Consider the Future Self As You Ponder Retirement

Two coffees sit next to a frame that reads inhale the future, exhale the past.

Human beings have a fascinating relationship with the future. We often try to imagine what our future selves will look like, what we will be doing, and how we will feel. However, research shows that our ability to accurately predict our future is somewhat limited, as we tend to underestimate how much we will change in the years to come.

This is known as the “end of history” illusion, a concept that social psychologist Dan Gilbert explores in his well-known TED talk.

The “End of History” Illusion & Our Future Self

Our inability to predict the future inhibits our ability to imagine our possible selves and therefore make decisions that truly align with our future aspirations.

“Possible Selves” Theory

“Possible selves” theory proposes that individuals have multiple, potential selves that they aspire to become or fear becoming in the future. These possible selves represent the various ways in which individuals can envision their future selves, based on their goals, aspirations, and fears. The act of imagining one’s possible selves is an ongoing process that involves creating mental images of oneself in future situations. By using our imagination to explore different possible selves, we can gain a deeper understanding of our goals, values, and aspirations.

However, the end of history illusion can limit our ability to accurately imagine our possible selves. If we believe that we have reached a “final” or “completed” state of personal development, we may be less likely to consider how our values and preferences might change in the future. This can lead us to make decisions that are based on our current preferences and goals, without considering how these might evolve over time.

The Dilemma of Career Professionals Approaching Retirement

This psychological tension between the end of history illusion and our future selves is frequently felt when an intense career professional struggles to imagine a satisfying life after retiring from a career. Sometimes, one can only imagine the fulfillment and enjoyment that came from facing intense intellectual challenges and competing in the arena of pressure and excellence. However, in our experience, most intense professionals want to live very different lives at age 65 than they lived at age 45. The problem is the difficulty imagining how their values, interests and aspirations will continue to shift over time. This confusion often results in chasing opportunities that feel familiar instead of creating circumstances that truly match the lives they now want to live.

As you think about retiring, consider who you want to be before you determine what you want to do—your future self will thank you.

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