Your future self is a jerk. Don’t let them get away with it.
I don’t get obsessed with much. But I think I will be obsessed with Hal Hershfield’s new book about the future self when I get my hands on it.
(Or rather, my future self will be obsessed with it when he finally gets his hands on it.)
As a professional coach, I focus a lot on the future self. Clarifying goals, understanding strengths, focusing on core values, creating plans, moving to action, changing behavior—these are all things we work on to move from where we are today to where we want to be.
I help my clients envision, define, and clarify the person they want to be in the future, and make plans on how to get there.
This is true for individuals wanting life or career changes, leaders wanting to be more effective, and organizations working on their culture or change management.
But the term future self is more muddy than it seems on the surface.
The difference between the current self and the future self
As Hershfield describes in the podcasts, the human brain thinks of the future self as if it’s a different person from our current self. That is, the parts of the brain that light up when we think about our future self are the same parts that light up when we think of other people… not the parts when we think about ourselves.
So, depending on how emotionally close you are to your future self (it varies person to person), you might think of them like an acquaintance in the workplace, or perhaps like the hotel clerk when you’re on vacation.
In other words, in your own mind, future-you is not you. Future-you is somebody else. Thus, you consider the effects on future-you in your choices in the same way you would consider the effects on your colleague or the hotel desk clerk.
Yet as sure as there is a clerk at the hotel’s front desk, there is a future you doing future-you things and being affected by current-you decisions.
So we do think about that future self. Because we know that, like a micromanaging boss, it expects a lot of us. Sometimes too much.
The difference between actual future self and aspirational future self
First, let me say I’m using plain language when I use terms like future self and aspirational self. I apologize to jargon pedants if I am stomping on terms of art while making my points. After all, this is a blog, not a graduate class.
When I work with my clients, I help them envision their aspirational future self. They describe the person they hope to become—the result of the changes they are trying to make.
The actual future self is who will result from their day-to-day choices, regardless of their desires and intentions.
It’s important to describe your aspirational future self. That’s your intended destination. You want to change careers? You want to be more healthy and fit? You want to be a better leader?
Great! Now that you’ve described it, you can map the steps that will get you there. And, voila! Now there’s a new person out there who expects you to show up on time, having done all the steps on the plan you just created.
There’s only one problem. You’ve now got a plan. But it’s not your plan. It’s Future Self’s plan.
More on that distinction in a moment. First we have to talk about what a terrible person Future Self is.
Don’t let your future self get away with being such a jerk
That aspirational future self? What a demanding jerk.
It’s like having a narcissistic boss.
Future Self expects you to sacrifice everything for the new plan. And talk about judgment—make one mistake, and you get an instant guilt trip. And, if you actually succeed in sticking to the plan, Future Self will end up stealing all the credit.
Meanwhile, Future Self literally never does anything for you.
You wouldn’t stay in a job with that kind of boss, would you? I certainly wouldn’t.
I’m guessing you also don’t want to be that kind of boss.
Yet here you are, looking back at your past self and judging them for all their mistakes, poor choices, and laziness. You could be so much more right now if your past self had more discipline.
If only you could go back and whip Past Self into shape.
And now you might be expecting me to say, “Imagine your Future Self coming back to whip you into shape. That’ll get you motivated!”
But I won’t say that. Because it wouldn’t motivate you any more than having your narcissistic, micro-managing boss hovering over your shoulder would motivate you to work harder.
It might sound insightful, and it might work for short bursts, but it’s rarely sustainable in real life.
Pursue the plan, but don’t act as if your life depends on it
Your aspirational future self is such a jerk because their existence literally depends on you following through. If you fail to execute to the plan, that version of aspirational future self will never exist.
A different future self will exist.
And that’s okay.
Every day, from moment to moment, we make choices. Each of those choices is made by our current self, according to current motivations, current values, current context, and current external pressures.
In one of the podcasts I link to above, the host says something about how these choices move you closer to, or farther from, your future self.
I think that’s not quite right.
These choices create your actual future self regardless of your aspirations. What happens is that your actual future self and your aspirational future self either diverge or converge.
It’s like walking across a desert, with your goal being a mountain peak 10,000 steps away. Your aspirational self lives on that mountaintop.
If you take one step every second, you will without doubt be somewhere else after 10,000 seconds. But, depending on which direction you take each step, you may or may not be on top of that particular peak at that time.
Make enough steps in the wrong direction—it doesn’t have to be very many—and soon the mountain peak may seem entirely unreachable.
