If You Think You’ve Changed, Just Wait

At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.” -Daniel T. Gilbert, Harvard Psychologist

How good are you at predicting who you will become? If you’re like most people you’ll underestimate how much change awaits you. This conclusion was born out in a research paper published in Science and covered in a recent New York Times piece, titled, “Why You Won’t Be the Person You Expect to Be.”

Researchers measured the personalities, values, and preferences of more than 19,000 people who ranged in age from 18 to 68 and asked them to report how much they had changed in the past decade and/or to predict how much they would change in the next decade. Young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives. This “end of history illusion” had practical consequences, leading people to overpay for future opportunities to indulge their current preferences.

Intrigued, I pondered these ideas further. How different am I today than 10 years ago? Very. Ten years ago I was 39 and obsessed with conceiving a child. Not only was I incapable of imagining my future self as a “non-mom,” I didn’t want to even try. In facing that future, I would have to contemplate the unthinkable — and who among us is eager to confront a construct doesn’t fit our present day mind set?

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In an interview, the researchers explained, “when asked to predict what their personalities and tastes would be like in 10 years, people of all ages consistently played down the potential changes ahead.” Furthermore, they added, “realizing how transient our preferences and values are might lead us to doubt every decision and generate anxiety.”

I occasionally drop by online forums and various blogs centered on overcoming infertility, those actively trying to conceive (TTC), and I feel like a visitor from another planet. Of course, that’s because I am.

I am no longer of that world. I am a survivor of infertility. In the present-day online communities, words bleed off the page with heart-wrenching pain, bitterness, anger and sadness. I summon the me of the past and she knows the state of betrayal the women living the TTC days describe. They are unwilling to openly acknowledge that treatment might not work, with statements like, “if you haven’t yet conceived…”

I ache for them, but I also know (as the researchers have proven) that their view of themselves and what they are experiencing will inevitably lead to change. Some will go on to become mothers, others will not. Much as I want to tell them that their future selves will reflect wisdom and strength as a result of what they are experiencing, I know their present-day selves aren’t yet ready to hear me.

That’s also why my memoir, which captured 10+ years of raw emotional churn — a change in process — creates a conundrum ten years later. Some readers who discover Silent Sorority today come away with a skewed perspective. They are meeting the me of the past, not the me of today, or the me of the future. When I stumble across those discussing the me of the past I want to tell them how I’ve changed. I’m not frozen in time. I want to invite them to travel into the future to a place they likely cannot imagine today (one I was still in the midst of creating) — a future without searing grief, a state of peace, and an embrace of the change still awaiting me (us).

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In that vein, I wholeheartedly agree with sentiments included in this NYT comment:

It is only in retrospect that I can appreciate how strong an individual I became … We truly are the sum of all fears and challenges and while we don’t necessarily see the changes as they are happening, the courage and persistence to accept them is what gets us through the hard times. I’m curious to see what is in store for me next. Hopefully I can look back ten years from now and see how far I have come – again.

The researchers caution that “predicting the future requires more work than simply recalling the past.” True, but just think how much more complete, how much more complex, how much more evolved we’ll be.