When I was about 26 years old, I was offered a tattoo as a gift. This particular tattoo would have conveyed the type of thrilling message that young men imagine they will want emblazoned across their rippling biceps until the end. I planned to go out in a blaze of glory, rescuing women and children, and that tattoo was going to look great!
But in a moment of clarity, I realized that the elderly version of me might regret it at the swimming pool, or as I was running around naked and demented in public, or whatever future events might involve shirtlessness. I didn't get the tattoo.
The current, 46-year-old version of me is relieved that my sagging bicep remains a blank slate because my values have evolved tremendously, and I would have regretted that ink. Deciding against it was a rare moment of foresight from my younger self. (Sadly, I lacked the wisdom to avoid a diamond stud earring or a tiger-striped seat cover for my Yamaha. Mercifully, those items were temporary.)
Although the younger me allowed for the unlikely possibility of personal growth, I've changed much more than I ever imagined. As it turns out, that's a pretty typical experience.
In a 2013 paper titled "The End of History Illusion," researchers found that people routinely report that their personality, values, and preferences have changed significantly over the previous decade, but greatly underestimate the changes they will undergo in the decade to come. The researchers wrote: "People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives."
At any point in life, according to the study, we tend to believe that we're fully developed. But in fact our personalities will evolve much more than we predict, and we will one day look back and wonder, How on earth did I muddle through life when I was so unevolved? I practically had flippers.
The awareness that we will change, like it or not, strikes me as a handy bit of information. Any one of us, at any time, can change our trajectory by asking, Who do I want to be in ten years?
I'll share a few of my goals: I'd like the 56-year-old me to be more attentive to others, I'd like to be more intelligent, and I'd like to have a lot more money in the bank.
Those goals are all perfectly attainable, but not this week, and maybe not this year – especially since I'm a fundamentally lazy person.
Luckily, I don't need to make jarring habit changes in order to become the person I want to be. Most likely, neither do you. The only task at any given moment is to make small approximations toward our future selves. Those continual, small choices require little effort, and with practice they become second nature. Over time, they change us fundamentally.
That question, who do I want to be in ten years, tells me all I need to know about the present moment. Instead of watching one more rerun of The Office, I'll read a few more pages of a book in the service of becoming more intelligent. Next time I buy a foot-long, I can ask the chef about his day because that strengthens my attentiveness to others. Life is a game of inches, just like the aforementioned sub sandwich, and small decisions can accumulate into big changes.
If you're contemplating major habit changes for the new year, God bless. I wish you success at the gym, or on your new career track, or in writing the great American novel. But while you're headed to that Zumba class, don't forget about the tiny, easy course corrections you can make right now – and there's always a now.
* * * * *
Dr. Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado
and the author of The User's Guide to the Human Mind
. His next book, The Women’s Guide to How Men Think
, will be available February, 2014.
(This post originally appeared at ironshrink.com.)