Harvard Researcher Provides The Best Explainer Of The Best "Hidden" Mental Model
The End Of History Illusion coined by Harvard researcher Daniel Gilbert changed my life.
So much so that I consider it one of the top 5 mental models worth learning.
This 2014 TED video clip is the most concise overview of it.
I call this a hidden mental model, because I’ve rarely seen other people unpack its significance.
With that said, let’s jump in and do some unpacking.
End Of History Illusion Breakdown
Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished.
We humans drastically UNDER-estimate how much we change throughout our adult life. And we do so on several dimensions:
Preferences (art, leisure, etc)
Most of us think that our personal rate of change falls off a cliff when we become an adult. Or when we get married. Or when we have kids. Or when we reach other milestones.
Rather, our growth typically looks more like this:
We keep evolving in large and surprising ways into our 60s, 70s, and beyond. Especially if we design our life to be conducive to our own personal evolution (see also: 5-Year Rule).
As a thought experiment to prove the point, just look at your own life over the past 10 years…
How much have your hobbies changed?
How has your friend group changed?
How has your personality changed?
How has your list of favorite creators changed?
How have your values changed?
How has your overall life changed?
If you’re like me, the amount of change is more than you would’ve thought, and even more than you could’ve known.
Yet, we keep on under-estimating how much we'll change when we look forward.
This bias matters because it challenges the basic premise of long-term goal setting...
The Problem With Long-Term Goals
We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy...
But our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that.
We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan.
― Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
When we change drastically every decade, then long-term goals can stifle our growth rather than help it.
For example, just as we would take a 10-year-old's goal to own all the legos in the world with a grain of salt, we should do the same for people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond.
We don't encourage long-term goals because...
We know their preferences will change dramatically
If they focus on that one goal (even when they lose excitement), they'll burn out
We want to leave space for them to fully develop in surprising ways
At the same time, we don’t shoot down the passion even if it seems illogical at first, because…
We don’t know what the passion will evolve into
We trust in the power of curiosity and passion
Therefore, we encourage the 10-year-olds to continue their passion now, but we don't encourage them to drop everything else for the next decade. We let things evolve organically.
I'd make the case that the same logic should apply to adults as well…
For the first 15 years of my career, I was a goals acolyte. I set them, recited them, printed them, reviewed them, and shared them. I turned my long-term goals into medium-term goals into short-term goals into today’s tasks.
In other words, I orchestrated what I did and who I did it with based primarily on goals.
While goals did help, they also hindered me:
I constantly felt behind where I felt I should be (based on the goal time-frame)
I disciplined myself to the point of burnout
What actually happened was unexpected anyway
The achievement of many goals felt empty
Understanding the End Of History Illusion has helped me surrender the illusory certainty that goals provide in return for investing in my own organic evolution:
Allowing myself to fully experience whatever happens as it happens
(rather than just valuing the ending).
Giving myself the freedom to do things that make me come alive now
(even if they don’t obviously help a pre-defined goal).
As a result of these changes, several surprising things have happened...
First, I got more interested. A deep aliveness has emerged inside of me that wasn't there previously. Rather than judging everything based on how it positively or negatively impacts my goals, I now approach reality with more curiosity and play. As a result, I enjoy life more.
Second, I got more interesting. We all have unique curiosities. And as we pursue more and more of our curiosities, we develop more unique points of view and ideas. This makes us uniquely interesting. This matters because the worst thing we can be in a crowded world is like everyone else. For being the same as others is equivalent to being invisible.
Finally, contrary to what I expected, I became more disciplined, more focused, and ultimately more financially successful. My biggest fear initially was that allowing myself to pursue curiosities would lead to me chasing every shiny object. What I actually have observed is that my curiosity evolved. As I explored more curiosities, I gradually found ones that were deeper and more enduring. As a result, I’m actually more focused. And because I enjoy what I’m doing more, I work harder and longer.
Thought Leader Takeaway (For Paid Subscribers)
When I look back on my writing career, I see two particularly transformative and counterintuitive decisions that changed everything for me.
I focused on quality when everyone else was focusing on quantity.
I focused on curiosity-based writing (writing for myself rather than writing for the best short-term business or virality opportunity).
I write about the power of quality in Blockbuster: The #1 Mental Model For Writers Who Want To Create High-Quality, Viral Content.
In today’s paid subscriber section, I write about how I specifically enacted writing for myself based on my curiosity, how it relates to the End Of History Illusion, and how it changed everything for me as a thought leader.
Let’s jump in…