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The End of History Illusion is Holding You Back
Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship | newsletter.scottdclary.com
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The End of History Illusion is Holding You Back
Has anyone ever asked you to compare your present and past selves? Whenever I reflect on the person I used to be, the difference is striking.
It's almost like I'm looking at someone vaguely familiar who I can't relate to anymore. The amount of growth and change I've experienced – in just the past five years, or even the past year – is evident in every aspect of my life.
The way I think, the things I'm interested in, the people I surround myself with – everything has changed so much over time. And this isn't just a personal experience; it's part of a universal process that's happening to all of us.
But if we're so quick to notice this about our past, why do we feel so pessimistic about the future? "I'll never find love again," we think. "I'm doomed to feel sad for life." "How can I ever change my life after so many years of being stuck? This is it for me."
And to that, I say – have you heard of the End of History Illusion?
The Illusion Controlling Us
A study of 7,500 individuals between the ages of 18 and 68 revealed something very interesting: the vast majority of people overestimate their past changes and underestimate their future changes.
In other words – we're convinced that we have changed dramatically since birth but don't necessarily see ourselves evolving much from this point onward.
How interesting is that? We came to know this discovery as the End of History Illusion (or EOHI).
In reality – and logically – we are always changing. We will inevitably change because life is always ebbing and flowing. A 2016 study on personality changes over time found that the overwhelming majority of people change their personalities over the course of their lives.
Just as we grow and evolve physically, mentally, and spiritually throughout our lifetimes, so too do we change in a variety of other ways – including emotionally, socially, politically, and professionally.
Why We Engage in the EOHI
We can't see into the future. We don't know what changes will occur in our lives tomorrow, next year, or ten years from now. Just because something hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't happen – but this is exactly how we think about ourselves.
A BBC article I skimmed over while researching gave an excellent real-life example: tattoos. Would we ever get a tattoo if we knew we'd regret it later on? The thought crosses our mind, but we mostly dismiss it. The EOHI bias leads us to believe that our current thoughts and feelings echo our future ones.
So, why are we so prone to overestimating our past change and underestimating our future change? There are a few reasons.
We Avoid Uncertainty at All Costs
All our lives, we are making decisions based on potential future outcomes (for better or worse). We choose a job that we expect to benefit from. We move to a city that we anticipate enjoying more than our current city. We put on a raincoat when the weatherperson predicts an afternoon storm.
If the future is unpredictable, it really throws a spanner in our works. So the thought of experiencing drastic change on a personal level – and worse still, change we can't see in advance? Yeah... no, thanks.
It's natural for us to keep things as predictable as possible. An unchanging self is a safe self. Perhaps that's why some of us will stick with a bad job or relationship for years and years – we're afraid of what change might bring.
We're Already Happy
For the lucky some of us, life feels like it's already hit a peak. We're in a healthy relationship; our job brings us satisfaction; we have friends we enjoy spending time with. We're happy and content. Doesn't that mean the destination has arrived?
The trouble is, happiness isn't a destination – it's a journey. We can always be happier, more content, and more fulfilled. There are new experiences to be had (and old ones to rekindle).
Being happy doesn't mean being finished. It's just a convenient and fortunate way to exist in the meantime.
We Know Ourselves So Well
A funny and frustrating thing about humans is that we tend to get over-confident where our self-knowledge is concerned. Who could be more of an expert on me than myself? That's the mentality – but it doesn't always reflect reality.
We are incredibly complex beings; our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by a variety of factors. We can never truly know ourselves with absolute certainty. The problem is that we think we do.
In our confidence, we may not even consider the possibility of change. As I'm about to unpack, though, this can leave us in a pretty stagnant place.
The Damage of Underestimating Change
Now, you might have a few thoughts of protest about what I've said so far. If change is inevitable, why should it matter if we underestimate it?
Here's the thing: a belief about our capacity for change can have a huge impact on how we live our lives. If we believe that life is stagnant and unchanging, then we're less likely to instigate potential changes – even if they are poking and prodding at our conscience.
Psychologist Hal Hershfield at the University of California believes that the EOHI could be detrimental to our personal and professional growth. In an interview on the Ted Radio Hour, he explained that we actually perceive our future selves as different people – and as a result, we're less inclined to invest in that future person.
"...there could be a version of myself in the future who I really don't feel all that emotionally connected to or invested in. And if that's the case, I am probably going to live much more for today than tomorrow," Hershfield explained.
The implications of this mindset are pretty grim:
We might turn down demanding opportunities in order to have a simpler life in the present, even if those opportunities could be very rewarding
We could neglect small aspects of personal maintenance – being active every day, learning new things consistently, keeping in touch with loved ones – because we don't see any immediate benefit
We might be less likely to save money or invest in the stock market because we assume that our future self will need very little
We could miss out on professional opportunities if they don't immediately benefit our current lifestyle (I'm looking at you, unpaid internships)
The list could go on for days. Again, change is inevitable – but that's not to say it will be positive change. We have to actively influence our future lives through the decisions we make today.
Breaking Out of Restricting Mindsets
While researching for this newsletter, it was hard to find any advice on how to escape the EOHI that didn't sound like a total copout. "Just accept change and deal with it" was pretty much the consensus.
The fact is, we can't just 'deal' with change or force ourselves to believe its inevitability. Seeing change as inevitable is only going to make the future feel more out of control and disconnected than ever. Instead, we need to work on connecting our current selves with our future selves.
A thought exercise I often recommend to people – one I've probably covered here before in some capacity – is analyzing your current behaviors to see where they will end up.
Predict the Future via the Present
Here's a very basic example to get my point across: brushing your teeth.
On a day-to-day level, it's a two-minute ritual that almost feels like second nature. You don't notice any real change after doing it (other than losing that fuzzy feeling!) Over time, though, this is the ritual that will maintain your healthy smile and save you from rotting teeth down the line.
Now, let's take that one behavior and extrapolate it into the future – what will happen if you stop? What if you brush once a week? Such a small two-minute window in your day suddenly makes an enormous difference to your future comfort.
You can elevate this example to other habits with weighty outcomes:
Having a daily five-minute walk before starting work
Calling close friends and family members once a week
Seeking out networking and professional experience opportunities
Reading books that push your boundaries and challenge your beliefs
Engaging in self-care practices, like meditation or exercise
If you can see the long-term benefit of these behaviors, it's much easier to connect your present self with your future self (at least, it has been in my own experience). Start by listing your small habits – good or bad – then journal about the outcome they'll bring about in the future.
The EOHI can be a real obstacle to personal growth and professional success.
It's not enough to accept change; we must actively embrace it in order to grow as humans and professionals. With the right mindset, we can open up new doors of opportunity that were previously closed off.
The advice I've given here isn't revolutionary – but hopefully, it will help you see your future in a different light. By making small changes today, you're paving the way for better opportunities tomorrow.
Thanks for reading!
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