Thinking about the future (Heather)

It goes without saying that thinking about the future is definitively fundamental, however unsettling the unknown may be. Considering all future options while seizing optimal opportunities as they are presented can greatly increase future success and life satisfaction.  In fact, research suggests that future prospection can lead to greater career success in positions more closely aligned with an individual’s goals and aspirations1. Thinking about the future with an understanding of one’s career and life goals, can lead to more efficient and prudent decision making, allowing an individual to reach those ultimate goals. 

Despite the clear positives of future prospection, the future tends to intimidate the younger generation, especially students. Personally, I had no idea what my next steps would be when I walked the graduation stage to receive my undergraduate degree in Psychology (other than the fact that I was certain I did not want to pursue a position within that field – hence my existential dilemma).  Having taken a couple years to work before beginning my masters, I eventually discovered my ideal career path. However, the discovery certainly required some hefty lifting in the department of ‘thinking about the future’. Through all the soul searching, I’ve compiled a (hopefully) useful guide for several productive methods for thinking about the future.

  • Consider timeframes

One significant downfall of prospective thinking is that it has the potential to consume an individual. Constant snowballing or planning every second ahead of the last will lead you to forgetting how to live in the moment. Consider creating 1-, 5-, and 10-year, as well as ultimate plans for your career and/or personal goals, assessing progress along the way. However, avoid getting too caught up in plans – a key aspect of life and living it in the moment is that things will change.

  • Try different things

This is essential – how are you ever going to know that you enjoy something if you don’t try it? It looks like our parents were right about that after all! Give jobs, subjects, or hobbies a chance if you think there is a possibility you might enjoy them.  There’s no harm in trying.

  • Pay attention to not only what you enjoy, but also what you don’t enjoy

Comparable to weighing all options, it is also important to use trial and error to rule out unsuitable options. My undergraduate degree involved switching my degree five times (yes – FIVE) before I graduated. Some would say I wasted the first two years of undergrad, but I think it was essential in ruling out four other possible career routes that would not have made me happy. Contrast, compare, and keep mental notes of everything. Be patient – it might not come overnight!

  • Understand that there is rarely ever one path

Life loves a curveball, and sometimes you strike out, while other times you hit a home run.  Either way, it will take you on a path that, if you stick to pertinent future decisions, you will likely reach your ultimate goals.  One of the greatest attributes of future leaders is that they understand that the more mistakes one makes, the more one will learn, and the greater the future success.

  • Understand what is in your control

Some things change constantly, and other things never change. Knowing what is in or out of your control should be a key aspect in learning how to adapt your future plans in the face of uncertainty. Focus on working on things within your control and coping with things outside of it.

  • Learn how to cope with the unknown

Uncertainty is something many students (including myself) struggle with. There is so much pressure in today’s society to have an incredible job lined up straight out of university, and for some people that proves to be their path. However, it is also acceptable to graduate without establishing your exact career path. For many people, figuring it out along the way is the better option. 

  • To conclude: plan where you can, but accept and cope with uncertainty where you cannot

Each year of my life since my last year of undergrad has led to something completely different, bringing me to where I am now. Learning how to succeed in the face of uncertainty, is not only a desirable attribute in a professional applicant, but it will also lead to greater success in your future career and life satisfaction.

Remember, the future is one of those life elements you cannot completely control.  The best advice anyone can give regarding the future is to stick to plans where you can, and adapt to the curveballs as they come along. The ability to cope with unexpected situations is the mark of someone who can make it in the real world, so do not let curveballs control your life. Take them as they come and adjust short-term plans as needed, but it is always possible to get back to your future plans, as long as you retain the motivation for achieving your ultimate goals.

1Oettingen, G. and Mayer, D. (2002) ‘The motivation function about thinking about the future: expectations versus realities.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5) pp. 1198-1212.

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