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Future me- who is that guy and why should I care about him?


Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today


"The wise man must remember that while he is a descendant of the past, he is a parent of the future." Herbert Spencer


When I look back at my past, I can see several versions of me that are radically different from the me that exists today. Almost every cell of my body has been replaced by new ones, old ideas have been replaced by bigger and better ones, and in general I'm a wiser and smarter person than I was. So was that Dan Connors of the past really me? Will the Dan Connors of 20 years from now still be me? And when I finally die and move on, what parts of my spirit will follow me into whatever comes next? These are some fascinating questions that are brought up by author Hal Hershfield in his new book, Your Future Self- How to Make Tomorrow Better Today.


Hal Hershfield is a Professor of Marketing, Behavioral Decision Making, and Psychology at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, and this is his first book. His book tackles the important question of what determines consciousness as we grow and change, and why we have a hard time dealing with the future that we are constantly setting in motion for ourselves.


Humans have a unique ability to reflect on their life experiences and develop a distinct identity around them. We use that identity to build models of the world and plan future behavior. But for some reason we fall victim to a crippling fallacy that blinds us. There's something called the end of history illusion, in which we look backwards and recognize how far we've come, but then everything stops there. As we look into the future, we assume that not much will change and our history is pretty much complete. The unpleasant truth is that the future is uncertain, and we all crave certainty and security. So we ignore all of the things that could or would change, preferring to cling onto the things we know right now, even if we secretly think they could be a lot better.


When we look into the future, there's that person known as "future me", that we almost treat as a total stranger. And we generally don't treat strangers all that well. Why should we make painful sacrifices in the present for a person who is basically a stranger to us? This is at the heart of a lot of bad behavior and future misery for people who choose the easy path now over the more difficult path our future self needs. Why should we save money for retirement when we can spend it now? A lot of nihilistic behavior today excuses this behavior, as a significant portion of society now believes there is no future for them- either society will collapse, or God will rapture them up into the sky. In either case our future selves are being neglected at the hand of instant gratification.


Hershfield points to a wealth of behavioral economic experiments that show how people discount future rewards for current ones. Which is better $100 now or $1000 in ten years? A lot of people would grab the hundred bucks, which is part of the problem. It spills into all sorts of societal problems like crime, healthcare, education, or the environment, where simple, easy solutions are seen as better, while the harder long-term solutions are put off for a later time. He sees three major flaws in our thinking that keep us from helping out our future selves (and those of our children).


1- The time traveling error, where too much focus is put on the current self. We focus most of our attention (a scarce commodity in the age of 24/7 content and interruptions) on our current to-do list and precious little on five- or ten- year plans.

2- Poor trip planning. We somehow assume that things will be easier and better in the future, over-planning and not taking into account inevitable problems. Some people over-commit, thinking that they will have more time in the future, and many procrastinate, hoping that certain problems will just magically disappear or get fixed easily.

3- Packing the wrong clothes. We assume that conditions in the future will be roughly the same as they are now. Going on a long trip, we might pack clothes that are too hot or too cold for the climate we are headed to. We tend to avoid strong emotions, and fail to account for emotional traumas that our future selves might encounter. We see the future always through the blinders of what we feel in the present.

4- I would just add that we are really bad at predicting the future. All of the cognitive biases and information bubbles that limit us add up to unpleasant surprises for our future selves. Consider the Covid epidemic, which was entirely predictable and poorly handled.


Hirschfield ends the book with some suggestions on how to overcome these mental blocks and biases to make the future clearer so that we can treat our future selves better. There is now some age progression software that can show each of us what we will look like 20, 30, or 40 years into the future. Seeing yourself as an older person suddenly makes it more real. Artificial intelligence will make it possible to carry on a conversation with ourselves in the future and learn from them. That person in 20 years will be a direct reflection of many of the decisions and actions that we take now. The future me projects have already had success in spurring people to contribute more to retirement accounts.


He also points to a website, Futureme.org, where people can write a letter to their future selves. They can write about goals, struggles, hopes or dreams, and then read them again at an appointed time in the future. Writing about one's self and future goals forces the brain to come out of its present-focused fog and truly contemplate how the future could evolve. There are also video apps like seeyafuture.me, that allows people to record messages for their future selves. Anything that can connect present me with future me can result in better decisions and more focus on goals.


The final tool that Hirshfield mentions is commitment devices, which are strong incentives to stay the course in a journey into the future. Commitment devices include things like bets, accountability partners, or even chemicals that make deviations more painful and successes more rewarding. There's a drug called antabuse that people can take right before drinking that makes alcohol lose its power over the body. And there's a popular website, stikk.com, that allows people to use the power of loss aversion to keep them on target for future goals. (You bet $100 that you will lose 10 pounds in a summer or they donate it to a political cause that you disagree with if you fail.)


Nowhere is the problem of present bias more dangerous than in the field of climate change. Getting rid of fossil fuels will be hard, and finding alternatives will be expensive, but the alternative is to continue to heat the atmosphere beyond the limits of human endurance by the end of the century (Also about the time most oil and gas reserves will be used up). There's been much progress on addressing climate change, but much more needs to be done, and a strong denial instinct keeps humanity from changing fast enough to prevent unprecedented warming. Books like this are helpful in seeing why humans are so present-focused, (evolved for survival in a dangerous world,) and why they are one of the only creatures on earth capable of looking into the future. (increasing complexity has made many of our most potent dangers and opportunities long-term projects)


If you want a little laugh, here's a video on the topic from the lads at Saturday Night Live.









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