Don’t Ask Me Where I’ll Be in Five Years

A friend gave me this exercise recently, and it stumped me. It was almost embarrassing to realize that a driven, future-focused person such as myself couldn’t give a good, honest answer to where I want to be 5 years from now.

Then I realized that the trouble was not with me, it was with the question: I don’t want to be anywhere in 5 years–I want to be doing. This almost trivial semantic shift cracked open the floodgates.

But first, let me give you some science and some metrics.
I Don’t Know What Makes Me Happy (and Neither Do You)
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Gilbert points out that we (humans) aren’t very good at predicting our own happiness. There are multiple reasons for this. One is because we’re not very good at predicting things in general. Another is that we tend to have flawed memories of the past, hence our predictive base of information is already distorted. (For example, movie-goers’ memory of their movie enjoyment correlates better with their prediction of enjoyment than with their actual reported enjoyment at the time of watching).

Given that I do want to be happy 5 years from now, this puts me in a tough position. Luckily, I’m pretty happy right now, so I’ll start by trying to create some metrics around the types of activities that make me happy.

Metric 1: Degree of Selfishness
Every day I do some things for myself and some things for others. The “others” bucket includes my family, my company, and the rest of the world. It’s a pretty big bucket. It’s easy to get lost in that bucket. It’s also easy to be so intimidated by that bucket that you pretend it isn’t there. Balancing between self and other is hard, but it’s vital.

 Metric 2: Discount Rate
Sometimes you’re putting money in the bank, sometimes you’re making withdrawals. Everything you do has some present value (which may be negative if you’re investing) and some future value (which is positive if you have a good rate of return).

There’s a ton of interesting math that goes into the problem, but in general people value a dollar tomorrow less than a dollar today. (Ten dollars tomorrow, however, might be worth it.) The same calculations happen with my time and energy.

I am, by nature, an investor. I am future-focused. The risk here is that if I spend all my time investing, I don’t have any time left to fully enjoy the present. When pondering what I want to be doing in the future, I have to consider how much I want to be investing versus enjoying the fruits of today’s labor.

So where will I be in 5 years? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Hopefully what I’ll be doing is a good mix of helping myself and helping others, investing and enjoying.