Major life changes are never easy, because your instincts and the urgent matters of the day work against you. But when you learn to focus on your future self, you'll be surprised at what you can achieve.
By Rebecca Webber published May 6, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Back in 2002, Steve Silberberg was a software programmer for an investment firm, earning a comfortable six-figure salary. But he wasn't happy. "I was frustrated with my corporate life," he says. Part of the problem was his company's investment strategy: "If they saw a profit in clear-cutting a forest or polluting a waterway, they'd invest in it," he says. It was a jarring dissonance for the outdoorsman Silberberg. The day-to-day demands were also getting him down. "I sat at my desk every day thinking, How can I get out into the wilderness more often?" he says. "I wanted to be backpacking, maybe not all day, every day, but maybe a quarter of the year—wouldn't that be great?"
Silberberg had just hit 40 and realized he was less than 15 years from the age at which his father died of an aggressive form of cancer. "My father never did the things he said he wanted to do—like travel or go on a cruise," he says. "I realized, this is something important to me. This is the time for me to do it."
He started planning a new business guiding backpackers through America's most majestic natural spaces, where they could enjoy the sights and get fit at the same time. It wouldn't be as stable or lucrative as his programming work, but he was willing to take the risk. "I had no spouse or children, and that freed me up to fail," he says.
Last year, Silberberg led 12 trips and survived solely on the proceeds from his Fitpacking business.
"I make a quarter of what I used to, but I have an extremely high quality of life," he says. "Yesterday I went skiing, and in two days I'll guide a group through Big Bend National Park."
The Ever-Shifting Self
Many of us dream of a future that's very different from our present. We'll live in Hawaii instead of Hackensack; abandon singlehood for family life; or paint murals for a living. But getting from here to there is hard, largely because some powerful psychological forces align against reinvention.
It's in our nature, for example, to spend our energy primarily on today's immediate concerns, to hold a distorted perception of our future, or, even if we're future-focused, to keep chasing after what turn out to be the wrong dreams. Too often, we give up just when we need to push harder, and persist when we actually should quit. Yet without a more clear-eyed assessment of our present and our future, and a more effective approach to setting, pursuing, and achieving goals, we can end up with a future we really don't want—in which we are sick, broke, lonely, or just plain unfulfilled.
So what's a dreamer to do?
"We have to modify our identities as we go through life," says Ravenna Helson, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She directed the Mills Study, which followed some 120 women over 50 years, examining personality traits, social influence, and personal development and proving in the process that it's never too late to reinvent yourself. "Even at 60," Helson says, "people can resolve to make themselves more the people they would like to become. In the Mills Study, about a dozen women showed substantial positive personality change from ages 60 to 70."
But of course it's wise to get an earlier start. "You can't accomplish the difficult things in a day or even a week or, in my case, even in 12 and a half years," says Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Smart Change. More than a decade ago, Markman set out to learn to play the saxophone well enough to join a band. "You have to give yourself enough time to actually accomplish your goal," he says.
If you don't have long-term goals, Markman warns, you run the risk of doing lots of little things every day—cleaning the house, sending emails, catching up on TV—without ever making a contribution to your future. That can leave you feeling restless and unfulfilled. "It's the big picture things that give life meaning," he says, "like parenting or becoming an expert at something."
How do you know what you should be striving for? "Project yourself deep into the future and ask: What will I regret not having done?" Markman suggests, and then work backward to avoid that end. "Use that as a way of planning your life."
To Thine Own Future Be True
Before you can reinvent yourself, you have to know who you currently are. "People need to understand their strengths, their weaknesses, their passions, and their own story," says Robert Steven Kaplan, a Harvard Business School dean and the author of What You're Really Meant to Do. "Then they can look at what's going on in the world and try to match themselves up to opportunities."
