We often think about long-term thinking as something that goes beyond the individual — projects that span generations, or intellectual movements and cultures that have lasted through centuries and millennia. But long-term thinking can also be something that you practice in your daily life — the choices we make about everything from our careers to the communities we make our own. Yet making those decisions is sometimes easier said than done.
To explore the reality of long-term thinking in the world of personal decision making, we spoke with Hal Hershfield, Professor of Marketing, Behavioral Decision Making, and Psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and author of Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today, a new book that explores how we can balance living for today and planning for tomorrow by making deeper connections with our future selves. In our wide-ranging conversation, Hal discussed everything from the psychology of chance encounters to what he sees as the greatest success of long-term thinking in contemporary society.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Long Now: I was very much struck by a passage in the book where you talk about how we as humans overweight the present by seeing it as if “it's a expansive time that's divorced from the rest of our timelines, which it is simply not.” Here at The Long Now Foundation, we often talk about the long now as a tool for thinking about time where we expand what we think of as the present into the traditional domains of the past and the future. Do you see that as a useful way out of the patterns that you're identifying?
Hal Hershfield: So I do agree — to some extent. When I talk about us overweighting the present so much that we divorce it from the rest of time, what I mean is that sometimes, we fail to see how the individual presents add up to a cumulative future. I think you [at Long Now] are taking our traditional sense of the present and making it more expansive, making it more of an umbrella that includes the recent and even more distant past plus the more proximal and more distant future. The advantage there is that I think it can help convey the idea that various futures are part of who we are right now.
The one caveat is that we sometimes do more harm to ourselves than to others. Think about smoking. If I say “don't smoke, it's bad for your health,” you can respond, “I know, but I'm still gonna do it.” If I instead say, “Don't smoke. It's bad for your kids or your loved ones,” you might instead think, “Well, I don't want to ruin someone else's health.” So there are times when it makes sense to make some separations between generations, because my negative behaviors could be affecting other groups and other generations. So if they're separated out in that regard, then it can be motivational to get us to change whatever we're doing that could harm them. But if we include all generations and all groups into one big present, I may have an easier time justifying harm.
Similarly, there have been many attempts to form various citizen assemblies that try and make a voice for future generations who can't literally be there. But it always feels tricky — because you try to represent the perspective of people who are as of yet not born or are very young now, but you can't actually represent those perspectives accurately. There's an epistemic humility argument to this where you have to acknowledge that you can't really know what these future people want. Some talk about this dilemma in terms of preserving options for future generations.
I love that because the same applies for our own future selves. I truly can't know what I'm gonna be like when I'm 65. I can take some guesses — in the same way that I can take some guesses as to what humanity will be like in 2, 3, 7 generations. I really love the idea of preserving options. In a way it's very western, the idea of prioritizing freedom of choice applied intergenerationally.
Yeah. It's kind of funny writing a book for people to help them to understand their lives and the problems that they’re grappling with — a book about ways of time management and planning for the future — where reading a book is for many people a time commitment in itself. Are there one or two key insights in particular from your book that you would want someone who is currently feeling disconnected from the future self to grasp?
Buy the book! It makes a great coffee table piece. I’m kidding, of course. The one big takeaway is that our future selves can be thought of as other people. What matters is the type of relationship that we foster with them and that, when we make choices now, they will impact this other person, this other version of ourselves. So I would say the thrust of the book is figuring out how to create some harmony between the needs and wants of our current selves and the needs and wants of our future selves. But it's not all about sacrificing today for tomorrow. Instead, it’s about figuring out the harmony so that I can live my life now and enjoy the present, but do so in an intentional way so that my future self also has freedom of choice and can live the life that they want to live as well.
Something that was very impactful on that note in the book was in the last few sections, where you talk about, for example, people who use a decent portion of their savings to go on a particular vacation. You note that to do so is not a failure of this model of thinking of your future self but that it's actually, supporting the model – in a different way than what you might first expect, which is a really helpful introduction.
Much of your book focuses on matters that are to a large degree within our control in our individual lives. For example: what choices, decisions, or plans can we make in our day-to-day? So, how does the model of thinking about our future selves account for and grapple with developments that are chance-based or out of our control, as many things are?
I think it's a fascinating question that you're asking. Albert Bandura — a cognitive psychologist — wrote a paper from about 40 years ago called “Chance Encounters and Fortuitous Life Paths.” One of the things that he talks about is the idea that we can't fully anticipate how different chance encounters can impact the paths that we take. We only have so much control over our lives, right? Yet we can strive for agency so that we are making decisions to put ourselves into situations where we may come across positive chance encounters that can positively impact the directions that we go in.
