable
It’s not hard to predict success. If you’re making smart decisions now based on where you want to be, and if you’re continually learning and improving yourself, you’ll be successful.
Before graduating with my PhD, I had a business making over 7-figures. It wasn’t hard for me to predict where my choices were leading me. And even now, I’m making continuously better decisions in the present because I’m increasingly committed to my future.
Now, there’s a huge misconception being spread these days, and it’s the faulty idea that “goals are bad.” Or, that having goals makes you “unhappy” in the present. This is absurd.
You can be incredibly happy in the present even while striving for a bigger future. And in fact, according to Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, it’s actually impossible to be happy in the present without a future you’re striving for. As he stated:
What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.
Without having a future that excites or inspires you, the present becomes meaningless and without purpose. Without a future, the present becomes directionless as well, which is frustrating and leads to distraction and mediocrity.
Measure Yourself Against Your Former Self
But there is a trick. Yes, you want to be very clear on the future you want to create. You want to make decisions now based on that future. However, when it comes to measuring yourself, you want to do this backwards. As Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist stated:
There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.
Dan Sullivan calls this the “Gap and Gain.” If you’re constantly comparing yourself to your future ideals, you can be in the “Gap.” However, if you compare yourself with where you were before, you’ll see the “Gains.”
Take a look at your own life: What progress have you made in the past 12 months? What about in the past five years?
When you take the time to regularly measure your progress, you will feel incredible excitement and momentum. You’ll realize you’re making more progress than you realized. This boosts both your motivation and your confidence.
Research shows that confidence comes from recent prior performance. Therefore, taking time to reflect on the results you’ve recently gotten builds your confidence. But even more, you want to create the right results that clearly move you toward your future self. Every 30 days, you can and should look back and reflect on the progress you’ve made.
What were the big wins over the past 30 days?
In what ways have you made progress?
How is your life better than it was before?
If you want an amazing life, start thinking about your future self. Make decisions now that your future self will be stoked about. Make decisions now that will impress your peer group 20 years from now.
The more clear you are about your future, the more intentional you can be in the present. The further out you think about your decisions, the higher quality those decisions will be.
But this isn’t delaying gratification… It’s about living a powerful life. Creating a better future allows you to live a better present. Don’t be fooled about this.
I’ve learned this from many dimensions. I’m now investing lots of money toward my future. I don’t believe I’m “missing out” by not spending that money now. Instead, I feel incredibly satisfied as I watch my investment portfolio grow bigger and bigger. It motivates me big time to sprint toward short-term goals to see how much I can invest.
So, my present keeps getting better as my future keeps getting bigger. My present keeps getting more exciting because I’m taking actions now that I know will produce amazing returns long into the future.
What about you?
Is this a hinge-point moment for you?
Are you going to make a change today that will forever improve your future self?
Are you going to upgrade your trajectory?
Make decisions based on what your future self will care about, not necessarily what you care about in the present. As the authors state in the incredible book, The Triple Package, which explains why some groups in America become highly successful and others don’t:
A life devoted only to the present — to feeling good in the now — is unlikely to deliver real fulfillment. The present moment by itself it too small, too hollow. We all need a future. Something beyond and greater than our own present gratification, at which to aim or feel we’ve contributed.
Dr. Benjamin Hardy is an organizational psychologist and bestselling author of Willpower Doesn’t Work. His blogs have been read by over 100 million people and are featured on Forbes, Fortune, CNBC, Cheddar, Big Think, and many others. He is a regular contributor to Inc. and Psychology Today and from 2015-2018, he was the #1 writer, in the world, on Medium.com. He and his wife Lauren adopted three children through the foster system in February 2018 and, one month later, Lauren became pregnant with twins, who were born in December of 2018. They live in Orlando.
Image courtesy of Samson Katt.