One challenge to self-evaluation: Most of us have a tendency towards illusory superiority—the belief that we are above average in our abilities, even though all of us can't possibly be. That's why it's crucial to be brutally honest as you assess yourself and the effort needed to achieve the reinvention you seek. Discuss your dreams with people who care about you and know you well, and whom you trust to be honest with you about your strengths and weaknesses. They can help you gauge your skills and pinpoint your true passions.
Experts in reinvention say we need to find concordance between what really matters to us and the goals we chase. But too often our future plans are overly influenced by other people's input—the best friend who begs you to join her start-up or the father who desperately wants a grandkid. These external pressures can detach us from our core values. "If you don't go through a process of self-discovery, but just accept others' decisions, 10 years later you might find yourself saying, 'I don't think that's me,'" says John Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and the author of Personal Intelligence.
Brooke Randolph of Indianapolis was a typical twentysomething single woman devoted to her career in social services, but what she really wanted was to adopt a child from abroad. "It was an idea that had been in me since I was very young," she says. She needed to make some major life and lifestyle changes, though, before she could take on a dependent. "I was working like an entrepreneur and living in a one-bedroom apartment," she says. "I didn't want to have to leave my child in day care all the time."
Randolph took a series of well-calculated steps to get where she wanted to be. First she reined in her hours on the job, and then she bought a home. After a few months of paying her new mortgage, she was satisfied that she could manage the expense. Only then did she begin the adoption process—getting medical exams, putting together the $55,000 she would need for fees, and filling out paperwork for agencies both here and abroad. She hit roadblocks—her basement flooded, and some countries' gatekeepers turned down her application because of her single status—but she found a way around them. Last year, at 32, she adopted a 6-year-old boy from Samoa.
Researchers from the University of Rochester found that people like Randolph, who are intrinsically motivated—working toward things they find personally fulfilling—are less depressed and more satisfied with their lives than those who are extrinsically motivated, striving primarily to impress the outside world with a big paycheck or lofty job title. Intrinsically motivated people are also more likely to achieve personal goals, according to a series of studies led by Ken Sheldon, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri. He found that people who had self-concordant goals were the most likely to make steady progress because they were more likely than others to devote sustained effort despite the obstacles and distractions.
Harder Than It Looks
We spend a lot of time thinking about the future—as much as one hour out of every eight—and yet we do a poor job of acting to achieve the future we desire. For starters, we're overly optimistic about what's to come. Rutgers psychology professor Neil Weinstein found that college students expected to stay healthier, have longer marriages, and travel to Europe more often than any studies of population trends would predict. In another study, young women reported that they expected to be assertive and outspoken in upcoming job interview situations. When put to the test, however, they were actually much more reserved than they predicted.
"We expect that when the future shows up, our best self will show up," says Peg Streep, author of Mastering the Art of Quitting. Instead, we get our typical everyday self, struggling with the same traits—fear, laziness, procrastination—that consistently hold us back today.
Not only do we overestimate our ability to achieve change, we underestimate the effort it requires and the toll it will take. When we think about the executive position we plan to land, we don't foresee the unrelenting stress. We imagine cuddling a cooing baby, but don't factor in the sleepless nights. Or we daydream about our documentary being acclaimed at Sundance without considering the toil of producing it. We all dream of victory celebrations. Few of us fantasize about practicing.
To ward off these pitfalls as you launch your own reinvention, seek out people who have already achieved the dream to which you aspire, suggests Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness. These successful achievers can share the reality with you—both good and bad. Sit down with the owners of a few seaside bed-and-breakfasts before you start scouting properties. Talk to a few Masters swimmers about the challenges and rewards before you commit to a training program.
It's difficult to anticipate accurately the effect reinvention will have on our world, in part because among our other future-focusing flaws, we're generally poor at what's known as affective forecasting. "We're really crummy at predicting how we'll feel in the future," Streep says. It is well-documented that we assume achievements and successes will make us happier than they actually will because we adapt to life changes, even major ones, fairly quickly and then tend to revert to our usual happiness baseline. The flip side is that when terrible things happen to us, we tend not to be as devastated as we would expect: We end up landing back near our pre-setback happiness level.
