An essay may be able to predict your future. In July of 2005, renowned New York designer Debbie Millman attended a summer intensive taught by Milton Glaser. The veteran graphic designer instructed the class to write an essay capturing the life they would have if they pursued everything they wanted, with the certainty that they would succeeed in each of their endeavours. Dream big, he said, don’t edit, and be careful what you wish for – there is a magical quality to this essay he had observed again and again in his students.
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Millman breathes corporeality into such magic. In a recent interview, she explained the effects of the essay on her own life and career. “I created this essay with these long-ranging, far-fetched goals. I can tell you now, 12 years later, almost all have come true. It is spooky, spooky.” But what we may first attribute to supernatural forces may rather be a fundamental human ability to envision future situations we in turn apply to our present to inform decisions. Professor Thomas Suddendorf coined the term ‘mental time travel’ to account for this ability to envisage alternative futures that in turn enable us to pursue one path over another. “Mental time travel creates a sense of free will, so we can to some extent become the masters of our destiny. This is not to appeal to anything magical, but rather the choice to pursue one path over another, deliberately acquire the skills necessary, and practise the skills to help us to reach a goal or a potential future.” Rather than simply imagining a future situation, what contributes to the success of reaching it is this ability to identify the skills or steps required to get there.
“Evidence suggests if you wanted to become better at something, then you should imagine the steps that get you there. For example, if you want to play the piano, you are better off practising a scale in your mind rather than a standing ovation at a concert hall,” says Suddendorf. In this way, we can practise the steps that will take us towards our future goal or the life we want merely in our minds, as our brain cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined, explained positivity psychologist and neuroscience researcher and trainer Sue Langley. But unlike what the dubious The Secret may proclaim about simply visualising what you want, the brain requires such visualisations to be within reason in order to activate motivation. “Recent research has found that the likelihood of manifesting a visualisation is dependent on which part of the brain lights up. A neural network is activated when we visualise, but if it is something that is too far away from reality, then it won’t trigger the cerebellum, which is required for motivation,” says Langley. “A visualisation needs to be something that is going to stretch us, and that is why visualisation is so powerful, but it needs to be something our brain can believe is possible in order to trigger that motivation network, which then drives us towards action.”
In other words, it’s the actions towards steps that make our plans or visualisations for the future a reality. Writing may also increase the chances of our plans becoming our reality as it signals to our brain that something is important to us. “The reticular formation is responsible for scanning our environment for threats, rewards or important information, so if you write down a new goal or visualise something you really want to achieve, it’s almost as if you are declaring to your brain there is something new to pay attention to. This primes your brain to scan your environment to find things linked to your goal.” This priming of the brain is similar to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon – the experience of discovering an obscure piece of information such as a word for the first time, and then encountering that same word repeatedly. Once our brain becomes familiar with a goal or vision for the future, be it through writing an ambitious and detailed essay to mental time travel and planning the steps, our brain becomes more attuned to information or patterns that are relevant. Millman has since modified the essay exercise and teaches it to her undergraduate and graduate students at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She has observed that the more detail and care taken in the essays – from what their careers look like to the minutiae of their daily lives in 10 years’ time – the more success stems from the exercise, perhaps because it has given our brains more rewards to scan in our environment.
BUT HOW DO WE KNOW IF WE ARE MAKING THE RIGHT PLAN?
An ability to envision the future doesn’t necessarily guarantee it is the best possible future; rather, it simply helps us to illuminate a path and the required steps to pursue a particular goal. At best, it’s merely an educated guess as to whether it will be the ‘right’ future, or the one in which we will be the most successful, or most lucrative, or most contented. “If something is what you desire or envision for the future, you can more easily identify the steps that will take you in that direction and pay more attention to pursuing those rather than alternatives that could be equally as fruitful, but would lead you in a different direction,” says Suddendorf. Irrespective of whether we choose the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ path, the tendency for humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes – also known as hedonic adaption – will most likely assure us that whichever path we take, we will consider it the correct one. “Whether a situation is in a positive or negative direction, we tend to exaggerate the impact it will have on us. For example, when you ask people how they will feel when they finish their Ph.D., they think they will feel fantastic, but when you ask them again when this event occurs, they just feel good but not quite as good as anticipated,” says Suddendorf. “And the reverse occurs for negative experiences.” This bias is fundamental to our evolution, he explains. “We are most inclined to pursue our immediate needs and desires first – eating, sleeping, having sex. Anything that is future-directed has to compete with this impulse, so exaggerating how important it is or how great we will feel by achieving a remote goal helps to motivate us towards pursuing it.” This ability to visualise the future may also be linked to improved selfdiscipline and control. The more we can identify with our future self and visualise the fruits of our goals, the better we become at resisting the temptations of the present, such as procrastinating on Instagram. Perhaps by writing an essay of what our lives will look like in five years, we are able to experience some satisfaction of the future’s rewards in the here and now.
WHEN PLANS TAKE A TURN FOR THE WORSE
A potential downside to mental time travel or being fixated on our future vision is falling through the gap between who we are in the present moment, and who we wish to become. “There are many potential problems with this gap,” says Suddendorf. “For starters, we might anticipate that certain things would happen in a certain way, but often they don’t turn out exactly as we imagined.” Luckily, there are several antidotes to either the disappointment that may arise when things don’t go exactly to plan, or the future isn’t as bright as we expected. We may also be able to tame the impatience we might experience when wrestling between our current reality, and our future reality. The first, suggests Suddendorf, is to refine our visualisations by asking someone who has pursued a path – be it a holiday destination or a career – for insight about the reality. “That is what we do that is distinctly human – we have a vision, and we refine it by communicating. We ask questions and allow others to shape our ideas about the future and therefore gives us better opportunity to pursue a path that is desirable to us,” he says. The second antidote to disappointment can be borrowed from positive psychology, explains Langley. “Whatever goal we are setting for ourselves, it’s important we use the tools of positive psychology to really make sure we enjoy the journey,” she says. “Things like savouring each step along the way and being grateful for where you are at so far.”
Such a focus on the process and our current reality can also better prepare us for obstacles and challenges. “One thing that’s important when it comes to achieving goals is to embed positive emotions along the way, and that helps to create an upward spiral to achieve the goal,” adds Langley. Planning not to plan While mental time travel can help inform our plans and inform our choices between alternatives, we can also spend a lot of time worrying about future problems that may never eventuate. “Many people suffer serious problems from our ability to think about the future,” says Suddendorf. “The fear response is inherent to all animals in detecting danger in our environment, but humans can do more than that: we can imagine future threats before they are at our doorstep. We are often plagued by our anxiety about what might happen, or may never happen, or what we can’t do anything about.” Be it a fear or distraction, such a preoccupation with the future can make it difficult to indulge in the pleasures of the present moment. While popular disciplines such as mindfulness and meditation help us to refocus our attention to the here and now, there may also be a case for resisting the urge to plan our futures from time to time. “We can control our lives quite a lot, but just because we can doesn’t mean you should. You may very well choose deliberately not to plan and keep your options open to have experiences that can be beneficial later on,” says Suddendorf. Not planning can become our plan, and allow us to embrace uncertainty and see what unfolds for us. As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” Whether you choose to plan or plan not to plan, the art may be in paying attention to the life around you in the present and the possibilities that lie before you rather than fixating on whether a plan will succeed or fail. Chances are, your future self has got it covered anyway.