How do you find out what someone really thinks?
Let’s say I want to know whether a woman I’m dating is likely to cheat on me. How should I find out? If I directly ask her, of course she will say, “I would never cheat on you!” That may be true or it may not. If I really want to know, I should say something like this, “You know, Emily cheated on her boyfriend recently. He is probably going to break up with her over it.”
How does she respond?
If she says something like, “Well, lots of people cheat.” Or, “you know, people often cheat when relationships don’t go well.” Or, “he probably wasn’t meeting her needs.” Or, well, anything that excuses or normalizes cheating, I have learned a lot more than I would have learned if I merely asked directly if she would cheat.
When thinking about others, it’s easier to say how you really feel than it is when thinking about oneself.
Now one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned is to stop pretending I am exempt from all the forms of self-deception that everyone else practices. So I apply the same truth-discovery methods to myself that I apply to everyone else.
And a long time ago I realized that I don’t always tell myself the truth about what I really want, and I especially don’t always tell the truth about who I really want to be. When I directly ask myself those sorts of questions, I give responses that are similar to, “I would never cheat on you!” But I learned how to cut through my own existential bullshit by asking two sets of questions.
First, I asked myself questions about other people that I admired. These were people that I personally knew and looked up to. What did they do that I was the most proud of? What did they not do that I wished they did? What traits, accomplishments and struggles did I think of when I thought about why I admired them?
The second set of questions were about my future self. What would my future self regret if I didn’t do it? I imagined myself at 97 years old, looking back at my life. What did I need to do so that that 97 year-old would experience no regret?
I love street dance. There are several dancers that I greatly admire. A few of them are my own age, which in itself is somewhat unusual in the street dance world. What do I admire about these dancers who are my peers?
I noticed that what I like is that they do not allow themselves to become obsolete. They grew up and made their name in a world without social media or Instagram videos, and yet they embrace that world. For instance, there are fairly frequent online competitions where dancers submit videos. I am always proud of my heroes for entering.
This suggests that I, myself, need to fight against my reluctance to use new media, and need to engage with a popular culture that I don’t understand and often don’t like.
I hate using Facebook. I hate using Instagram. Frankly, I hate social media in general. I enjoy browsing and “liking”. I just don’t enjoy posting.
Now normally doing things I hate drains my energy, increases anxiety, makes me angry, and increases the risk of depression. This is probably true for pretty much everybody. Doing things you hate makes you feel bad, right? But there are exceptions. When I post my writing on Instagram, when I constantly try to figure out how to present it in a way that will reach people, I don’t feel angry or depressed. Instead, I feel like a bad-ass. I feel like a conqueror. My self-esteem skyrockets.
Why the difference? Apparently, for whatever reason, I greatly admire people who absolutely refuse to stay stuck in the past. And “people” includes me. I admire myself when I engage with popular culture as it is now.
The point of all this is that I NEVER would have said this about myself if anyone had directly asked me. I have always maintained that social media promotion is just corny. (And a lot of social media promotion is corny.) The only reason I figured out how important it was for me to do this corny social media stuff is that I admired other people for being willing to do it.
Here’s another thing I admire about my favorite dancers. Battling is a part of street dance culture. My favorite dancers don’t avoid battles, and they often specifically take on the toughest challenges they can find.
I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. At a recent ELCA conference for new congregations, I actually said out loud that, “I like the ELCA because you all are proving that you aren’t going down without a fight.” I was referring to the fact that church attendance has been declining for years, as has involvement in nearly all forms of organizations in the US. The fact that the ELCA keeps starting new congregations in the midst of this decline proves that they are not just going to surrender.
And I think about my favorite television show, the Wire. There was a character on that show, a union boss, who was murdered by gangsters. When they found his body, he had blood all over his knuckles. He died as he lived, throwing punches until the end. I admired that fictional character for going down swinging.
There is a deep part of me that despises anyone who surrenders without a fight. I despise people who seek out easy challenges. That’s easy for me to see when I look at others. And so not surprisingly, I don’t care (much) whether my favorite dancers win or lose their battles. I don’t care how many likes they get on Facebook when they post videos. I want to see them engage fearlessly. I don’t care if they come out on top.
And so, again, not surprisingly, getting reactions on social media provides me with a brief little high. But it doesn’t last and it doesn’t matter. It’s engaging at all that makes me proud of myself.
Now you may be very different from me. Perhaps you really do admire people for winning. Great. Go after that, because you won’t be happy if you don’t. If you admire some Kardashian for having a zillion followers on Twitter, then I think you better try to get a zillion followers yourself. If you admire other people for wearing fashionable clothes and expensive watches, then you need to make the money to dress the part.
But I think there a lot more of us chasing the image of success than there are who really, deeply care about that image. Why do we chase something we don’t care about? Because it makes an easy fantasy, and that fantasy is constantly sold to us. This is why I claim that the cornerstone of deep personal finance is to go after what you really want. Stop chasing the mere fantasy.
But in order for me to go after what I really wanted I had to stop bullshitting myself. And it was hard because I am so freaking good at lying to myself about my own deep values.
So here is the other way I avoid the sad narcissism of inward-looking fantasy. I ask about my future self. What would my future self regret that I didn’t do?
The reason this question works is that regret is always associated with deep values, just like admiration is. So asking myself what I would regret short-circuits all the methods I have of lying to myself. I have spent way too much time caring about other people’s approval. I have wasted years of my life hiding behind the fear of rejection, failure and humiliation. And too many times I have abandoned my deep values because of day-to-day drama, money issues, or the desire to win arguments that I won’t even be able to remember in five years.
I would have been better off spending that time and energy trying to minimize future regret.
What’s strange is that regret really isn’t that bad when I experience it. But imagining future regret still does the job, because it forces me to think from the perspective of my values, instead of from the perspective of my day-to-day fear, anger and anxiety.
And again, when I think about future regret, the thing that I would regret most is not trying to spread what I’ve learned. Much of what I write is an attempt to explain in plain English what I have learned from academic studies and professional literature. It is original in the sense that it is my voice, my writing style and my story. But the ideas are not new.
I used to egotistically want to only write about my own ideas. It was only through imagining future regret that I realized how important it is for me to be a “translator”, someone who takes very academic language and presents it in a way that most people can understand. The writing that I am proudest of is not the most original. It is the writing that took the most difficult topics and made them accessible.
Do you want to cut through your own BS?
Look at the people you personally know that you admire. What do they do that you admire? What is it you wish they did? When are you pleasantly surprised by them?
Imagine yourself as an old person. What do you regret not doing?
It won’t be simple. It wasn’t simple for me. I had to think a little bit. I couldn’t just control-C and then control-V someone else’s life onto mine. But if you ask yourself about the people you admire and combine it with minimizing future regret, you will certainly get a lot closer to the true you than fantasizing ever could.