To make the best decisions for your future self, you need to stop imagining that person as a stranger and instead see that it's you. Hal Hershfield, an NYU marketing professor, conducted studies showing that people who could identify more closely with their future selves made decisions that were better for them, like saving more for retirement.
To sway people toward more productive future-focused behavior, Hershfield's team asked subjects to look at virtual images of their future selves. "It's an imagination aid," he says. "We think it gets people to think about their future self and step into his or her shoes."
Caring more about our future selves can also help us counter the tendency to discount future rewards, which makes so many of us embrace immediate gratification instead of long-term payoffs. Picturing your future self as a mom, a world traveler, or a retiree who climbs mountains might be just what you need to opt for the salad and an hour at the gym instead of a burger and fries and five rounds of Candy Crush.
Set Real Goals, Take Real Action
As you're planning your reinvention, be as coldly realistic as possible. "You don't want to be overly optimistic in the deliberative phase, because you might pick the wrong goal," says Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at NYU who has researched identity goals.
You also need to factor in the reality that learning, or process, goals are more realistic and achievable than performance, or outcome, goals. Decide, then, that "I'm going to learn to cook well," rather than "I'm going to become a Michelin-star chef."
At age 36, Robert Ziltzer, of Scottsdale, Arizona, found himself progressively gaining weight and sought a way out. "My waist had gone up four or five inches and I'd sequentially needed to buy new pants," he says. As a weight-loss physician with a family history of heart disease who wanted to be a positive role model for patients, he was eager for reinvention and decided to try to achieve it through something that had long been on his bucket list: running a marathon.
How would the busy doctor, husband, and father of two young children make the time to train? He started by avoiding an assumption that keeps many strivers from ever getting out of the starting blocks. Instead of underestimating the support he'd get from his family and their tolerance for the disruption his efforts at self-improvement might cause, he did something too few of us do: He asked them. "I said to my wife, 'I'm thinking about doing this, but I'm concerned that it will take too much time away from the family,'" Ziltzer says. "She said, 'Don't worry about us, we'll be fine. Go do it.'"
Ziltzer made it just a few hundred yards before getting winded his first time on the road. "I was really discouraged," he says. But he learned to slow his pace and gradually worked up to one mile, then two, then three, and now 20. His biggest problem now, he says, is boredom during his long runs.
"There's an early period of volatility when you're changing your behavior," Markman says. "It takes a lot of mental energy and planning and playing around with your schedule." That's one reason he advises going after just one major goal at a time. "If you're trying to do this on several fronts at once, you're going to end up doing a bad job at all of them," he says.
Set Yourself Up for Success
Your reinvention will likely require creating new positive and constructive habits to take you out of routines you've been following for years. In the process, you'll establish new reflexes and internal reminders of what you're supposed to do in given situations. If it's Tuesday at 6 P.M., you come to know, it's time to leave for art class. So you throw your supplies in the car and go—instead of pondering reasons to stay home.
The creation of new habits is a critical bulwark against inertia. "Some people just say, 'I want to get married, but I'll wait and see what happens.' That's a rather unfocused way to do it," Mayer says. "If you instead say, 'I would like to meet a new person every few weeks,' that's a plan that makes you more likely to find a partner."
When you break down a reinvention plan into actions you can do every day, you'll integrate long-term goals into your present. "If you don't work on them a little bit every few days," Mayer warns, "you're probably going to lose them."
As you integrate reinvention efforts into your daily to-do list, be brutally honest with yourself about how long each critical step will take. Among other things, this will lower the chance that you'll get frustrated and disappointed quickly. In a long-term project, there are some 30-minute tasks, some week-long tasks, and some steps that may require years of dedicated effort. Schedule accordingly.
