The sun peeks over the mountains and sparkles across the ocean. The northern California air is crisp, filled with salt from the sea and pine from the adjacent woods. I breathe it in, sipping hot coffee as my wife makes breakfast inside. The meal isn’t fancy--just a couple of eggs, toast, and freshly-squeezed juice made with oranges from the market in town. In a few hours, we’ll pack up, hook the trailer to our Chevy Silverado, and trek north to our next destination, which we’ll choose along the way.
This is the story that my wife and I tell ourselves. We will be almost 53 years old when our youngest child graduates from high school. Our dream is that when we become empty nesters, we will travel the country with our Flying Cloud Airstream trailer. No schedule. No agenda. We will drive until we are ready to stop, then stay as long as we’d like. From time to time, we will take a trip to visit our kids, but otherwise, we plan to explore the continent together, side by side.
THE STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES
The stories we tell ourselves matter. They tap into something unspoken, something visceral about who we are and what we want for ourselves and our loved ones. We tell stories in past tense to teach and in future tense to guide. Even the most primitive cultures used stories told in past tense to explain everything from rain to fire, from changing seasons to how mankind came to be. Expecting parents, on the other hand, tell stories about their growing babies using future tense. They’ll be the smartest in their class, go to an Ivy League college, and use their brilliance to change the world.
This inherent need to tell stories is known as untethering. We unstick ourselves from the present and travel back and forth through time to gain both clarity about who we are and direction about where we’re going. This can happen involuntarily when we daydream or when a person with PTSD experiences painful flashbacks. When untethering is voluntary, however, like when my wife and I dream about spending our retirement years in a travel trailer, it can have a powerful effect on our present views. Research shows that when we think of ourselves in the future, a part of our brain lights up that is different than when we think of ourselves in the present. Neurologically speaking, we think of our future selves as other people, people not associated with our present selves.
Try it. Imagine yourself in 50 years. What do you look like? What are your hobbies? How do you dress? What foods do you enjoy? You most likely gave answers that are different than your present self, because that’s what our brains naturally do.
Our brains also look at our future selves with compassion. When you think 50 years down the road, do you picture yourself alone? Chronically ill? In prison? No! We are generous toward our future selves, and we assume the best.
CONNECT THE PRESENT AND FUTURE
Financially speaking, when we think about the future, we focus on numbers, charts, and calculations. The data are important and guide our decision making, but most people are not inspired by spreadsheets and future projections. That’s because your future self is not a series of numbers on a screen; you are flesh and blood, you breathe air, eat food, have hobbies, and love your family.
The question, “How much money do you want to have in retirement?” is only part of the narrative. The stories you tell and the dreams you dream about your future self is the other, more important part. The desire to become someone ignites a motivation that goes beyond numbers and charts because the life you live in the present determines who your future self will be.
In order to wake up on a future crisp morning in northern California as the sun peeks over the mountains and sparkles across the ocean, my wife and I have to take action in the present. If we’re going to travel far from home and move from place to place, we have to stay healthy. My wife is an occupational therapist and works with elderly patients. She has seen firsthand the effect an unhealthy lifestyle can have on people as they age. This has led us to be intentional about taking care of our bodies. I practice yoga, and she swims, not only for the pleasure of it, but so our bodies will age with flexibility and strength. I also meditate regularly because science has shown that daily meditation reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Our commitment to a present-day healthy lifestyle is a gift to our future selves.
We also have to make wise financial decisions today if we want to be able to pack up and leave any time we wish in the future. We have to live within our means. We cannot let debt spiral out of control. We have to save, invest, and manage risks along the way. Small decisions create a wide trajectory as they play out over time. Deciding to pack my lunch instead of eating out can have a direct impact on my future life. While we certainly want to enjoy life, we don’t want to sacrifice our future to satisfy every present craving. Present-day financial discipline, saving, and investment are gifts to our future selves.
WHAT GIFT WILL YOU GIVE TO YOUR FUTURE SELF?
When you picture your future self, what gift would you like to give them right now? Do you want them to be healthy? Happy? Content? In love? Generous? Compassionate? Loyal? Take a small step today toward that end. Eat something healthy. Go for a jog. Give to someone in need. Balance your budget and get back on a good financial track.
Tell good stories and dream big dreams. Your future self is not as far away as you think.