Apart from safety features, my car has few confusing bells and whistles. I chose it hoping still to drive it when I’m eighty. Slower reflexes and a steeper learning curve seem possible. As for traits more basic to who I am—personality and values, likes and dislikes—I don’t foresee much change.
The rapid changes of childhood slow as we grow toward midlife and beyond. At every stage, though, change continues more than we expect. Psychologist Dan Gilbert and others asked thousands of adults how much they’d changed in the past decade or expected to in their next decade. In every age group, reported change far exceeded expectations; 40-year-olds said they’d changed a lot since 30, while 30-year-olds didn’t expect to be very different at 40. Gilbert calls it “the end of history illusion,” the notion that numerous past transitions have brought us now (regardless of age) to the finished selves we were meant to be.
It makes sense. Reporting the narrative of a remembered past is easier than inventing an unseen future. But underestimating future change can entice us to overpay for a years-from-now trip we won't still enjoy. It can drag us down with a sense of emptiness or failure we envision as permanent. What about long-term commitments like choosing a career or life partner, or bearing a child? They, too, may change more than we expected. With luck, the changes could prove richer and more rewarding than we ever imagined.
Image: Janus, Roman god of transition, faces both past and future. Roman coin in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.