YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT your future self will want. This is the tantalizing hypothesis of Hidden Brain podcast host Shankar Vedantam, who argues that we’re constantly becoming new people.
Vedantam offers the example of a hospice nurse who, having witnessed so much misery in her dying patients, made her husband promise never to extend her life if she became terminally ill. Yet, when her body was ravaged by ALS, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, she ultimately chose to exist miserably on a ventilator to prolong her final months. In trading discomfort for more time at the end of her life, the nurse was not the person she had been before.
In my own life, I’ve come to conclude that Vedantam’s hypothesis is entirely accurate. As a high school student in Washington, D.C., I was fascinated by politics and our country’s leaders. In my senior year, I interned on Capitol Hill, which only strengthened my resolve to run for office one day.
For about 20 years, I studied policy and began planning my eventual try for elected office. By the time I turned age 36, however, I started to have serious doubts.
The older I got, the more I realized that politics is “a bag of rats,” as the actor Matthew McConaughey described it when explaining why he wouldn’t run for governor of Texas. As a kid, I thought our politicians were the greatest among us. As an adult, I’ve come to realize they’re typically merely the greatest egos among us.
Warren Buffett once said, “It’s better to hang out with people better than you. Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours, and you’ll drift in that direction.” It slowly dawned on me that this couldn’t work for me if I wanted to hang out with politicians.
In retrospect, I feel lucky that my life’s journey thus far has included incredible adventures in the U.S. Army and as an attorney—as I prepared for a political career that never materialized.
What if this weren’t the case? What if I’d trained for a decade to become a professional athlete only to blow out my knee? Or studied to become an engineer only to decide I hated it? Wouldn’t I resent my earlier self?
To me, nothing typifies this conundrum more than the financial independence-retire early (FIRE) movement. While the “financial independence” piece is undoubtedly a worthy pursuit, the “retire early” part suggests that the profession of these folks is so miserable that they’d rather not work. I pity those in search of “RE.”
How can we plan our lives so that, in 20 or 30 years, we don’t look back with bewilderment or resentment at the career, relationship, wealth-building or health choices we now make? Here again, Vedantam offers some wonderful advice.
First, stay curious and be the curator of your future self. If we accept that we will be a different person in the future, we should play an active role in crafting the person we will become. Spend time with friends and family, and expand our horizons by pursuing new hobbies or avocations outside our current employment.
Second, as we make pronouncements about politics and policy on social media or at the dinner table, let’s remember that among the people likely to disagree with us are our own future selves. In other words, when we express views with great conviction, let’s remember to add a touch of humility.
Finally, our future selves may be physically weaker than we are today, but our future selves will also have wisdom that we don’t currently possess. When we tell ourselves that we can’t quit our jobs to start our own company, or become fluent in a new language or learn to play a musical instrument, that may be true—for now.
To close the gap between this current reality and our desired state, we must be brave enough to take the first steps to start that new business, learn our first words in that new language or string together the first few notes on that instrument.
Roughly halfway through my life, I find myself preparing for the back nine, and I want to make sure I don’t end up permanently in a sand trap. Remaining curious, staying humble and being brave seem like the best recipe to ensure that our future selves aren’t resentful of our current selves.
John Goodell is deputy director of policy and general counsel at the Texas Pension Review Board. Currently an Army Reservist, he previously served 14 years on active duty before leaving to become the general counsel at the Texas Veterans Commission. John has spent much of his career working with public sector employees on tax, investment, estate planning and retirement issues. His biggest passion is spending time with his wife and kids. Follow John on Twitter @HighGroundPlan and check out his earlier articles.