“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” — A System

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Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?”

People ask this question all the time in interviews. They want to see if you have goals. I’ll show you what I think of goals after I show you how I answer this question.

If you jumped in a time machine and went back 5 years and told my Past Self what my Present Self is doing today, Past Self would laugh at you.

If you told my Past Self,

“You work for a giant tech company. Your job consists of asking questions, giving away ideas and credit, and empowering other people to see how great they already are. You live close enough to walk to work and you do, even during snowstorms when you could work from home. You only put 6000 miles on your car in a whole year. You got off your fat butt and you made it less fat by adopting a healthy mindset. You read a book a week, sometimes two. You met somebody, dated, got married, and then divorced. One sleeve tattoo wasn’t enough, one of your legs and both of your arms are covered. You wrote two books in a single year. At one point, your beard reached your chest and you looked like a wizard. Oh, and you passed two kidney stones inside of a month. Drink more water.”

If you said all that to my Past Self, you would get a blank stare for about two seconds, and then my Past Self would laugh in your face.

Go back 10 years and tell that person what I was doing 5 years ago, and you would get the same response. I have no idea what would happen if you told 10 Year Past Self what I’m doing today. Actually, don’t do that. They might have a heart attack.

Where do I see myself in 5 years?

In 5 years, I will be doing something that my Present Self can neither envision nor comprehend. If you said that you were from the future and then proceeded to explain all of the things I’m doing then or have done between now and then, I would laugh at you. That’s what I’ll be doing in 5 years.

If an interviewer makes a comment that indicates, “that’s nice, but you didn’t really answer my question,” I then tell them what I think about goals.

Goals are ideas that your past-self had about the future. They trick us into thinking that it’s all about the achievement. That the arrival is more important than the journey or the process. Nobody “arrives” anywhere. Goals are like mile markers on a highway. We catch a glimpse of them as they fly by at 70 mph, and then we’re off to the next thing. As the Haitian proverb goes, “beyond mountains there are mountains.” We might slow down to admire the view, but then we’re off to the next mile marker, the next mountain, the next project.

“You get in way more trouble with a good idea than a bad idea, because you forget that the good idea has limits.” — Benjamin Graham

Because goals are ideas about the future, we’re constantly comparing our present selves against our imaginary future selves. If I set a goal to have a body like Thor’s, and every day I look in the mirror and tell myself “I’m not that,” I’m forming a judgment against myself. Two weeks of this self-flagellation and I’ll likely discontinue any self-improvement scheme because every day I look at my body and realize it’s not what I want. It’s a nasty negative feedback loop.

Goals should be loosely-held, like opinions. Written in pencil, subject to change. Signposts, not the destination. Instead of setting obvious or low-hanging goals, I instead ask myself things like, “What would I be doing if I were healthy? What would my decisions look like? When confronted with a health-related decision, what kind of person would make the right decision to promote a good outcome?”

This is what we’re after. Not goals — and not systems, either. Both of those play a part, but they’re not the secret.

It’s the mindset. It’s the identity.

The identities I adopt now, and their subsequent goals and systems, are the jet engines of the machine that produces a 5 Years From Now Self that, if told to Present Self, would result in me giggling hysterically and quite possibly rolling around on the floor.

One way I like to think of an identity is that it’s a set of decision heuristics. When confronted with a new decision, we run the potential outcomes through a set of filters provided by our dominant identities. It’s not a split-personality thing, and we gather identities as we age. I have at least 20–30 identities floating around in my head to use in all sorts of problem-solving situations. They’re like hats. Specific, too, since broad identities can be problematic.

On a side note, this is why peer pressure is so powerful against teenagers. Young adults don’t have a set of dominant identities ready to deal with all of the new things coming at them. When I was 16, I didn’t have a healthy mindset. So, when I was presented with alcohol, I looked around at what other people were doing and said, “Sure.” Same thing happened to me at 18 when someone introduced me to cigarettes. I no longer partake in either, because those choices cause too much cognitive dissonance pain among the dominant identities which cover them — specifically the I Am Not a Person Who Drinks identity, the I Am Not a Person Who Smokes identity, and the more general I Make Healthy Choices and Enjoy Physical Activity identity.

Tribes help with this, but the trouble with tribes is that people rarely pick their tribes on purpose — the tribe picks them. That’s how you get into a tribe: the tribe members decide that you are like them, so you’re in. As Seth Godin says, it’s “the tyranny of being picked”. People pick up identities that they themselves didn’t consciously decide on, spend an enormous amount of energy convincing themselves and everyone else that they belong, and often end up being terribly unhappy because they’re not actually the kind of person they want to be.

Pick your identities on purpose, based on the type of person you need to be to achieve what you want. So instead of saying “I want to be thin again” you figure out who a thin person is and then adopt that identity. “I’m trying to be thin” turns into “I am a person who makes healthy choices” — and the thin part works itself out as a byproduct. Your goal becomes an effect of the identity, not the sole purpose. Speed it up by discovering the common decisions you’re making, and then craft a system to automate them.

Systems come in when you’re trying to make decisions easier. Decisions are hard. They take a lot of mental energy to puzzle through. Habits are your friend — and luckily enough, your brain uses them all the time.

In relation to its own weight, the human brain uses a disproportionate amount of the available energy in your body. The brain wants to be efficient. As fast as it can, it offloads decisions to habits in the subconscious — which runs at a much lower wattage than your glucose hog cortex. For more help with habits, there’s a ton of information in books like The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and Atomic Habits by James Clear.

If you’re going to have a goal, set something really hard, like write 10 books in 5 years, and then craft a system to make that happen. I check in once in a while to see how it’s going, but I otherwise don’t screw with it. Get the habits right, and the system runs itself. On the rare occasions where I have to get involved, my I Am A Writer identity manages things just fine.

I have another goal, which is to be in the best shape of my life by the time I hit 45 (a year from now). My system, supported by my health-related identities, has me at the gym 2–3 times per week, and not eating any crap food. I’m already stronger and my clothes fit better. I don’t count calories, I don’t starve myself, I don’t do keto, and I’m not recording my food in a journal. I just adopted a strong identity that covers food and health-related decisions, and things are pretty much taking care of themselves.

The point is to pick a tough thing and get after it. You know the saying “shoot for the moon, if you miss at least you’ll be in the stars”? It’s like that. I might not write 10 books in 5 years, but I’ve written two so far and that’s a helluva lot more than what I’d have gotten if I’d just said “I’m gonna try to write every day.”

There’s a great Wait But Why post titled, “Life is a Picture, But You Live in a Pixel.” You should read it. It illustrates that our lives are made up of singular days, and how we look at each day, not just “the best ones”, informs how we look at our entire lives.

Five years from now, I will be in a different place, thinking different things, and hopefully have grown a great deal. Between now and then is a giant pile of days. How I spend those days is up to me, and I’d like to think that the systems and identities that I choose to reinforce now will help me grow into the person I need to be — because the goal is not to be somewhere amazing 5 years from now.

It’s to be able, if told about it today, to experience a state of complete disbelief.

And then laugh at you.

I write books and software. Opinions held loosely.

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