If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there. Right?
December 30, 2008 6:37 PM   Subscribe

I never think about the future. Is this strange? Should I?

I never think about the future. I'm single, and never picture myself in the future, married with kids or anything. I know I want it, but I don't picture it. I have a good job, but I don't think about where I want to be in a year or five years. I can't picture what March might be like. As a consequence, I don't plan for this future at all, aside from savings and retirement plan which I do because I just know I need to. Talking to people, they're like, I need to be here in five years, I want to be married etc. I've had problems with anxiety and indecision, etc, so I almost feel like I'm sure I'll change my mind about what I want for the future, so why think about it. I've always been like this, though, since I was a kid. I had a little bit of an idea of what I wanted to do, but it was more sort of fantastical and I could never put together a plan of action. Whenever I think about an ideal career, I'll follow it for a little bit, and then think about several steps ahead and decide I don't really want it.

Is it normal at all? I know a lot of people talk about living in the "now" and how great that is, and I feel like I am doing that just naturally, but it feels wrong to me somehow. I don't think about the past too much either, although I do think about it, mostly fondly. Just the future....nothing. Is there some way to train myself to do this? I am in therapy, so I have that covered. I just feel like I must lack ambition if I just can't think about where I want to be.
posted by sweetkid to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My guess is it's just a personality type. I wish I was more like you.

But if you want a biological explanation, it's (remotely) possible you have frontal-lobe damage. People who do often function normally with the exception of not being able to plan for or think about the future. (They can plan for the immediate future, e.g. what they're going to do tomorrow. But the more remote something gets, the harder time they have visualizing it.)

The book "Stumbling on Happiness" has a fascinating quotation from a guy with frontal-lobe damage. He eloquently describes thinking about the future like being told to go into a room and find a chair -- and then finding the room empty. According to that book, such people understand the concept of the future, but they have as hard a time picturing it as "normal" people have picturing infinity or higher dimensions.
posted by grumblebee at 6:53 PM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm not big into future-think myself, but I've noticed the most successful people I know - both personally and professionally, are goal oriented planners. It also seems that when an opportunity presents itself, they're ready because they've already done their homework.
posted by TorontoSandy at 6:58 PM on December 30, 2008

There are HUGE downsides to thinking too much about the future. I think way more about the future than the past or present. It's often hard for me to enjoy myself now because I'm fretting about what's going to happen five years from now. Obviously, there's some sort of healthy middle ground, but many of us are skewed too much one way or another. My doctor and I are currently exploring anxiety meds.
posted by grumblebee at 7:01 PM on December 30, 2008

maybe you're not big on planning because you haven't found anything you feel is worth planning for, and there's nothing wrong with that.

personally, i think about the future only in a vague way ("i'd like to have a dog some day") but never in a goal-specific way ("i will have a Great Dane before i am 30"). i'm told i have accomplished a lot for my age, but i don't think very much about the future. in fact, once i graduate in june, i have absolutely no idea what i am doing with my time. i haven't made any plans and i like it that way. if you're comfortable being a non-planner, don't fret! you're certainly not alone.
posted by gursky at 7:03 PM on December 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

But I'm not comfortable. I worry I am not setting myself up for the right things because I don't know what I want.
posted by sweetkid at 7:05 PM on December 30, 2008

Just a dumb thought, but would it help to have a discussion with someone who presents you with possibilities you can react to? You know how sometimes you don't know if you want chocolate or vanilla until someone offers you vanilla? Then suddenly you know you want chocolate.

Say someone sits down with you and says, "So, would you like to be a journalist?" and really helps you picture what it would be like to be one. Even if you think, "No. I wouldn't like to do that," you've learned something about yourself.

It would help to know your age.
posted by grumblebee at 7:10 PM on December 30, 2008

I'm 30, almost 31.
posted by sweetkid at 7:13 PM on December 30, 2008

I can see why, at 30, this is bothering you. But 30 is still really young. It is hard to decided what you want if you don't want traditional things. Maybe it's easy for your friends because they want to go down roads often traveled (marriage, kids, etc.)

Did most of your friends have strong directions when they were younger, e.g. teenagers or early twenty-somethings? If so, you just got unlucky enough to have abnormally motivated peers.

Have you brought this up with your shrink? What did he/she say?
posted by grumblebee at 7:20 PM on December 30, 2008

I haven't brought it up with my shrink. I do have friends who knew what they wanted to do when very young.
posted by sweetkid at 7:23 PM on December 30, 2008

That could be tied in with depression. Especially if it's dysthymic, it may be mild and something you've just lived with.

