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The science-backed ‘Future Self’ strategy can pave the way to greater success

Benjamin Hardy, PhD, explains why identity is far more important than personality, how it is actually the driver of personality, and how to frame your own future self, so you can stop living your life based on who you’ve been.

The science-backed ‘Future Self’ strategy can pave the way to greater success
Actor Matthew McConaughey accepts the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role award for ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014 in Hollywood, California. [Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images]

When Matthew McConaughey won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2014, he gave a riveting speech about how he succeeds in life. A big part of his “success” formula has to do with the person he explains as his “hero,” who happens to be himself 10 years into the future.

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Now before you brush this off, this article is going to provide you with lots of the latest research in psychology on the subject of personality development and identity. You’ll learn why identity is far more important than personality, and how it is actually the driver of personality. You’ll also learn how to frame your own future self, so you can stop living your life based on who you’ve been.

But first, here’s exactly what McConaughey said during his speech:

When I was 15 years old, I had a very important person in my life come to me and say, “Who’s your hero?” And I said . . . “You know who it is? It’s me in 10 years.” So I turned 25. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, “So, are you a hero?” And I was like, “Not even close! No, no, no.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because my hero’s me at thirty-five.” So you see, every day, every week, every month, and every year of my life, my hero’s always 10 years away. I’m never gonna be my hero. I’m not gonna attain that. I know I’m not, and that’s just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.

The psychology of your future self

In his TED Talk entitled “The Psychology of Your Future Self,” Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist explains a fascinating finding from his research. Firstly, Gilbert explains that when asked if they believe they are the same person they were 10 years ago, most people say no. It’s quite easy to see changes from our former to our current selves. As Gilbert explains, people often remove tattoos their former selves thought were a good idea, divorce partners their former selves married, and painstakingly lose weight their former selves carelessly put on.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. Despite being able to discern changes in themselves from the past, people consistently underestimate changes that will happen in the future. Gilbert calls this the “end of history illusion” by saying, “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished.”

The truth is, even though it’s easy to think that who you are right now is who you’ll always be, it’s just not true. Research by Gilbert and others shows that your personality is going to change dramatically over time, whether you do anything about it or not.

Aside from the end-of-history illusion, there are a few other reasons people mistakenly assume that who they are today is who they’ll always be. One is what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” In her research, Dweck has found that those with a fixed mindset are defined by where they are right now. She calls it being trapped “in the tyranny of now.” If you fail a test, that means you’re “dumb” and will never get beyond that failure. Who you are now is the ultimate measuring stick of who you’ll always be.

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Conversely, those with a “growth mindset,” according to Dweck, get to “luxuriate in the power of yet.” In other words, they are not defined nor overly concerned about who they are right now, but instead, see themselves in a state of becoming. If they fail, oh well—that means they are learning and there’s much more to do.

A primary reason a fixed mindset is formed in people is by unresolved painful experiences—big or small—that could be described as “trauma.” Failing a math test, as an example, could be “traumatic” if it becomes identity-informing. Any negative experience, if it leads to an identity statement such as, “I’m not good at this,” means you’ve chosen to be defined by a particular experience. Who you are right now is the be-all-end-all. The only way out of trauma is proactively choosing a more beneficial meaning to painful former experiences—such as “This happened for me,” or “That’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” or “I can learn from this so my future can be better.”

Identity is very important. In fact, it’s much more important than personality when it comes to life outcomes. Your identity is the story you tell about yourself. It’s how you see and define yourself. Identity shapes behavior, and behavior, over time, reflects personality.

Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA, has studied the impact of having a “future self” concept on present decision-making. What he’s found is that it’s good to see your future self as a different person than who you are today. When you see your future self as a different person, with different perspectives and preferences, then you can make present decisions based on what your future self would want. These decisions may go counter to what you actually would prefer in a given moment. For example, your current self may want to eat a bag of doughnuts, but if you consider what your future self would prefer, you may come up with a different decision.

Other research shows that without having a clear future self in mind, it is difficult if not impossible to engage in “deliberate practice,” which is purposeful learning and growth. In other words, if you don’t have a target, then your “process” will not be targeted. The goal always shapes the process. Without a clear goal, your learning won’t be focused nor “deliberate” to produce specific outcomes. But you need more than a “goal”—you need a future identity.

Defining and becoming your future self

Identity is crucial for driving present behavior. A core tenet in psychology is that the best way to predict a person’s future behavior is by looking at their past behavior. However, when you’ve clarified your future self, and are actively chasing it as McConaughey did, then your future—not your past—can be what is predicting your behavior.

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Here’s the checklist for how it works:

See your future self as a different person from who you are today.

  • Imagine who your future self is.
  • Hold your current identity more “loosely,” knowing that who you are right now is temporary, not permanent.
  • Have the courage to admit what you truly want (tell people about your future self).
  • Use your new narrative, focused on your goals, to drive your daily decisions and behavior.
  • Measure your progress (deliberate practice).
  • Invest in your future self (escalation of commitment)
  • Never be defined by who you are right now.

Who is your future self?

Where will you be in 10 years?

Who are you “chasing”?


This article is an excerpt from Benjamin Hardy, PhD’s book, Personality Isn’t Permanent, published with Penguin Random House, and is reprinted with permission.

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