You are not the person you were fifteen years ago. The cells that compose your tissues and deliver oxygen have been recycled many times over. Your face has changed. You move differently. You’re probably slower and weaker, or, depending on your daily habits, faster and stronger. As it becomes available, you incorporate new information into your belief system. Even the neat narrative we imagine we’re orchestrating unbroken in our heads has nightly intermissions lasting hours during which we have no real clue what happens.
Is this all just philosophical navel-gazing better suited for 2 AM in a dorm room covered with Bob Marley posters? Not exactly. Accepting the idea that past and future selves are different people can have real benefits today—and tomorrow.
A study from late last year found that disrupting the temporo-parietal junction—a part of the brain that studies reveal is consistently involved in empathy, essentially our ability to overcome self-centeredness and put ourselves in another’s shoes—led human subjects to choose smaller, immediate rewards over larger, long-term rewards. It had no effect on people’s ability to perceive time, space, or numbers. They understood that the reward would be bigger if they just waited. They just didn’t care. In other words, when people were no longer able to empathize with their future selves, they made choices that benefited their present selves while shortchanging their future ones.
We already subconsciously envision our future selves as different people. Today I’m going to argue that we should be doing it consciously, too, and that doing so can help improve our lives in the present and future.
As I go back through my time as a coach and, now, a health author privy to the trials and tribulations of people trying to get healthier, happier, and more productive, I’m realizing that the biggest successes almost always included some reckoning of the future self. They’d “write 5 year plans.” They’d see how their parents ended up and resolve not to do the same. In almost every instance, they were imagining some version of themselves in the future. Now that I’ve come across this “empathy for future self” research, I’m convinced that these people were inadvertently treating the person they’d eventually become as another person worthy of empathy.
I’m wondering if we can make this work on a conscious level. How can we leverage this “future self as being worthy of empathy” phenomenon?
I’ve got a few ideas.
Dystopian futures are huge these days. From zombie wastelands and father-and-son duos trudging through ruined Americas to shiny high-tech societies where every whim is satisfied but the soul’s, popular culture assumes the future is bleak and horrifying. Imagine, for the purposes of this exercise, that your future is also bleak and horrifying, that someone’s writing a book about it, and that you have to write the back blurb that lays out the basics: the setting, the protagonist, the main conflict.
We all have fears about our future. We all wonder about the worst case scenario. Just how bad could it get? It’s frightening to think about the subject with any sort of depth, so we end up pulling back before it gets too visceral and realistic. With your blurb, get visceral. Imagine in excruciating detail what you don’t want to happen, and write it down. Paint the most miserable—yet conceivable—future for yourself.
Make it so bad that you feel deep empathy for that miserable wretch. And, hopefully, do everything in your power to avoid becoming them.
If you’ve got it in you, write a full-page synopsis.
A common exercise among life coaches is to have the client write a letter from their future selves telling the present self how awesome their life will be. It’s supposed to help folks believe in the power of change and to see beyond their present circumstances to the glory that lies just around the bend. I’ve put a spin on it: Have your future self write you a letter requesting help with specific tasks.
It could be a positive or negative future. If it’s a positive one, your future self will make requests that ensure things go well and turn out right. If it’s a negative one, the requests will help you avoid the mistakes “you” made.
People often think of daydreaming as reverie: a conscious float through the subconscious. And most of the time, you really do drift from thought to thought to fantasy to thought to imagery. It’s a pleasant way to de-stress, relax your racing mind, and potentially stumble upon an interesting revelation or insight.
To increase empathy for your future self, go into your daydream session with a purpose. Imagine yourself a year, two years, ten years in the future. Imagine you’re living the best life possible. What kind of shape are you in in the future? What’s in your refrigerator? How much can you squat? Don’t steer things too much in one direction or another. Just see what “you” are up to in the future, investigate the details, ask questions, and then return to waking life. Debrief yourself. How’d it look? Did you like what you saw? How do you feel about your future self? What can you do differently today to realize (or avoid) the future you witnessed?
I don’t suggest you ask this question before every action. You’d end up paralyzed if you had to figure out the long term ramifications of wearing the jeans or the slacks. But the ones with clear impact? The “should I get up and go to the gym or squander another hour staring at my phone in bed?” The “oh man, the salt and vinegar kettle chips are on sale” moment? Ask the question.
We probably already kinda do this on some level. And I bet those who ponder this question on a subconscious level most often are the ones who have the most success and make the right decisions. Some people might never consider doing so on their own but will after reading this. So consider this post a nudge. Ask the question.
Oh, and be sure to answer it to the best of your ability.
I heard Jordan Peterson on Joe Rogan’s podcast a few months back, and he really resonated with me. A clinical psychiatrist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Peterson studies myth, meaning, truth, personality, and self-improvement. His lectures, which he posts to Youtube, get rave reviews. He’s got an extremely unique take on religion, tradition, and how it all relates to scientific facts. Peterson also has a product called the Self-Authoring Suite.
It has three components—Past, Present, and Future. For each, you complete a series of writing exercises designed to help you identify, understand, and eventually realize what you want out of life. There appears to be a good deal on the whole shebang right now, but you can also buy the components separately.
It seems to work. Ethnic minority students in Holland who tried the self-authoring program ended up erasing the academic gap that usually separates minority students from native Dutch students. Think about how it might help you push beyond current obstacles or old stories.
You probably know that I’m not big on sitting meditation. It just doesn’t work for me. So I do other things that get me into similar mind states. One of them is the guided meditation. Although I don’t listen to guided meditations very often, I’ve really enjoyed the ones I have. They seem to “do the trick” and allow me to reach that place fans of sitting meditation are always gushing over.
Turns out they have guided meditations designed to help you meet your future self. You can go long—this one clocks in around an hour long. You can go shorter—this one from Tara Brach is just over 7 minutes long. If you’re a fan of meditation and find you’re able to achieve those mind states, using a meditation to meet your future self could be extremely convincing.
When you do these exercises, do them for real. Fully inhabit the future self. Take them seriously. If you just half-ass your way through it, your temporo-parietal junction will know it. If this is going to work, you have to commit. You have to really meet and extend empathy for the future self.
That’s it for today, folks. I urge you to give some or all of these exercises a try and report back. Did it help? Do you have any other tips for achieving the same effect?
Thanks for reading and take care!