I wouldn't say it's terribly likely, and wouldn't want a professional to diagnose based on this alone, but I don't think it's any more out there than frontal lobe damage.

Bring it up with your shrink. It's worth exploring.
posted by Picklegnome at 7:24 PM on December 30, 2008

I agree: talk to your shrink!

Another thing to think about: how were you raised in terms of thinking about the future? Did your parents often think about it out loud? My dad was obsessed by it, continually worrying that this or that would happen. So I was brought up in worry and forecasting. (Once, when I was a kid, my grandmother -- my father's mother -- gave me a wallet and said, "You're probably going to lose this.") I don't remember a time when concerns about the future weren't part of my general environment.
posted by grumblebee at 7:33 PM on December 30, 2008

It's not just concerns, it's that I have no concept. If I think about a year from now, I think I will probably be living in the same apartment. Apart from that, job, friends, relationships, no concept.
posted by sweetkid at 7:41 PM on December 30, 2008

I think I know where you're coming from. (Forgive me if I'm extrapolating too much.) The future is a very abstract thing; personally, it tends to feel a bit like religion - unless there is concrete proof, you're just postulating. There's no concrete proof that you'll be in the same apartment, job, or whatever a year from now.

For me, it boils down to a list of things that I am unsatisfied with. Do you like your job? It seems that you at least don't hate it enough to want to switch. Are you making enough money? Have enough responsibility? If you're ok with those things, then there's no reason (in my mind, anyway) to plan for a future job.

So, look at your current situation honestly and decide what you like and what you don't - right now. Are you happy with your job/relationship/lack of relationship/apartment/friends/whatever? If yes, then there's really no need to change anything or even look into the future. If you're unhappy (and that might even be too strong of a word - dissatisfied, longing for more, anything), then how are you going to get it?

For example (purely hypothetical) - I like my job. I get paid well, my coworkers are great, but I get bored a few hours out of every week. I suppose that means I need more responsibility. How do I get that? A promotion would fit that need, or an extra task/project within my current role. Do I want to work for that promotion? It would mean more pay - when could I realistically get it? Maybe within one year... here are the certain tasks I could do that could make me stand out and get me that promotion. And so on.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:57 PM on December 30, 2008

Are you content?
posted by polexa at 10:15 PM on December 30, 2008

Goal-Free Living might help you out.
posted by divabat at 11:42 PM on December 30, 2008

Oh bum. His blog has become more general than it used to be. Try the book.
posted by divabat at 11:45 PM on December 30, 2008

You don't necessarily need to have a lot of plans set in stone to feel happier. One thing I have learned is that whatever plans you make for the future, they get altered and changed constantly. That's what real life is all about.
As for making plans at all, beyond the part where 'I want to work in education', I had none before I met my SO; he is the one I can imagine a future with and so make plans for. Maybe you need to project yourself in the future with the people you know (friends, family) that might help trigger your wishful thinking into getting more concrete.
posted by tweemy at 2:34 AM on December 31, 2008

Since this is making you uncomfortable, I agree with others' advice to talk with your therapist.

Here's one thing to consider, though: just because some people have very specific plans for their future, that doesn't mean that's what will happen, or that that's the "right" thing. (I'm responding to the title of your post, "If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there. Right?")

I went to college to become a translator/interpreter. Along the way, I fell into working with computers completely by accident. I've been working with computers (technical writing, programming, web consulting) for 20 years now, and I never, ever planned to. Also along the way, I started a little indie record company, which I ran for about 14 years. That was not a long-term plan, either - I did do a lot of planning once I started the project (but then, I'm a real plan-type person: I love lists and plans and goals ... I find them FUN), but before the idea formed in my head, I had never thought "Gee, when I grow up I'm going to run a record company!"

Just a gentle reminder that not everybody has plans, and even when people do, their lives may end up going in completely different directions, often with delightful results.
posted by kristi at 10:44 AM on December 31, 2008

Folks above are right when they say that frontal lobe injury can result in an inability to conceive of or plan for the future, but that type of inability tends to be more acute and specific, and not just a niggling feeling of "am I doing enough for a five-year plan?"

However, general problems with executive function and long-term (and sometimes short-term) planning, associated with milder frontal lobe dysfunction, are commoner than fleas on a dump mutt in people with ADHD (which I have). I'm capable of making concrete plans for about a few days to a week into the future, and sometimes not even that much. It's just how I am for the time being. ADHD is not a catch-all label for this problem, by the way, so don't go off and perform an armchair diagnosis on yourself; I note it just for information's sake.

