For the last several years, I have cringed each time I walked into my dad’s house, where hanging just next to the front door, my sixteen-by-twenty-inch high school graduation picture greeted every visitor.
I finished high school during Ronald Reagan’s administration, so this image of me rocking blue eyeliner and a feathered mullet is just as much a time capsule as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.
If I roll my eyes at all manner of choices I made in the 1980s, from fashion to dating to work, why is it harder to imagine future me cringing at choices I’m making today?
A study published in the journal Science in 2013 showed that participants who were asked about their personality traits and preferences over time could see how much they had changed from the past to the present, but when they were asked to predict what they would be like in ten years, people expected they would be about the same. That is, they didn’t expect they would continue to change. They saw their current selves as the finished product.
“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin,” one of the study’s authors, Daniel T. Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard, told the New York Times about his research. “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.”
A few years back, I was at a career crossroads and fortunately had an insightful coach to guide me.
I’d always imagined my life as a chess game where I could see multiple moves out — if I do this, it puts me in position for that, which will ultimately land me at my goal. My crisis was that I no longer saw the chess board and I couldn’t tell how the opportunity I was considering would play out in the long run.
My coach and friend, Kim Ann Curtin, listened as I agonized over whether this was the perfect move, if I might regret it, if it would allow my husband and me to stay put or if we’d have to relocate if it didn’t work out … until finally she asked what made me think I could see the future.
We can’t know how our interests will change, much less the economy or technology. Maybe something will happen that will radically shift our priorities. Maybe serendipity will guide us to some totally unexpected new opportunity.
Kim asked if I expected to be where I was at 40 when I was 20. Absolutely not, I admitted.
So, she suggested, instead of making a perfect decision for a future that’s unknown, make the best decision you can for right now. You can always change as you go.
It was such a relief to stop seeing life decisions as carved in stone, and instead to consider them written in pencil, able to be reworked as needed.
That’s a good thing, or I might still be wearing blue eyeliner and entirely too much hair spray.