Live now. The future will take care of itself.
Have you ever made a 5-year plan? Or a 10-year plan? Or even daydreamed about all the things you want to do when you retire? Take a moment to think back on all those long-term plans you have made for yourself in the past. How many of those worked out? I bet not a whole of them.
When I was 15, I did a lot of future dreaming. I imagined myself living in New York, working at the United Nations headquarters. Mind you, I had never visited New York at 15 and when I did 6 years later, I was disillusioned by the smelly pandemonium I was greeted with. New York turned out not to be the place I had dreamed it to be. Or perhaps more accurately my dreams at 21 were different from my dreams at 15.
The problem with planning for the distant future, is that a whole lot of life will happen until the future arrives. And during that whole lot of life, plenty of things can happen that shift plans or rearrange dreams. The more pressing problem with fantasising about the future is that you miss the beauty that is right in front of you. So live in the moment and experience all before you. The future will take care of itself.
The science of future planning
We like to plan for the future to alleviate the worries and anxiety that come with the uncertainty of the future. So we plot and scheme and plan until our anxieties are somewhat alleviated. And while we plot and scheme and plan, life is busy throwing spanners in our works. This is because planning for the future has some pretty significant problems, namely:
1. We are not very good at predicting what will make us happy in the future.
Busy cities looked good to me at 15, but by 21 I was already longing for slower, simpler ways of life. Who knows what I might want when I am 40?
2. We are not very good at accurately remembering what made us happy in the past.
I sometimes long for my worry-free days at university, completely omitting that my time at university was filled with constant stress and worry.
This is the phenomenon that social psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes in his book Stumbling on Happiness. Our brain has the amazing capacity to fill in the blanks in missing gaps in our memories – exaggerating either the good or the bad parts of the experience – and presenting us the best-case scenarios in the visions for the future. In the TED Talk below, Daniel Gilbert explains the research behind his phenomenon.
Keeping this in mind, we can begin to understand why planning for or phantasising about the future is not a particularly useful endeavour.
A story about a little seed, Einstein and J.K. Rowling
Once upon a time there was a little seed in the ground. The seed didn’t know what was going to happen in its future. In fact, the seed had no way of knowing what was going to happen. It had never known a flower, so it couldn’t possibly know that it’s future was to become a beautiful flower. All the little seed could do was go on the road ahead. Putting in the work. Pushing the dirt away and a circumventing the little pebbles until it could see the clear sky.
The above is a story about seeds, but also a story about humans. Take the story of Einstein. When he was younger, he worked as a patent clerk. It was a boring, repetitive job and Einstein would have had no idea what would lie in his future. All he could do was diligently work his job and let his mind wander to more exciting thoughts, that would become the seeds of his famous theory of relativity. Similarly, J.K. Rowling was diligently writing Harry Potter in a café as a single mom living on benefits, without having any idea of how famous the story of the little wizard would be one day.
Your power is your present moment
This was noted by Louise Hay, the famous personal development teacher. The only moment you have is now. If your mind keeps wandering to the unknown future, then who is there to mind your current reality. As the Bible mentions:
“Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
So rather than worrying about the future, or planning for the future, or looking forward to the future, we are better of taking life one step at a time, giving each step your complete attention. On a practical note, you are better of planning for the month ahead than setting new years resolutions or drafting 5-year plans. Planning can be useful, setting intentions can be useful and making vision boards can be useful. But once we spent an afternoon dreaming about our future, it is time to let the dreams be what they are, come back to the present moment and work with what is right in front of our eyes.
For a more poetic spin on this topic, check out the video below: