“The most successful lives are those that have the most worthwhile experiences.” — Sterling Sill
According to the theory of Narrative Identity, our identity is based on the stories we tell about ourselves. When asked to explain themselves, most people go straight to the past. Or even worse, they speak in definitive terms.
There’s nothing wrong with recounting former experiences. Actually, taking the time to reflect on the most important experiences of your life is a powerful experience. It is something worth doing regularly. However, you don’t need to be defined by your former experiences, as most people tend to be.
Instead, you can choose to be “defined” by your desired future experiences.
The question is: Do you know what future experiences you want to create? And are you actively creating those experiences in your life?
“The best way to predict your future is to create it.”—Abraham Lincoln
Precognition or “prospection” is the act of predicting your own future. This isn’t simply about predicting future events, though, it also involves predicting your emotional state in the future due to present or future choices.
This may sound crazy, but the truth is, you do it all the time. Anticipation is a fundamental aspect of living. You know — or at least predict — for example, how you’re going to feel around certain people. You know how you’ll feel when you engage in certain behaviors. You know you’ll feel bloated and lethargic if you eat an entire pizza.
When my wife, Lauren, and I decided to become foster parents, we anticipated and predicted and prepared a great deal. Of course, we couldn’t predict everything that could happen. There were a ton of surprises along the way. But we did know, going into the experience, that it was going to change us, and likely change our entire lives.
Research in psychology shows that as people age, they become less “open” to new experiences. Being “open” and seeking new experiences can increase your intelligence and the quality of your aging. Adding on to that, other research shows that by engaging in challenging, new, and stimulating activities, you can protect against cognitive decline that comes with aging.
Research has also shown that when you go through some form of training or preparation for a new experience, you feel a greater sense of control over that experience. This usually leads to greater outcomes, which in turn, increases your confidence. But not only that, successful new experiences further increase your openness to new experiences, which leads to “personality plasticity” — which means your personality continues to develop and modify rather than plateau and solidify.
Put simply, it’s really good to have new experiences. It’s also really good to continually be surprised by what you could not fully or accurately predict. Being surprised is essential to staying young, and at the same time, can dramatically increase your wisdom and intelligence.
Make A List Of All Desired Future Experiences
This doesn’t need to take more than 10–20 minutes. But grab a piece of paper and think of all the experiences you want to have in the future. Write them down as a list of bullet points. You should also write why you want to have that particular experience, and what change you think it will create for your life.
These could be spiritual experiences. They could be social or personal.
This is similar to creating a bucket list, but it’s also different. Bucket lists are great because they focus your attention on the future. They are about activities, experiences, or accomplishments you want to have before you die.
The challenge with “bucket lists” is they are rarely powerful enough to build your identity around. In other words, this list of future experiences you create needs to become the new basis of your Identity Narrative — the way you describe and define yourself.
If you want your future to be powerful, exciting, surprising, and highly transformative, you need to not only create a list of future experiences you want to have, you need to see yourself as the type of person who can have those experiences. And you need to make your daily life more and more in line with the experiences you hope to have. Your daily life needs to become a better experience.
The question is: What is the experience you want your daily life to become? And what future experiences are important or exciting enough to drive your focus and action?
What future experiences would you like to be defined by?
Dan Sullivan, the founder of Strategic Coach has a great quote for this:
“The only way you can make your present better is by making your future bigger.”
The goal shapes the process. If you have small goals, you don’t need an intense process. If you have huge ambitions, your process (i.e., “present”) will be more extreme. You’ll have to be more courageous. You’ll have to learn more. Fail more. Feel more. Get more help. Make a bigger change from your former self.
Your present daily experiences become far more exciting, engaging, and stimulating when you have a huge future in mind. Your future shapes the meaning of the present. Your future also shapes what you doin each present moment.
Your “Future Self” Makes Better Decisions Than You Do
Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA, has studied the impact that having a clear “future self” concept has on present decision making. In his own words:
“The analogy of the future self as another person may seem like a strange one, but it is rather powerful when it comes to understanding long-term decision-making.”
It’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to make high-quality decisions in the present without having a clear sense of future. All actions lead to outcomes. If you don’t have a future in mind, then the outcomes from your behaviors aren’t weighted.
Hence, when you have a clear future self in mind, then you can make decisions today based on what THEY (your future self) would want. I used the word “they” because your future self is not you. They are a different person, and as Hershfield stated, they should be viewed as a different person.
This is incredibly practical. For example, I wake up early and head straight to work. I’m usually done by 2–3 PM and head home to play with my kids. Admittedly, some days I’m totally fried after work and just want to veg-out. Recently, my 8 year old son, Logan, wanted me to swim with him when I got home. I wasn’t in the mood.
“I’ll just watch you,” I told him. Disappointed, Logan continued to ask.
Then I thought to myself, “How would my future self like to remember this?” Or better yet, if I was 5 years into the future and watching this episode, what would I want to see myself doing? Sitting on the chair, vegging-out, and staring at my phone while my son is begging me to swim with him?
From that vantage point, it was incredibly easy to jump right into the pool and create memories with Logan. The bigger future made the present better. I was able to go beyond my present preferences and draw upon my future self’s preferences, which are often better aligned.
Psychological flexibility is a concept that means you hold your present emotions and thoughts loosely, as you pursue meaningful goals or live your values. Sometimes, you won’t want to do it, at least for the moment. But your present self doesn’t really matter. Your current preferences are often at odds with a better future.
Embracing new experiences will undoubtedly involve risk and uncertainty. You’ll need to hold your present emotions and thoughts loosely, as you experience the thrill of better and better experiences. You’ll be surprised. You’ll be more active. You’ll be opened up. Your life will get better. Your personality will change in meaningful ways. You’ll become more evolved.
Make A List Of Previous Experiences That Have Shaped You
In addition to making a bulleted list of all the experiences you want to have in your future, it is a powerful experience to reflect on the best experiences you’ve had in your life.
Make that list. Reflect on it. And reach out to anyone involved and thank them. Then, look to the future and create more.