I have always had a particular fascination with time travel. I love to watch time travel movies and, like many of us, I often contemplate what the world would be like if we had the ability to go back in time or get a sneak peak at the future. I have also often toyed with the notion of what advice I would give my younger self, having the wisdom of experience, so that I might avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes that I simply was not able to see coming at the time. As the expression goes, hindsight is 20/20, and who out there wouldn’t want their younger self to benefit from the perspective and clarity that comes with age and experience?
A quick search on this topic reveals that I am not alone. The wish to turn back the clock and get a second chance is universal, it’s something that all of us experience. In fact, our brains are so hardwired for this “mental time travel” that the only people who do not experience it are those who are physiologically unable to remember the past as a result of brain trauma. Pretty much every single day, the default way in which we experience this “mental time travel” is in the form of a subtle, ever-present lingering regret that expresses itself in phrases such as, “If only things had been different,” “If I knew then what I know now,” or, “If I could do it all over again,” etc. This desire to correct the mistakes of our past is so compelling that, despite—or perhaps, because of—the impossibility of literal time travel, we nevertheless do go through life dispensing advice to our younger selves, albeit vicariously in the form of our children and those we mentor, in the desperate hope that they will be able to avoid the mistakes that we could not. But, just for fun, let’s imagine that we could literally go back in time and give our literal younger selves advice on how best to live their lives. You may be thinking that that would be great and would make your life end up being so much better. But you know what? I am completely certain that none of that advice would do any good at all! I’m convinced it would simply not make a difference to your younger self, and they would just ignore it. Why? Because if your younger self really cared what your future self thought, you wouldn’t have any regrets to go back and fix in the first place!
Now, to be clear, when I talk about advice, I’m not talking about stock market tips or the winning lottery ticket numbers, which, obviously, if acted upon would make a difference in a person’s life, at least for a while anyway. I’m also not considering knowledge of random events like natural disasters or freak accidents. The reason being that, in the absence of paradoxical and specific historical details and an extremely charitable theory of time travel mechanics, it would either be impossible for your past self to know these things or impossible for your present self to benefit from them. Even if it were possible, none of this would change who you are now, but merely your circumstances; a procrastinator would procrastinate just as much whether they won the lottery or not. Instead, what I’m considering are the things that your past self actually had control over back then and would have actually benefited from “if they had only known better,” i.e. if they had exercised more prudence and foresight with the knowledge and resources they already had available to them at the time. I’m talking about the pearls of wisdom that you, as an older and wiser person, would share with your younger self about how best to live their life. And I’ll say it again: your past self would pretty much ignore whatever you tried to tell them in that regard. You want to know how I know that? Because, right now, you’re not doing what your future self is telling you to do either!
You might object to this “outrageous” assertion, but I assure you it is true. You might be saying to yourself, “I don’t know what my future self would want me to do right now! If I did, I would be doing it!” But I respectfully beg to differ. I would suggest that while you may not have specific knowledge of the exact details your future self would relay to you about your life 10, 20, or 30 years in the future, there is a lot that you do know with absolute certainty about what your future self would want you to be doing. How could you possibly know those things? Because of the fact that you are the future self of your own past.
Let me give you a few examples to illustrate what I mean. Do you think your future self would say to you, “Hey, eat whatever tastes good, don’t worry about the sugar and fat, keep drinking and smoking, and just ignore those warning signs that your health is deteriorating because you eventually get used to the constant joint pain, shortness of breath, and disappointment every time you see yourself in the mirror?” Or would your future self advise you to start taking care of your health before it’s too late, by eating foods that you already know are good for you and by exercising regularly even when you don’t feel like it? I think we all know what the answer would be, but simply knowing doesn’t matter; the question is, are we all acting on that advice? In most cases the answer is “no.”
How about this question? Would your future self tell you to spend hours upon hours everyday watching TV and mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds because having nothing to show for yourself in ten years will end up being extremely fulfilling and great for your self-esteem? No, of course they wouldn’t! He/she would advise you to read regularly, engage in meaningful conversations with peers, and do things that would help you grow and develop both personally and professionally.
And what about with finances? Would your future self tell you to buy whatever feels good regardless of your financial situation, because “you only live once” and having to depend on your adult children for money isn’t that embarrassing or demeaning when compared to the momentary satisfaction you’ll get from that one pair of shoes or fancy watch? Or do you think they would tell you to budget, practice contentment, save as much as you can, and invest in your retirement, because you will in fact be growing old like everyone else despite your plans otherwise? Again, the answer is clear to all of us—it always is—but most of us simply choose not to heed the advice that we know our future self would be giving us, no matter what we say our specific goals and aspirations are.
Now, after all that, you may be feeling a little condemned, but I would ask you to just let that feeling go. All of us are in the same boat, we are all torn between what feels good in the present and what will actually be good for us in the future; that is simply part of our nature as thinking beings that experience time as moving in only one direction. But the only thing that decides whether this dichotomy will work for you or against you is whether you choose to be compelled by it, or merely feel bad because of it. If you do decide to get in action, there is no time like the beginning of a brand new year to start new, productive habits.
