4 Ways to Meet Your Future Self
Why is it difficult to prepare for the future?
Social psychologists recently discovered one reason: we conceive our future selves as strangers — as different people altogether.
Research by two university educators — Hal Hershfield, an assistant professor of marketing at UCLA Anderson School of Management, and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, a lecturer at Stanford and author of The Willpower Instinct — offers new insight into this conundrum.
In experiments with undergraduates, Hershfield studied how considerations of the future affect our emotional experience and decision-making. In one line of research, he showed a select group of participants a digitally aged image of themselves. The remaining participants, however, did not see such an image. Among Hershfield’s findings: members of the select group — those who were able to see themselves as they aged — allocated twice as much to their retirement accounts as the others.
Hershfield asserts that “looking ahead in time and feeling a sense of connection to one’s future self can impact long-term financial decision-making, converting a consumer into a saver.” People who possess this continuity with their future self also accumulate more assets than others. They own their homes, have larger bank accounts and so forth.
Looking ahead in time and feeling a sense of connection to one’s future self can impact long-term financial decision-making, converting a consumer into a saver.
McGonigal’s research shows that future-oriented connections can also be made along shorter timelines. One suggestion she makes is to write a post-dated letter from your future self to your present self, summarizing your specific accomplishments in the future.
As a leader it’s acutely important for you to be able to bridge the present and future. You’re obliged to define the future not only for yourself but also for your team or organization. Odds are, though, the urgency of today — dealing with do-or-die demands in the here and now — can cause you to miss the opportunities of tomorrow.
Your success as a leader will depend in part by how you draw closer to your future self. Here are four ways to get started:
1. Act Like A Beginner
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” wrote Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and author of the classic book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Business columnist and author Bruna Martinuzzi, founder of Clarion Enterprises, coaches and advises executives. She challenges her clients to consider both their present and future with beginner’s mind. While that’s difficult for most senior leaders, says Martinuzzi, the rewards are many and great. In becoming humbler, and re-committing to their own learning and development, execs become infinitely smarter and more successful.
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2. Think Long
Do you look at time from the perspective of lack or abundance? In his book Never Too Late to Be Great: The Power of Thinking Long, author Tom Butler-Bowdon sets out to shatter the myth of overnight success. He urges people to take a long-term view of the future — to build the kind of greatness that can only unfold over years and decades. A graduate of the London School of Economics and onetime political advisor, Butler-Bowdon shows how resisting instant gratification pays off.
Cosmetics legend Estee Lauder, for instance, persevered on products for some 15 years before starting her eponymous business in 1946. Today, with more than 25 brands in over 150 countries, The Estee Lauder Companies boasts annual revenues of $11 billion. You can read their view of the future in their Vision & Values statement here. (Hint: they concur with Butler-Bowdon.)
3. Serve A Cause
In some measure, New York City’s High Line, an elevated public park, owes its existence to Joshua David and Robert Hammond. The two men co-founded Friends of the High Line in 1999. Their purpose: to advocate for the preservation and reuse of the High Line, a 1934 rail line last used in 1980, as public open space. At that time neither David nor Hammond had experience in urban planning or design. They did, however, have the vision and dedication to save a historic rail line in danger of demolition.
Ten years later, in June 2009, the first of three sections of the park opened to the public. Fast-forward to the present, and the High Line attracts nearly 5 million visitors annually. Moreover, Friends of the High Line, now the park’s non-profit caretakers, raises 98% of the annual budget. You may not have the desire or means to completely revitalize a part of your city’s past. Still, you can brighten others’ future by simply volunteering your time and talent to a worthy cause.
You can brighten others’ future by simply volunteering your time and talent to a worthy cause.
4. Build A Legacy
Besides writing, teaching, and consulting, Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, also talked about spirituality and the significance of having what he termed “existential goals.” He recommended regularly asking yourself, what do I want to be remembered for? That one question can keep you moving toward more and different possibilities. It can also help you discover what you want to put into life and, conversely, what you want to get out of it. And, perhaps most important, it can guide you as you build a legacy.
Uber-entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, answered a question about his legacy wish in this way: “To have created one of the most respected companies in the world. Not necessarily the biggest.” What would your wish be?
There’s no time like the present to meet your future self. Take the lead and get started on tomorrow, today.
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