Psychological research indicates that it’s not easy for people to grasp how much they are going to change over time. A recent New York Times piece explores this phenomenon:
When we remember our past selves, they seem quite different. We know how much our personalities and tastes have changed over the years. But when we look ahead, somehow we expect ourselves to stay the same, a team of psychologists said Thursday, describing research they conducted of people’s self-perceptions.
They called this phenomenon the “end of history illusion,” in which people tend to “underestimate how much they will change in the future.” According to their research, which involved more than 19,000 people ages 18 to 68, the illusion persists from teenage years into retirement.
“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” said one of the authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. “What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”
Look back at yourself 5, 10, 20, or 30 years ago — or if you have the perspective to do so, 40 or 50 years ago — and ask yourself the following questions:
- How similar is my day-to-day life to that person’s life?
- How closely do my views about politics match those of that individual? Religion? Relationships?
- How well do that person’s idea of a good time match mine?
- How well do that person’s expectations about career, finances, family life match up to mine?
- How does that individual approach a difficult task compared to how I do it?
- What kinds of problems does that person face day-to-day compared to the problems I face?
- How do my attitude and outlook on life compare with that person’s?
- How closely does my life match the expectations that person had for the future?
Most people will identify a number of substantial differences between their current and past lives. According to the research, we can expect the same level of change over the next span of the same period. In other words, 20 years from now your life (and you personally) are likely to be as different from you as you are from the you of 20 years ago.
Apparently, we are naturally resistant to that idea. There are advantages to such resistance, of course. It would be difficult to make plans or deal with difficult decisions if we were constantly reminding ourselves that we will probably look at this whole situation very differently in the future. Some part of success in life requires assuming a stasis that isn’t really there.
On the other hand, failing to get a handle on how different our lives will be, and how different we will be, exposes us to certain risks and prevents us from leverage any number of opportunities. This would be true even if our lives were changing in a world that was itself pretty much static, but that is far from the case. Technological and social change are taking place at an unprecedented and accelerating rate. Somehow we need to get a handle on future versions of ourselves living in a very different future world.
That’s right. Be a futurist. As the Great Criswell put it in Plan 9 from Outer Space, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” But it’s not easy to do. As Yoda was quick to point out in The Empire Strikes Back, “Difficult to see…always in motion, the future is.”
The trick here is not so much to predict what’s going to happen as to start to get comfortable with what could happen. One helpful technique to support this kind of thinking is the scenario — a brief story or vignette that ties several possibilities together into a quick snapshot of the future. The definitive book on using scenarios for planning is The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz. I can’t recommend that book highly enough, but its focus is more organizational and institutional than personal. For personal scenario development, I recommend becoming pen-pals with your future self.
To begin, write a letter to your future self giving a quick glimpse of your life as it is now. I use futureme.org to do this. You can write a note to yourself in the future, set the send date, and voila! — a note from past you shows up in your inbox right on schedule. I got a note from 2006 Phil a while back, and it was quite an eye-opener, I can tell you. It’s amazing how much things change over the course of a five or six years. Try to send one or two of these messages each year. Mix it up. Send some messages 10 years out, others just two or three. This will be very helpful to Future You who over time will get a clearer and clearer idea of how much change he or she should be expecting in the years to come.
The only real problem with being pen-pals with Future Me is that he does not have a way (yet) of sending messages back to Present Me (any more than I can send messages to Past Me.) Writing to yourself in the future is a form of Practical Time Travel and, as I have explained previously, the practical approaches to time travel involve movement in only one direction. Forward. So to keep the correspondence going, I have to do Future Me’s letter-writing on his behalf.
Letters written to your present self from your imagined future self will be the very scenarios mentioned above, the ones that will help you to get a better handle on who you will be in the future. Here are some tips on how to compose a letter from the future.
1. Consider Likely / Possible Changes in Technology and Society
Imagine how day-to-day life will be different in a few years. If you can’t begin to, start with some of the big differences between day-to-day life a few years ago and now and project those forward. While it’s true — as they say in the mutual fund ads — that past performance is no guarantee of future results, such an exercise is a great start towards visualizing the future. Here are a few safe bets:
- Technology will be embedded in your day-to-day experience in ways that even today you would have a difficult time imagining
- Machines will do a lot of what you currently do on a daily basis
- You will regularly interact with people whom you don’t currently know via channels that don’t currently exist
Those are all changes I have personally experienced over the past 25 years and that I expect to experience again over the next 25. But stated in such broad and sweeping terms, they don’t hit home.