Getting started on this and charting a new path may seem daunting, but there are ways to make it easier by tapping into the insight of your greatest coach and most trustworthy advisor: your future self. There are a few mental exercises you can try to get in touch with the wisdom of your future self. For example, next time you feel yourself starting to fall into regret about the past, thinking about what you should have done or wish you had done, instead of asking yourself, “What advice would I give my younger self?,” shift your focus to the question, “What advice would my future self be giving me right now?” and then get in action on that answer. Or, to make it even simpler, in a similar vein to the reminder of “WWJD,” in situations where you suspect you may be favoring the present at the expense of the future, get in the habit of asking yourself, “What Would My Future Self Do?” If you experience a dilemma as to whether you should choose one way or another, ask yourself, “Will this decision end up being a blessing or a curse for my future self?” One very helpful way of thinking of your future self is as you would your own child, because we continually give birth to our future self through the choices we make everyday. You would never dream of sacrificing your child’s happiness and well-being for the momentary enjoyment of something like a designer handbag or a box of glazed donuts, so what makes you think it’s okay to do that to your future self? So, thinking of yourself as the parent of your future self is a good way to remind yourself to do what you know is right in the present. Alternatively, you could envision yourself as merely borrowing your body and mind from your future self, because in a sense, everything we have in the present is borrowed from the future. Since we tend to take better care of things that belong to others than things that belong to us, remembering that you will eventually have to return your body and mind and life to your future self will inspire you to treat them well.
If all that seems a little too complicated, you can just start with the basics. We all have that internal compass that points us in the right direction—through our emotions, intuitions, and insights—even if we choose to ignore it. All there is to do is start walking toward where the arrow is pointing. This is what Stephen R. Covey refers to as “sharpening the saw” in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey suggests that we should all allocate some amount of time and effort every week to taking care of ourselves, physically, mentally, spiritually, and socio-emotionally. You don’t need to over-think it and you don’t need to be perfect at it. Just get started and do what you can with what you know right now, and eventually you will get clear on what the next steps are from there. And when—not if—you fall off the wagon, just dust yourself off and get back on. That’s all there is to it.
I realize that most of us are waiting for that big revelation or the super effective way that we could transform our relationships, career, health, finances, and life. I also know that, in a world that is obsessed with instant gratification and magic pills, most of us will end up waiting the rest of our lives for that “one thing” that will dramatically transfigure us into something greater and solve all of our problems. But the good news—or bad news, depending on your perspective—is that no such thing exists, and it never has and never will. With the exception of an almost infinitesimal number of special cases here and there, extraordinary success is never the result of hitting the jackpot in life. Rather, it is almost always the result of consistently and prudently operating by a set of somewhat boring principles that work when you practice them over a long period of time. Sure, there will always be a lot of noise about the people who took one smart action at just the right time, like buying into a certain stock, because these stories support the fantasy we all have that the rules don’t apply to us and because these stories are outliers and thus newsworthy. For every one person who made it big, though, there are millions and millions of people who simply lived below their means and unremarkably saved their way into great wealth. We all want to think that we are above average and that we don’t have to follow the same boring rules that apply to everyone else, but the fact is that, by definition, 99% of us are ordinary and acting as if we aren’t rarely does us any good. So, for those of us who think we don’t have the right connections or information to figure out the secret key to success and happiness, take heart: no one else does either.
I am convinced that if we all did just the basics relative to envisioning what we want our life to look like and worked backward, our future self would have plenty to thank us for. Instead of spending our time searching in vain for shortcuts—which don’t exist, your future self can assure you—and hoping in vain for a reset button to fall into our laps, we would be far better off if we decided where we wanted to be relative to our health, relationships, career, finances, social life, and mental well-being and started to take the steps that we already know to take right now. In due time, when we were ready to see an act on them, the next steps would be revealed to us. Instead of operating as if we were exempt from the laws of cause and effect, once we were able to tap into the wisdom of our future self and pursue these long term goals, we would start to see progress almost instantly.
As we approach the end of 2017, it is a great time to reflect on how the year went and extract the lessons and wisdom we gained from our experiences. It is a great time to let go of the rest of the stuff holding you back, like regret and resentment, and leave them in the past where they belong. It is also a great time to contemplate the possibilities that the new year holds for you. I’d encourage you to engage with your future self often in this new year, because the best coach and advisor you will ever meet is the person you hope to become in the future. Ask yourself often, “What would my future self want me to do right now?” and envision your older self actually answering you. Even more powerfully, envision your future self as having already accomplished whatever goals you set for yourself this year. Reflect on what it would be like if you were there already. How would you feel? What would your experience of your life or career or relationships be at that point in time? And then envision yourself looking backward from that place in the future and “remember” the decisions and actions that made a difference in you going from where you were to where you “are” now. Act as if you were already there, and what you are doing in the present is just maintaining what you have already achieved in the future. As you go along, identify the milestones you reach on your way to your goal so you can celebrate them to motivate you as you press on. And if you never forget that today is just the yesterday of tomorrow, and that there is no way to the goal but rather the goal is the way, then in no time at all, you will become the person you aspire to be.
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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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