Intriguingly, some experts say that people with a high need for feeling achievement are actually more likely to neglect their long-term goals. Such people devote so much of themselves to the demands of today that they don't take time to work toward their dreams for tomorrow. Your colleague who is always putting out email fires, for example, is probably not progressing on a new five-year business plan.
You can't manage everything in your environment—sometimes those emails simply must be answered—but you can control some external factors to set yourself up for success. If weight management is your goal, fill your refrigerator with fresh fruit. If you're learning a new language, put the study guide on the table beside your dinner plate each night so you can shift to your homework as soon as you finish eating. Eliminating the need to cross the house and get the material out of a drawer (while passing by the TV, your cellphone, a pile of mail, or the toys your kids have left strewn about) can make a bigger difference than you might imagine.
Joining a community of like-minded individuals can help, too. Ziltzer lined up a training partner for his long weekend runs, and Brooke Randolph took a job with an adoption agency. "Hanging out with others who have the same long-term goal will increase your activation and engagement with it," Markman says. "Also, those other people are great sources of knowledge and wisdom."
In rapid succession, you've purchased a keyboard, hired a teacher, bought sheet music, and learned your first song. But now you realize just how far away your first professional gig lies. This is the time to muster your optimism. "If you are on the way and invested, you need to push yourself into the goal box," Gollwitzer says.
We have only so much energy and willpower to call on each day. If we've already spent it on tough decisions at work, we're not going to have enough oomph to get ourselves to a singles evening at the museum or our night school finance class. This model of willpower, first described by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues, is known as ego depletion. You need to be aware and wary of it.
To stay positive and motivated, seek ways to track your accomplishments as you go. Studies have shown that if you write down a goal, you're more likely to achieve it. Researchers from McGill University and the University of Toronto asked 85 struggling students to complete an intensive written goal-setting program; after four months those students were doing much better in school than a control group.
Robert Ziltzer writes down his times after each long run to gauge his progress. Even if your goals are more nebulous in nature, that doesn't mean you can't self-assess: A diary in which you record each week the steps you've taken, and the distance they've taken you from your first entry, can be surprisingly effective in maintaining your vigor.
Just don't get cocky and slack off. Gollwitzer and his colleagues asked 64 avowedly "green" students to make purchases in an online supermarket. Afterwards, they got a random green score for their selections. They then completed an unrelated hat-making task and were asked to clean up after themselves. Strikingly, 81 percent of those who'd gotten negative feedback on the green shopping scale carefully recycled materials from the hat project into appropriate containers, while just 18 percent who had gotten positive scores bothered to clean conscientiously. "You get a compliment, then you go for coffee," Gollwitzer says. "With long-term goals, you have to watch that you don't get complacent."
And, of course, you have to expect obstacles. "Life has a habit of throwing curveballs," says Mayer. "It's a mistake to believe we have so much control. The best laid plans can go awry, and we need to be prepared for that."
Not every man spends his life pursuing his childhood dream of playing professional baseball. "The world is not stagnant, and you are not stagnant," Kaplan says. The dreams you have today may no longer be your goals two, three, or five years from now. Even if they are, the progress you're making toward them today may not satisfy you in the future.
Take stock of your reinvention progress every year. Some people use their birthday, their summer vacation, or the start of the new year to evaluate whether they're heading in the right direction, or if they need to alter their goal. A recent French study tracking 704 older adults for six years found that those who were flexible enough to adjust their goals had higher levels of life satisfaction.
The day before each annual Phoenix marathon, Ziltzer picks up his bib number and signs up for the next year's race, committing himself to continued training. After he crossed the finish line of his 10th marathon, he upped his goal to attempting an Ironman triathlon and started training for the biking and swimming legs of the competition. He completed his first event last May and quickly signed up for another in November. "I'm going to keep this up," he says.
