When contemplating who we are, it’s difficult to stay grounded in the present. We often go back to our past experiences and look ahead to our aspirations for the future. Who we are now has a lot to do with who we feel we have been in the past and who we hope to become in the future.
Note the words ‘feel’ and ‘hope’. They suggest we are subjective in our judgment. Subjective often means biased, and so is the case here. Research shows most of us are biased toward optimism. We expect things to follow an upward trajectory in life. We feel we are doing better now that we used to and hope to do even better in the future.
Looking back to ‘who you were yesterday’ may hamper your development and looking ahead to who you want to be can boost it.
Let me explain.
The key to personal development is leveraging the optimism bias.
Leveraging the optimism bias
Think about it.
If we expect an upward trajectory in life, we assume we are doing better now than we used to. However, research has confirmed we tend to overestimate improvement (even if there is none, really). Looking back might create a sense of self-entitlement that prevents us from identifying current development needs.
So, comparing yourself to ‘who you were yesterday’ may not be the way to go.
By contrast, looking ahead to who you want to become may serve you better.
If we expect improvement in the future, we can transform those expectations into actionable goals. We can pursue these goals now. What’s more, research shows our future selves can motivate us to be proactive and persistent in the pursuit of these goals. Looking ahead thus provides a good indication of what we need to change and motivates us to put in the work.
Beware of pitfalls, though. To leverage the positive influence of your future self, you two must sit down, talk, and connect.
Connecting with your future self
Why is this necessary, you ask? Well, we sometimes feel so optimistic about our future selves that we take no responsibility for them. We don’t feel we are the same person, so why bother? Quite literally. Neuroscientific evidence shows brain activation patterns generated by thinking about our future selves mimic the ones generated by thinking about other people.
This gap rids us of the motivational power of our future selves.
Take work as an example. Starting tomorrow always seems a good option. We believe our future self will do the work, not realizing that tomorrow we’re still going to be us. Still prone to procrastination. However, imagining a future where we enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning without the stress of unfinished work might be just what we need to start working now.
Therefore, we need to connect with our future selves in a way that shows continuity between who we are and who we hope to become. Feeling connected with our future selves makes us more accountable for our actions in the present. Here’s how you can do it:
#1 Don’t Go Too Far Into the Future
It is easier to feel close to a future self that is within your reach; in your early 20s, it might be difficult to envision who you want to be in your 60s; thinking about what you want your life at 25 to be like is far more actionable.
#2 Stay Grounded in Reality
It’s easy to get carried away by dreaming; your desired future self should stretch your current abilities, but not so much so as to fall into complete fantasy; think about what your desired future self would want you to improve; if you can’t act on it now, you’re not realistic enough.
#3 Make It Clear
The more clarity you have over who you want to be, the more motivated you are to put in the work; you should be clear about the skills your desired future self has, the habits they have developed, their attitude toward life in general, or any other details you deem relevant.
#4 Make It Visual
Visualisation exercises bring you closer to your future self; the more vivid your future self is, the more it motivates you; they are also a good indicator of clarity (if you can’t picture your future self, chances are it’s not clear enough).
Take-home message. Hopefully, this article has shed some light on why comparing yourself to your past self might offer a potentially inaccurate picture of who you are or who you may become. Whilst it is not wrong to think back to who you used to be, your future self is a powerful tool for the present you. So, think about who you want to become and start from there. It’s often said you never know what dreams may come. You might, though, if you’ve envisioned it all along.
Let us know what you think. Do you tend to be optimistic about your future? Do you have a clear picture of who you want to be?