To make that a little more succinct: we can only plan so much. We don't know the different directions our lives will take because we don't know the different fortuitous encounters that will occur, but what we can do is be prepared for them and treat our future selves with a degree of fluidity and flexibility. Take the Western notion of “I'm going to get married by a certain point and have kids and this and that.” That strikes me as like a life that's destined to be met with some disappointment because of how hard it is to meet those marks. But if we're open and have a focus on values that we want to have present in our lives from now to later, then I think it will create more receptivity to chance encounters.
On that point: I think many people perceive those stages of life and relationships as a kind of escalator. You get on and you move through phases of life very programmatically. That doesn't actually end up being true for most people, which is where a lot of stress comes out. The point you've made in the book about over-planning and feeling overdetermined in life feels very real to many.
Escalator feels like the right metaphor. It's funny — with my kids, we're in the midst of reading Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the Roald Dahl book. There, the elevator goes all different directions and that feels more like a realistic model of life.
Near the end of the book, you discussed planning for death. You discuss what you call a “mature view of time” where people recognize and “can plan for a given future, but also feel differently about those plans as time progresses.” In a certain sense, this view is oppositional or questioning the traditional ideas of long-term planning, of setting the foundations for something that will keep going in the future with clear plans. You make clear that it's not truly one or the other and that both perspectives are valuable. How do you feel we can best incorporate these different approaches?
I, of course, don't view it as being antithetical to traditional long-term planning. However, I could see how that could be perceived that way. There's a benefit to locking in plans and especially making long-term contracts. To some extent, this is how we preserve institutions. So, if we said, “Well, this is a heritage site, but we'll revisit it in three years,” it really wouldn't be a heritage site, right? There's something a little bit different there because we're talking now more intergenerationally versus on an individual level.
The thrust of that perspective was that we may find ourselves in a detrimental position if we adhere too rigidly to plans, or adhere too rigidly to our expectations that things will work out a certain way and so we may do better to pay attention to what I call the Big Why: What is the thing that's driving you? From there, maintain some flexibility around the ways that you execute those plans over time. Applying that to the intergenerational context — I think this is a little bit trickier. I agree that to some extent, intergenerationally, we want to apply more rigidity. One way to do this is to open up the flexibility around some peripheral aspects of the way a plan is carried out. If we allow flexibility at the core of a plan through an intergenerational perspective, then that may be problematic because now we all of a sudden may find ourselves shifting gears solely as a function of fads or whatever current zeitgeist might be. So that does represent a contrast between intra-individual planning and inter-individual planning.
It's tricky! In all these cases there is definitely room for both rigidity and fluidity, changing over time. One project that does do this intergenerationally over a very long time scale is the Jewish oral law. There’s a core that's the scriptures [of the Torah]. Then there's generation after generation of people — different rabbis and scholars — debating over it while still working from the same core.
That's a really good example. Thank you for raising that.
Near the end of the book, you quote Alexander Rose, our now former executive director, who says “many of our present problems are because of a lack of long-term thinking in the past.” You talk about a number of those problems. From climate to our built environment people are aware of the ways in which short-term thinking in the past has failed us. So I want to flip the question around and ask: While you were writing and researching this book, did you come across particular cases of the benefits that we have reaped from prior generations thinking of their future selves? Are there success stories in this variety of long-term thinking that we can see in our society today?
That's a really great question; it's positive and optimistic. Probably the first thing that comes to mind is the concept of a retirement system and social security system. It’s still a great example of thinking ahead. When that was created, of course, average life expectancy was considerably lower than it is now. So there was less of a burden on the part of the state to support people after they retired, but even so it represented really forward thinking because, by putting that system into place, it did create a safety net for people after they retire. To me, that’s an example of a future thinking starting a long time back that is quite positive.
That also feels like a great case study in that it's people thinking of their individual retirements when they pay into it, but actually each of those are going to pay for other people's retirements collectively on a generational scale. It's subtly working in this idea of supporting your own future selves and collective futures as well, which is very exciting.
It's true. I wonder how many people think about the collective aspect of it — because once you get into the weeds of social security you quickly realize that you’re paying in right now for other people — I don't know how well that's framed and understood on a general level. But, you're absolutely right. It's a great example of that.
And we've made it so normal and such a core, untouchable part of our social fabric, which is not something you could have predicted a generation prior to when the program was implemented.
That's so true. That's probably my best example.
Thanks so much for talking with us.
Your Future Self is out now from Little Brown Spark.
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