The whole field of psychology is being flipped upside-down on its head. For more than a century, the majority of research and theories held to the dogma that as people, we were the byproduct of our past. 

However, the recent research in positive psychology and neuroscience is proving the opposite. It's not the past that drives us, but rather, it is the future that pulls us.

As human beings, we have the unique ability of being able to imagine countless future scenarios for ourselves. We can imagine staying in our current job, or leaving the country, or starting a business, or millions of other potentials--what psychologists call "prospects."

Despite having countless future potentials, our present is ultimately pulled forward by the future we're most committed to. As leadership experts Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp state, "Commitment is a statement of what is. You can know what you're committed to by your results, not by what you say your commitments are. We are all committed. We are all producing results. The result is proof of a commitment."

We all have what is known as a "default future." This default future is what you're committed to, as a person. It's not what you hope will happen. It's what you've already decided and fully expect will happen. 

This is true of you, the reader. 

You have a future up ahead of you that you've already fully bought into. And whatever future that is, that future is the "cause" of everything you're doing now. 

The word cause may sound extreme. But it's literally the same word Aristotle used. He believed that understanding the nature of causes was fundamental to a successful investigation of the world around us. So, too, did Plato, who in one of his best-known dialogues called Phaedo, or On the Soul, he stated that an "inquiry into nature" consists in a search for "the causes of each thing; why each thing comes into existence, why it goes out of existence, why it exists."

Aristotle formulated what are now known as the four causes, which he used to explain how the world works. The fourth of his causes is used to explain human behavior and is called "final cause," which he defined as "the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done."

Final cause is based on the philosophical concept teleology--which means that every human action is toward an end. Put simply, every action is toward a goal. The "goal" or "outcome" is the driver of the action. For example, walking to the fridge isn't a random action, but driven by a goal. That goal may be to grab a drink, etc. Even something like hopping on social media, even if triggered, is still driven by a goal. That goal may be to see what others have posted, or the goal may honestly be to avoid what you're working on. 

Every human action is goal-driven. You can know what you're committed to by simply observing your own behavior. Your behavior reflects your commitment. If you want to change your behavior, you'll need to shift the future that is pulling you forward. 

This is where the research on "future self" comes in. Dr. Hal Hershfield has been engaged in this research for nearly two decades. What he's found is that if a person is not connected with their longer-term future self, they'll make stupid (my word, not his) decisions. Specifically, his research has found that if you're not connected with your future self, you're unlikely to invest in retirement, eat healthy, or be thoughtful with your time. 

Think about it: If you're not connected to a long-term vision, how could you possibly know what to do with your time? If you don't know where you're trying to go, how can you know where to direct your attention? As advertising expert Paul Arden stated, "Your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have. Without having a goal, it's difficult to score."

Quick Summary

  • As a person, you're not driven by the past, but rather, you're being pulled forward by the future you're most committed to.
  • We all have a "default future"--which is what we fully expect to happen, even if it's not what we want to happen. 
  • Every human action is driven by goals or outcomes. Those outcomes could be something the person wants to happen, or is trying to avoid from happening (such as getting fired, etc.).
  • Your behavior reflects the future you're most committed to. 
  • If you're not connected to your longer-term future self, then you'll make stupid and shortsighted decisions in the present. 

Conclusion and Call-to-Action

  1. If you want to make better decisions, you've got to get connected with your longer-term future self. This requires that you start by spending some time thinking about your future self. Albert Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." 
  2. A second step of getting connected to your future self is by recognizing and appreciating that they are a different person than you are. Your future self sees the world differently than you do. They have different goals than you do. They have different experience, knowledge, and priorities. Hence, to begin developing a connection with your future self, you have empathy for them--just as you'd have empathy for another person.
  3. Next, you want to make your future self more "vivid" and specific. You do this by thinking about where you want to be in the near future, say, the next three to five years. What does your own "next level" look like? If you made some serious progress in desired areas, where could you be? In Good to Great, Jim Collins states, "If you have more than three priorities, you don't have any." Thus, to clarify your current purpose or "mission," define your three priorities. It's important to note that these priorities are temporary. For instance, five years ago, I was a PhD student with three foster kids. My priorities at the time were to finish school and adopt my kids. At this point, I'm done with my PhD and now have six kids. Thus, my priorities have shifted. Now, my three priorities are targeted toward my next-level future self. 
  4. After you've clarified your three priorities, you must begin weeding the garden of your life. Remove everything that conflicts or distracts from your priorities. As author Robert Brault stated, "We are kept from our goal not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal." Similarly, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry stated, "Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." 
  5. Start using future-based language. You see this in people like Elon Musk, who in a recent TED interview spoke with confidence about how humanity will solve the energy problem, and that the future will be abundant for humanity. Musk speaks in powerful, future-based terms. This is called "generative language," and it's the language that literally shapes our views of the future. You can know your default future by simply listening to the language you use. Your language shapes your identity, which shapes your behavior and actions. As Joshua Shenk wrote, "When you speak of what you want, and even one person hears, it may begin a generative loop."


Excerpted from Be Your Future Self Now, by the author.