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.