“Anyone who isn’t embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough,” said philosopher Alain de Botton, capturing our collective capacity for growth as well as my personal regrets regarding the majority of articles I wrote last year.
Whether its one year ago or five, we’ve likely all looked back at past versions of ourselves and cringed. Go back ten years and we’re almost completely different people – with priorities, preferences, and values that are nowhere near our current ones. To say nothing of those outdated fashion senses – yeah, you know what I’m talking about.
Yet while we’re quick to recognize our growth in recent years, few of us see this as a continuing trend. When we consider how much we’ll change over the next year, or the next five years, we rarely equate it with the change we’ve undergone to this point.
We like to think that today’s version of ourselves is the final product – that all of our development has been in pursuit of this present moment and little further change is expected. A view that history has repeatedly proven wrong. As Daniel Gilbert said in one of his engaging and thought-provoking TED talks,
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.”
And our inability to see this point is a significant reason for much of our unhappiness.
Our One Constant is Change
“But, O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes!” -Shakespeare, As You Like It
It’s easy to recognize past decisions and see how different paths have altered who we are. Yet going forward it’s less clear.
We know that we’ll be faced with new and difficult decisions in the future. We just don’t know how we’ll handle them. And when faced with this uncertainty, we simply project the current status quo. As Gilbert wrote in his classic look into the psychology of happiness,
“Most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today, and we find it particularly difficult to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now.”
We also like to believe that we’re pretty good people overall. Thinking about future change means that today’s version of ourselves is in need of improvement. A concept that our cognitive dissonance prone minds don’t handle all that well.
In his tremendous talk on the psychology of trust, psychologist David DeSteno asks, “Can the present you trust the future you?” A valid question, although I think your future self is equally justified in asking whether they can trust the version of you that’s reading this now.
We invest the majority of our time trying to construct a tomorrow that benefits our future selves. Yet our gains often fall short of expectations. Not because we missed our target or lacked execution. But because we were aiming at the wrong things. As Gilbert explained,
“We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.”
And until we can recognize this tendency, we’ll continue to construct futures that are designed for outdated versions of ourselves.
Are Your Goals Holding You Back?
“I do things, I try things, I build things, I want to make progress, I want to make things better for me, my company, my family, my neighborhood, etc. But I’ve never set a goal. It’s just not how I approach things.” – Jason Fried
Jason Fried doesn’t have any goals.
That may be surprising given his impressive resume of accomplishments, but as he wrote in a 2016 article, aptly titled I’ve Never Had a Goal,
“A goal is something that goes away when you hit it. Once you’ve reached it, it’s gone. You could always set another one, but I just don’t function in steps like that… I approach things continuously, not in stops. I just want to keep going — whatever happens along the way is just what happens.”
Scott Adams preaches a similar mindset, encouraging continual skill development within systems instead of focusing on accomplishment-based targets. As he wrote in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big,
“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre-success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.”
Both Fried and Adams favor daily practices over long-term goals. They show up every day and continue building skills, independent of any one specific target. And while there are many benefits to these practices, a main one is that they constantly account for their own changing values and priorities.
Instead of constructing a future based on past versions of themselves, they continue building and developing based on who they are at that moment. As they grow, their systems and pursuits grow with them.
We often use goals to help us focus on specific targets, like gaining certain promotions or reaching future milestones. Yet who’s to say whether our future self will still value these accomplishments? Given that our priorities and values will change, it’s likely that what’s worth pursuing today won’t hold the same value in a year from now. As Jim Coudal wisely put it,
“The reason that most of us are unhappy most of the time is that we set our goals not for the person we’re going to be when we reach them, but we set our goals for the person we are when we set them.”
Instead of this obsession with locking in future goals, perhaps we’d be better suited to allow a little more uncertainty. And give ourselves the freedom to adapt these future aspirations to our future selves.
Embrace the Uncertainty
“Faced with the anxiety of not knowing what the future holds, we invest ever more fiercely in our preferred vision of that future — not because it will help us achieve it, but because it helps rid us of feelings of uncertainty in the present.” – Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking
We don’t know how we’re going to change over the next year. And we can’t easily predict how our priorities will shift down the road. Faced with this uncertainty, we tend to develop long-term goals to gain the reassurance that comes from having a defined destination.
And we’ve grown up believing that without having these concrete plans we’ll never achieve success. We’re taught that successful entrepreneurs and innovators are those of us who develop a long-term vision and relentlessly pursue it through every obstacle put in their path.
Yet Oliver Burkeman – in a fascinating read on how our conventional approach to “success” often backfires – cites evidence to the contrary. He discusses Saras Sarasvathy’s research into successful entrepreneurs and disputes this vision of the goals-driven founder,
“We tend to imagine that the special skill of an entrepreneur lies in having a powerfully original idea and then fighting to turn that vision into reality. But the outlook of Sarasvathy’s interviewees rarely bore this out. Their precise endpoint was often mysterious to them, and their means of proceeding reflected this. Overwhelmingly, they scoffed at the goals-first doctrine of Locke and Latham. Almost none of them suggested creating a detailed business plan or doing comprehensive market research to hone the details of the product they were aiming to release.”
Instead, the key to entrepreneurial success involved a familiarity with uncertainty and a willingness to adapt as both our environments and our selves change. In Burkeman’s words,
“The most valuable skill of a successful entrepreneur … isn’t ‘vision’ or ‘passion’ or a steadfast insistence on destroying every barrier between yourself and some prize you’re obsessed with. Rather, it’s the ability to adopt an unconventional approach to learning: an improvisational flexibility not merely about which route to take towards some predetermined objective, but also a willingness to change the destination itself. This is a flexibility that might be squelched by rigid focus on any one goal.”
Focus on Today
“Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities – for success, for happiness, for really living – are waiting.” – Oliver Burkeman
I’m not suggesting that we eliminate long-term vision. And there’s many benefits to laying out ambitious goals and challenging ourselves to accomplish more than we thought possible.
But recognize that we don’t know where we’ll be one year from now. And it’s unlikely that we’ll be the same person as the one we are today.
Given that knowledge, locking in a destination for that future version of ourselves doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Have a long-term vision, but allow yourself the flexibility so that it can change with you. And focus on today’s impact – the one that aligns with who you are right now.
How do you want to improve today?
How do you want to make a difference today?
What kind of person do you plan to be today?
I don’t know if we’ll ever be fully prepared for the uncertainty that our futures will bring. But if we hope to take advantage of the opportunities that will come with it, flexibility and adaptability are bound to be better tools than rigid compliance to a pre-determined goal. And in the wise words of Annie Dillard, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”