Others, however, stick with goals even in the face of diminished motivation. "Humans are hardwired to persist," Streep says. We don't like to quit, and we believe that there's shame in gaining a reputation as someone prone to giving up, especially if we're extrinsically motivated. It's an instinct that can help us avoid short-term embarrassment but get in the way of our long-term happiness. "People may persist at goals or stay in situations or relationships that have stopped making them happy," she says.
It's easy to fall prey to the sunk-cost fallacy—that you've already put so much time, money, or effort into a goal that it would be a waste to stop pursuing it now. But the energy and money you've put in are gone forever. At the point of re-evaluation, your concern should be whether untapped resources will also be spent unproductively.
We are also driven, sometimes in the wrong direction, by avoidance—that is, the fear of failure. "If the idea of making a mistake drives you totally bonkers, chances are that you are going to overpersist," Streep says. "Part of the wisdom of moving forward is to know when a goal either has become outdated in terms of your own wants and needs or can't be achieved." Sometimes, goal disengagement—quitting—is necessary and beneficial.
When you can recognize who you want to be and envision a setting in which that future self will be happier than your present self has become, reinvention becomes logical and, ideally, inevitable. "I truly believe you have to close doors to find the right opportunities," says Wokie Nwabueze, 43, of South Orange, New Jersey. After just three years, she left the corporate law career she once thought would fulfill her. "I'm an extrovert, and the lack of human contact was depleting," she says. "Plus, I'd already had a taste of work I loved before law school, when I was a conflict mediator. It was hard to settle for anything less, and I never will again." Today, she is thrilled with her job as an interpersonal communication coach.
When we successfully reinvent ourselves, we feel pride, accomplishment, and a sense of satisfaction. Randolph will never forget the joy she experienced the first time her son Will fell asleep on her lap. She appreciates such little moments of motherhood every day. "Last night he gave me a hug and said, 'I'm sorry you had a sad day at work, Mommy,'" she says with a catch in her voice.
Steve Silberberg, the programmer-turned-Fitpacking-entrepreneur, experiences euphoria on every trip when his group reaches the top of Elizabeth Pass in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks or Emory Peak in Big Bend. It's a feeling he never experienced as a programmer, and it makes all of his reinvention struggles—the lower pay, the cyclical nature of travel bookings, the isolation of self-employment—worthwhile. "I am old enough to be cynical, but I think this is going to continue to grow," he says. "I see good things for the future."
Is Your Reinvention Realistic?
Before you can reshape your future, you need to be brutally honest about your present. How much will you need to change to achieve the reinvention you desire? Do you have it in you? Consider these crucial questions from the experts before you move ahead:
Does your goal match your values?
You may have fallen in love with the idea of building your own house, but are you truly a do-it-yourselfer? If your goal doesn't match your values, you'll have less motivation to work toward it, and will feel less fulfilled even if you achieve it.
Does it conflict with other priorities in your life?
Committing yourself to reaching the corner office may bring prestige, but it could also take time away from relationships and hobbies. Consider the sacrifices you'll have to make, and know what you're willing to set aside before starting out.
Will you be able to pursue it long-term, and for the right reasons?
When you know who you are, you can recognize what you need to overcome to keep your personality from blocking your dreams. For example, if you can't stand failure, you might persist even when you should stop. If you have an approach mentality, you're more open to the vagaries of risk.
Can you gain satisfaction from each step?
If the actions you take get you into a state of flow, or the focused absorption in a task otherwise known as being "in the zone," you'll derive satisfaction from your efforts even if you never fully attain your objective.
Are you sure you want it?
Force yourself to envision your future, keeping in mind our tendency to revert to a baseline level of happiness even after success: Will the suburban mansion really be better than your city rental once you factor in the daily commute, the weekly lawn-mowing, and the monthly mortgage? Talk it out with those who know you best and can imagine your future self nearly as well as you can.
Is achieving it within your control?
If you can take specific, practical actions to reach your goal, you're in good shape. If it will require winning a contest, or overcoming challenges like health or geography, think twice.