I think you need to ask yourself these questions:
Do I need to consider myself ambitious in order to be happy?

Do I need to have a specific ambition in mind to be happy, or is it enough to know that I'm working at a good, stable job that I enjoy and that I'm financially providing for my future?
The answer to those for me has almost always generally been "no." I'd like to do something useful for the world while I'm around, but I'm okay with coming upon an idea at some unspecified time in the future as long as I do what I can on a day-to-day basis for now, and occasionally think about problems others have that I might be able to help them solve. That is, as long as I feel like I'm a net contributor, not a detractor.

It sounds like this really is bothering you, so maybe the answer to the first question for you is indeed "yes." If you find that you also need to have a specific ambition, then the next step you should take is to go to the library and check out a few books on career counseling or aptitude questionnaires. Maybe ask a friend to be your Socrates and start asking you questions about what you enjoy doing or what you don't, what your greatest moments of happiness have been in the past and what you were doing or not doing that might have led to them, whether or not you like the idea of having children. Or pay someone else (a career counselor) to do this.

Previous generations didn't do a lot of this ruminating, but they also mostly didn't have the luxury of time for it. They just had to do for each day. It's normal in the context of human history not to spend a lot of time thinking about "where you want to be" in a year or ten years, as long as you know you'll have potatoes in the root cellar. Or liquidity to pay the rent and electric bill. Can you imagine the typical backwoods homesteader of 1830 Georgia, or a villager in China ca. 630 AD, thinking about a five-year plan?

My point is that we modern Westerners, and Americans especially, take for granted as a society that ambition is an imperative for happiness. It is a huge component of our cultural narrative. We are bombarded with folk stories of people who made good and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and we like to talk about our contemporaries who have done the same. Yes, ambition certainly can lead to happiness for a lot of people. But it has destroyed the hopes and happinesses of at least as many others, and there's another half or two-thirds of the world that (for now, anyhow, until we McDonaldize all of them) feels no compulsion to chase it like blind hounds after dead herrings.

A lack of specific ambition does not make you or anyone else a flawed person. It may, however, make you a Buddhist.
posted by jeeves at 1:12 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

"I worry I am not setting myself up for the right things because I don't know what I want."

Then you are thinking about the future.
posted by Jahaza at 1:45 PM on December 31, 2008

But I do nothing to prepare for it. Aimless.
posted by sweetkid at 2:29 PM on December 31, 2008

Not everybody knows what their favorite color is. Not everybody knows what job they want 10 years down the road. Some people never think about the future because they're living completely in the past, while others don't think about the future because they just don't want to. What I'm saying is, though it may not be exactly as you'd like it to be, you CAN live without thinking intensively (i.e. making decisions in advance, something which btw is not always necessary) about the future, and be okay with it. I'd say give it a shot to fulfill a plan, go ahead and decide you're going to do something beneficial on feb 2. Even if it's only a plan to clean the car, that is actually prep for the future, to make your life easier. Either you can modify your brainwaves by training or you can accept how you are and learn to get along with your brain. It's really up to you. Don't worry so much, it's not helping. Believe me, I know, I'm a worrier. You'll be alright even if you never so much as utter the phrase "tomorrow" again in your life.

Try making some resolutions (and keeping them!) even if you think they might be lame.
posted by big open mouth at 4:21 PM on December 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm generally a Type A personality (anxious, planner, etc) but I try not to dwell too much on the future and how it will be in specifics, because I've learned from experience I will only be disappointed.

Instead, I plan for the future in the vaguest of terms. I would like to be married or in some stable, committed relationship and I hope it's with my boyfriend. I don't have a deadline by which I need that. I think I might want to have kids, but that seems far, far away (it's not, really; I'm 27). I like my job and know that I want to stay in my field, but I don't need to plan out where I'm going to go. I've found that I will know when I need to change jobs, and I can figure out where to head then. I like my apartment but I don't think I'll live there in a year (in fact, I turned down a year long lease to keep it month to month, just so my options are open). I hope I'll be in the same city, but I couldn't guarantee it. I also save for the future and for retirement so I won't need to worry about money when the time comes to worry about all these other things.

In short, discuss with your therapist but try not to stress it too much. I think it's better to be open to what the future holds than to make plans that will likely not come to fruition (that way lies disappointment).
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:39 PM on January 1, 2009

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