Your Future Perfect Self

It’s not what you think. Excellencifying is not about achieving perfection, which is out of reach for finite, temporal beings like rational animals. It’s about how reflection on grammar can ground your relationship with a future version of you.

Resist the temptation to run away at the mention of grammar. I’m not going to make you do a worksheet or diagram a sentence. I am going to draw your attention to a particular tense in English, the Future Perfect. Here’s an example:

When the quail eggs are poached, I will have given the goldfish its cough medicine.

Tense is a way language has of arranging things in a temporal sequence; tense places things on the timeline. The sentence above is a silly example of what people teaching English sometimes call “the past of the future.” It’s a way of selecting a point that’s in the future from the perspective of now – the moment when the quail eggs are poached, for instance — and indicating some other thing that’s in the future from now but happened before that future point. In this case, the thing that “happened” in the future but before the quail eggs are poached is that I gave the goldfish its cough medicine.

Reflecting on the philosophical significance of the Future Perfect can shed some light on one of our most important relationships, the relationship we have with a future version of ourselves. Think about it: Many of the decisions we make are all about that future self, a self that does not exist now, but could exist sometime. Anytime you contemplate a goal, you’re forging a relationship with a future version of yourself — a future self. And, as just about any rational animal will tell you, contemplating a goal now does not guarantee that the goal will be realized, which implies that the future self who “did” accomplish that goal is just a possible future self, with no guarantee that it will be realized either.

When I sat down to write this post, I was pursuing a goal. And because of that goal, whether I thought about it or not, I was (am) forging a relationship with a future self. At the moment my future self hits “publish,” that future self will have written this post. But we don’t usually talk like that to ourselves. Instead, we say, “When I hit ‘publish,’ I will have written this post.”

The previous discussion about the Future Perfect reveals that neither of the two Is in that sentence is actually me — the me that exists now, pursuing the goal I’ve set for “myself.” But which self is the self I set this goal for? Is it my present self? Since setting a goal is distinct from accomplishing that goal, and since setting always comes before accomplishing, the goal can’t be only for my present self: My present self isn’t the version of me that will accomplish that goal.

So setting that goal must be for my future self, right? Not so fast: That future self, the self that did accomplish the goal, is also distinct from the selves that set and pursued the goal. This is why I say that setting a goal is always about forging a relationship between the I that is setting the goal and the I who will have accomplished that goal — whether we acknowledge the presence of that future self who does not (yet?) exist.

This reflection on setting goals is more than a parlor trick or a barstool rumination: It’s a tool that can actually help us with excellencifying. The closer the relationship I form with a possible future self, the greater my motivation and engagement in realizing that future self.

There’s some fascinating empirical research that seems to confirm the usefulness of this tool. Take a bunch of students facing an exam. Divide them into two groups. Have one group coach themselves, using their actual name, on preparing for the exam. Have the other group do generic self-affirmations, like “I’m a good student,” etc. The outcome might be surprising: As a group, students who talked to themselves by name consistently performed better on the exam.

The philosophical message of the Future Perfect might explain why. Coaching oneself by name implicitly reinforces the link between the present self who is pursuing and the future self who has accomplished a goal. When I happened on this research, my first thought was not to say to myself, “Matthew, you can use this to empower yourself to excellencify.” Rather, it was how silly it feels to call myself by name. But once I talked myself through feeling silly, I realized how powerful this tool can be.

Coaching yourself by name is a convenient technique for forging a link between the self you are right now and a future self that you’d like to become but aren’t yet. It leverages the fact that we are temporal beings, by which I don’t mean beings that merely exist in a succession of nows. We are temporal in that sense, too, but so are rocks. Unlike rocks, we are temporal beings in the sense that our self-understanding requires relationships through time, relationships between past selves and future selves. Our self-understanding is revealed and reinforced — and reinvented — through the stories we tell about those relationships.

Want to know more about how to leverage this technique in your own pursuit of excellence? Stay tuned.

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