The future ain’t what it used to be.
Think back to yourself a decade ago, compared with the person you are now. Recall how different you were then and how much you’ve changed.
Now imagine yourself in 10 years. Most of us see our future selves as little changed from the person we are today.
You won’t be the person you expect to be.
We tend to underestimate how much we will change in the future, say social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson (2013). In their study of more than 19,000 people, all age groups—young, middle-aged, and older—believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. Gilbert refers to this phenomenon as “the end of history illusion.”
Thus, the typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. And while the magnitude of the perception decreased as participants got older, it was nonetheless found to be pervasive all the way into our 60s.
The future has a habit of arriving unannounced.
Why are we convinced that we’ll be the same tomorrow, the next day, and 10 years from now? One possibility is the uncertainty of the future makes us uncomfortable. Reconfiguring the only concrete details we have—those of the past—may simply be easier than imagining the future.
Alternatively, how we perceive our present self frames how we will see ourselves in the future (framing trap*). We often think of the present as a kind of “watershed moment” wherein we believe that we’ve finally become the person we will be for the rest of our lives. Believing we’ve reached the peak of our personal evolution makes us feel good, but it can also blind us to future opportunities for growth.
In reality, the future is never a direct replica of the past—time inevitably alters our personalities, values, and preferences (see: Prediction is very difficult). It may be the result of new habits, social influences, or simply maturing. Differences can also arise from adapting to changes in our life circumstances, such as moving to a different location or changing occupations. While we may anticipate the direction, we tend to underestimate the magnitude of these changes (projection trap*).
I wish I knew then what I know now.
Are young persons more susceptible to these effects than adults? According to Loewenstein et al. (2003), the answer is almost certainly “Yes.” Since most young persons lack significant life-experience, they cannot adequately project themselves into the future. Thus, they imagine their current preferences will remain constant. Invariably, they won’t.
This can bedevil decision-making, resulting in unintended and self-defeating consequences. For example, the young person who joins the military and then decides he’s made a mistake. Acting on impulse and anxiety, he focuses solely on getting out (projection trap*). Only later does he fully comprehend the effect that a dishonorable discharge has on his future job prospects. And so it goes for many long-term-life-decisions such as marriage, divorce, fertility, and indeed even suicide.
In her book Passages, journalist Gail Sheehy described lawyers in their 30s and early 40s who drove themselves relentlessly, to the exclusion of family life and the detriment of their health. By contrast, lawyers ten years older had a very different perspective on what was important. If these ladder-climbers had looked ahead to see the people they would become, would they have spent their time differently?
NeXters, change is inevitable. Many of you have a sneaking suspicion you will change, but can’t quite imagine how. And that’s okay. The key is being less concerned with how others see you and more attentive to shaping the qualities of the person that you will become. Your future self (and your humble tribal elder) will congratulate you on your wisdom!
Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the
past or present are certain to miss the future.
~ John F. Kennedy
* Questionable beliefs can “trap” our better judgment, leading to poor decisions and unintended consequences. In the framing trap, we often neglect to consider other possible contingencies. In the projection trap, we underestimate how different our tomorrow will be and focus attention solely on our immediate situation. Learn more about this, and other traps, in the Young Person’s Guide to Wisdom, Power, and Life Success.
I love taking my message directly to students and groups of young persons! If you would like me to speak at your school, not-for-profit, or corporate event, please use the Contact Form and enter “Speaker” in the subject line. We’ll work out the details. ~ Brian
Image credit: “Young man looking with futuristic smart high tech glasses” by Rancz Andrei, licensed from 123rf.com (2017).