Technology embedded in your daily experience? Imagine spending more time each day talking to your computer than you do to most other people. Imagine looking at the world 24/7 through glasses (or contacts) that provide an ongoing overlay of information — news updates, messages, location- or context-sensitive information — a live feed not unlike the nonstop crawl at the bottom of the screen on news channels.
Machines doing tasks that you normally perform? Think self-driving cars. Think robo-butler clearing the table. Think Siri 5.0 taking most of your calls for you — with the callers never even realizing they weren’t talking to you.
Interacting with people you don’t know via channels that don’t exist? Consider how transformative Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have been. Now project that forward. What form does it take? (Sorry, you have to do this one on your own.)
From there, I would add the following as real possibilities:
- You will be doing your job very differently, doing a very different job, or unemployed
- You will be economically better off, although possibly unemployed and maybe totally broke
- You will be healthier
- You will be better looking — in better shape, thinner, less wrinkled
- You will have very different ideas about the future than you have today
Anyway, that’s my assessment of where things will end up. Do you disagree? Good. Now do your own assessment. Just be aware of the causes and drivers that underlie any big changes you come up with.
Okay, now you have a good start on how different your world will be. Let’s take that next step.
2. Consider Possible Changes to You, Your Preferences, Your Circumstances
This goes to the heart of the mental block mentioned above. The exercises listed below can you help you get a handle on how different you and your life might be in the future.
NOTE: These are not plans. These are not presented as things you should want to have happen. They are intended to help you expand your thinking around what could happen.
- Imagine yourself doing a job completely unlike anything you do now, have ever done, or have ever thought about doing. Picture yourself as a farmer or a dancer or a salesman or an engineer.
- Imagine your religious beliefs completely altered. If you’re a believer, imagine that in 20 years you have become an atheist. If you’re an atheist, imagine yourself in the future to be a devout believer. Or imagine yourself converting to some religion vastly different from what you currently practice — e.g. going from being a Lutheran to being a Tibetan Buddhist. Or take it all down a notch and imagine a milder shift, from agnostic to confirmed atheist, from believer to “not religious but spiritual,” from atheist to person who dislikes religion but kind of believes in God anyway.
- Imagine yourself living in a completely different place. Switch yourself from a rural to an urban setting; move yourself from north to south (or vice versa); pick a country where they don’t speak your language. Imagine yourself living, full-time in a country that you’ve never even had any desire to visit.
- Imagine your political beliefs changed. Go from conservative to liberal or vice versa. If you’re a moderate, picture yourself being really extreme and irritating
- Imagine yourself in a completely different kind of family situation than what you’re in now. If you’re married, imagine yourself single. Add or subtract children. Change your partner to someone else — meaning either the person you’re with is completely different now or you’re with somebody else.
3. Compose your letter
Pick a few of the elements from the first list and a few from the second and combine them into brief letter to yourself. Something like this:
Dear Past Self —
I am writing to you from the Magic City, sitting in my study that overlooks the meandering Yellowstone river here in beautiful Billings Montana. I moved here a few years ago after the last of the kids went away to college. This seemed the ideal place to begin seriously pursuing my work as a painter, and I am pleased to say that I’ve been going through a highly productive period. Betsy and I are still happily married, although living apart as she has remained in Phoenix. We hardly notice the separation, thanks to the full-immersion virtual presence service we use. The big upside is that our sex life has improved immensely (although I’m not supposed to say that.) Plus we now have plenty of personal space. I don’t think my interest in meditation is one she particularly shares, even though she was completely supportive when I was in rehab after the rock-climbing accident. It’s funny: I never really pictured myself as a rock-climber, but if I hadn’t taken that fall, I never would have started meditating and never would have realized that I’m really an artist. Now thanks to the full spinal repairs the doctors were able to perform using stem cells they made from some cells scraped from my tongue, I’m completely recovered. Better than ever, actually. Still, with all the great rock-climbing available here in Montana, I think I’ll just stick to painting.
Well, that’s all for now. Good luck getting here, and be careful on the rocks!
Your Future Self
A few notes about the letter:
- Don’t try to to include everything from both lists — you’ll ending up writing a science fiction novel.
- You’re telling a story, but you don’t have to actually tell most of it. It’s mostly between the lines.
- Try to create a scenario in which you’re reasonably happy with your life, even though you are picturing yourself as being happy with circumstances you’ve never considered before.
When you have finished, send your future letter to your real future self. Down the road, it will be interesting to see if some of it, even some of the more outrageous stuff, actually comes true. The take a few more possibilities and compose a completely different letter from a completely different future you. After you have written five or six such letters, you will have a much better feel for hoe truly different the world and your life will be in the future, even if you get all of the details wrong — which you most certainly will.