Invest in Learning, Invest in Your Future You

This is a world of immediacy, a world of now. It’s a world of deadlines, stress, and constant demands. We have to not only deliver results at work, but also take time to read with our kids, be present and mindful with our loved ones, and get to the gym. It’s exhausting.

These demands lead us to cut corners, and get it done whatever it takes, whatever the cost. If we inflate our sales for a quarter, we can gain earnings. If we cheat on a test, we can boost our trimester grades. We’ll make it up later.

Taken too far, the quest for immediate gratification leads to lying, cheating, and unethical behavior. Quality takes time, excellence demands thoughtfulness, and building skill takes patience. The thing is, we often underestimate our ability to learn, and grow. The truth is, we will change much more than we think we will.

Just look back. Remember you ten, or fifteen, years ago? Wow, if only you knew what you know now. And to imagine what you were worried about then. As they say, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Dan Gilbert, of Harvard University, told the New York Times, “Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin. What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh — and at every age we’re wrong.”

Looking back we can easily recognize how much we have changed, and grown, as individuals, but we never imagine that we will grow or change that much in the future. We think we’ll be the same in the future, when in fact, we are likely to be very different. And the choices we make now will have a much bigger impact on our future selves than we believe today.

“At every stage of our lives we make decisions that will profoundly influence the lives of the people we’re going to become, and then when we become those people, we’re not always thrilled with the decisions we made.” – Dan Gilbert

One effective way to trick yourself into stronger learning habits, and better exercise habits, is to think of you now and your future self as the same person. It doesn’t come easily. We often think of ourself of twenty years ago as a distant, and separate, version of ourselves. We can recall who we were and what we were doing in a nostalgic, and reminiscent way, but not in the way of imagining that we are indeed that same person. And we think of our future self in the same disconnected way.

Loran Norgren, at the Kellogg School of Management, did some experiments with his colleagues to find out if they could get participants to make better decisions today by helping them connect with their future selves.

In one part of the study, participants were asked to write letters to their future selves called, “Dear Future Me.” In those letters, participants described who they were now, what they thought and cared about, and how they felt about the quality of their life. Half of the participants were asked to write to their future self who was only three months older, and the other half to write to their future self twenty years older.

Afterwards, everyone was asked a series of scruples questions to evaluate their willingness to commit morally or ethically suspect activities such as purchasing items of questionable origin, or illegally downloading movies or music. Consistently, those who were asked to connect with their future selves twenty years down the road, were much less likely to engage in questionable behavior.

In another portion of the study, participants put on virtual reality glasses and were presented with a mirror reflecting a digitally aged version of themselves who was about twenty years older. Following this disconcerting experience of being confronted by their own, older self, participants were asked a series of trivia questions. Again, those connected with the experience of encountering their future self were less likely to cheat on the quiz – 6% versus 23.5%.

What you do today matters, and it matters more than we think. Our behavior today sets the path for who we become in ten or twenty years in the future – a future often too distant to realize in our day-to-day lives.

Invest in learning, invest in your future you.


SmallActs-3DShawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful online learning courses based on the work of best-selling authors. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, (Routledge) just released. You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? Let’s talk.

Twitter: @gshunter
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