On Making Decisions Despite the Instability of Our Future Selves

Every so often a certain theme or idea can continue to pop up seemingly everywhere in life. It’s as if by thinking about something once we are primed to find it everywhere, and without looking or trying we will be bombarded with many riffs on the same theme for the next month or so. This has happened to me a great deal recently, especially with the idea that there is a logical flaw in how we construct our lives from our present state, allowing ourselves very little room for personal growth and change.

A while ago I wrote about how we are incentivised in daily life “to connect our dots looking forward, to extrapolate our pasts into our futures as if we were unchanging.” I was reflecting there on the fallacies inherent in career thinking, where we are encouraged to plan our entire lives from where we are now. But learning and growing as individuals is precisely the point of our education—were we to come out of university the same person as we began, it seems difficult to see how one was in fact educated. I was questioning why we think about our life’s trajectory as linear, instead of the likely reality that, as Steve Jobs said, you can only connect the dots of your life looking backwards—and there may, in the end, be no pattern at all.

I also quoted elsewhere a Wall Street Journal article on how experiences studying abroad can change and shape us. There, the authors stated that

“Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become.”

This was a tangential point to the main one being made in the article, and yet today it is really all I can remember from it. It might be, to some, a truism; and yet for others it might be a statement of fact so blindingly obvious that it had never even been considered.

Today I came across yet another riff on this idea, a different way of putting it that draws out different components. Psychologist Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness is essentially a whole book related in one way or another to this idea, yet Maria Popova of Brainpickings had captured (as she always manages to do) the central few paragraphs. I want to quote two of these paragraphs in full, as I think they leave a lot to think about, especially for those of us currently being encouraged from all angles to make precisely the mistake that is being warned against.

“The things we do when we expect our lives to continue are naturally and properly different than the things we might do if we expected them to end abruptly… We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy. Rather than indulging in whatever strikes our momentary fancy, we take responsibility for the welfare of our future selves, squirreling away portions of our paychecks each month so they can enjoy their retirements on a putting green, jogging and flossing with some regularity so they can avoid coronaries and gum grafts, enduring dirty diapers and mind-numbing repetitions of The Cat in the Hat so that someday they will have fat-cheeked grandchildren to bounce on their laps. Even plunking down a dollar at the convenience store is an act of charity intended to ensure that the person we are about to become will enjoy the Twinkie we are paying for now. In fact, just about any time we want something — a promotion, a marriage, an automobile, a cheeseburger — we are expecting that if we get it, then the person who has our fingerprints a second, minute, day, or decade from now will enjoy the world they inherit from us, honoring our sacrifices as they reap the harvest of our shrewd investment decisions and dietary forbearance.”

“But our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan. Even that person who takes a bite of the Twinkie we purchased a few minutes earlier may make a sour face and accuse us of having bought the wrong snack.”

These ideas are, at their core, talking about the problems with making commitments while young, when one’s self is still unstable. The obvious solution to the need to make decisions now for an unknown future is to delay making commitments to career or work until that self is more stable. But is it ever? And if it is, is that a good thing? Delaying commitments comes with downsides, too. In a class I took last semester with David Brooks we explored the advantages of making commitments while young—where everything can seemingly fall into place, and days are lived with a far greater sense of purpose. David explores these issues of making commitments in his latest book, The Road to Character, pushing strongly the idea that commitments should and must be made early. I wonder how to align this view of life with those views I’ve quoted above, where seeking meaning or making unalterable decisions when you are not yet your “self” seems imprudent.

My final paper for the class ended up being a meditation on Kazuo Ishiguro’s book The Remains of the Day, which raises all sorts of questions (again, another place the theme popped up) about whether and when we should make binding commitments to work or other areas of life in order to avoid wasting our days. My conclusion was, perhaps predictably, to say we need some sort of balance (in the words of a friend, “enlightened fence-sitting”). And that balance, I concluded, should lie in devoting ourselves to a number of things we love, and never solely one’s career.

That at least is the conclusion that my present self decided would be the one most satisfactory to my future self. I could be wrong (apologies, future Michael, if that it the case). But here’s the very point. Some decision must be made, even if that decision is inaction. And, ultimately, what this discussion is good for is in knowing what is actually at stake in these often quotidian-seeming decisions.

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