Aspirational Future Self looks down from that peak in judgment, bringing feelings of shame and inadequacy. If you look back at the steps you took, instead of seeing how far you’ve come, Aspirational Future Self makes you focus only on your missteps.
Even if each of those steps resulted in great joy, financial return, or wonderful relationships, you might still feel so much guilt from Aspirational Future Self that you can’t appreciate any of it. Instead, current self just judges and shames past self… in the same way Aspirational Future Self is judging and shaming current self.
It’s a terrible loop.
But it’s not an inevitability.
How to aim for your authentic future self
What? Another self to have to talk about? Isn’t this blog post nearly done yet?
As I said above, defining your aspirational future self and making a plan to get there is important. Without goals, we have nothing to strive for.
But this is real life. Things change. On the journey of 10,000 steps, you might find that your goals change, or context changes, or you have new responsibilities or aspirations or hopes or disabilities. Some of these are outside your control. Some are choices you have to wrestle with.
Although the aspirational future self you envision might be authentically you right now in this moment, it’s okay to rethink that as changes happen.
That’s what I mean when I say, “I guess it’s time for new dreams.“
So what do you do with all this? It’s all well and good to theorize and label and create metaphors, but how does it help?
Simply knowing that you think of your future self as a different person is a new point of self-awareness.
I know a lot of people who go through life feeling guilty and ashamed of all the things they “should” do but never get to, or who focus only on how their dreams have never materialized, or beat themselves up for procrastination and inadequacy.
They’re basically under the thumb of that narcissistic, demanding, micromanaging aspirational future self… and passing that demanding micromanagement on to their past self.
This just perpetuates and amplifies self-judgment and eats away at self esteem.
That cycle can be broken.
Here are a few suggestions on things you (or someone you know) can do to break such a cycle.
- Forgive your past self for all their missteps.
Your past self was doing the best they could, without the benefit of the hindsight you now have. Give them a break. Focusing on choices they made, using Current Self context, is simply unfair. Don’t be your Past Self’s Future Self jerk. Be better than that. If you can do that today, then your Future Self will probably also be less of a jerk to your current self.
- See how far you’ve come.
Now that you’ve stopped focusing on Past Self’s mistakes, look at how far Past Self has come. Look at the joy, relationships, and success they built along the way. Instead of judging each misstep, praise each positive outcome, even if it wasn’t the intended outcome.
- Be intentional about each new decision.
Whenever you have a choice to make, be intentional about it. Everything from what you’ll have for breakfast, to whether you’ll quit your current job. If you can articulate how this decision moves you toward the mountain peak or toward a new destination, you are likely to be more intentional about your choice.
- Don’t give up all your power to the original Aspirational Future Self.
Absolutely ask Future Self what they think of the choice you’re about to make and how you’re progressing. After all, at one point you decided that Aspirational Future Self was who you really wanted to become. But don’t give that original aspiration too much power. Don’t let it beat you down. Just like you can quit working for a narcissistic micromanager, you can kick that original Aspirational Future Self to the curb and re-envision the future. New dreams.
- Bring Future Self closer to you.
As Hershfield notes, people tend to execute on their plans more reliably when they are emotionally close to their future self. I think this means that you either need to do some work to make good friends with that person, or you need to reduce the scope of your plans—stop aiming for the mountaintop, and choose a series of much closer destinations.
I find it actually very liberating to think of my future self as a different person from who I am today. It gives me the room to understand that my past self was also different, and to forgive myself for past mistakes.
It also allows me to accept that I will change in the future, and that those around me will also change. This means that my Future Self is not an immutable ideal, but a real person that will come to be whether I intend it or not.
The future will happen no matter what I choose to do, so I should be intentional about each choice. That’s a powerful thought.
Being intentional about choices requires a commitment to increasing your self-awareness, and to refreshing situational awareness constantly.
Life is short. The journey of 10,000 steps is about whatever step your current self takes right now, as informed by the steps before as well as the intended destination.
It’s not about living in constant shame for failing to walk the path that some aspirational Future Self insisted your Past Self commit to.
I can help
I work with top executives and middle managers to improve their leadership skills and the effectiveness of their teams. I also help individuals identify and achieve their personal goals. How would you like to be better, be more resilient, or prepare for the next step?
You can help.
Think of one person who would benefit from reading this post. Sharing is caring! Forward it to them! And do it right now… don’t rely on Future You to do it.