I was driving home from a speaking engagement a few weeks ago in central New York — and thank you to the fine folks of Broadalbin-Perth CSD for having me, as it was a true pleasure — when I saw a billboard for the lottery. It said, in large bold print:
“FUTURE YOU WANTS YOU TO PLAY”
Though I don't agree with its message (I'd bet you some lottery tickets that Future You will be happier if you'd take the price of a daily lottery ticket and invest it in an index fund for a few decades), I do think the advertisement touches upon a profound truth. The good things in our lives today tend to be the fruits of work that someone — us, or an inventor, or a former teacher, or our grandmothers — did some time before today. Future You does want you to do some stuff today, this week, this year.
But, the question is, what are those things? What does Future You want you to do?
1. Future You wants you to work toward PERMA
Marty Seligman has spent much of his career in psychological research studying “the good life.” (His work was seminal in the vein of research around character strengths.) In 2011, he condensed this work into a book called Flourish (audiobook), which provides five conditions for experiencing a sense of well-being. Those conditions, listed below, make up the acronym PERMA:
- Positive Emotion: These are the feelings we often associate with the good life: happiness, joy, mirth, satisfaction, pleasure, curiosity, hope. What conditions in your life today squash these kinds of feelings? Some of those can't be changed (in which case Future You wants you to work through them and come out stronger or wiser on the other side), and some of them can (in which case Future You wants you to get 'em gone).
- Engagement: This is that experience you have sometimes where you're so into a task, so immersed and taken by it, that you experience a sense of flow. This happens when we're reading a great book, listening to a great concert, or playing a sport we love. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written an entire book about this “optimal” state.) Future You probably wants you to figure out how to make flow a regular part of your life. Are there experiences that give you flow that you've been neglecting of late? Future You wants you to make more room for those (and get rid of flow impersonators like addictive TV shows).
- Positive Relationships: Here's a reason to set work hours for yourself or improve how you work with colleagues — the happiest folks almost uniformly report quality relationships in their lives. Future You wants you to figure out how to stop being a workaholic, or how to stop taking every perceived slight from a colleague so personally. Future You wants you to stop retreating from your hard marriage or that difficult friendship or a growing distance between you and your child and to start engaging with it.
- Meaning: We have an advantage here as educators; meaning comes from being a part of something bigger than you, and every person working in a school is part of this enormous, unprecedented experiment in world history known as a compulsory public education for every child. Folks with purpose tend to experience a sense of meaning in their daily lives. Too many educators today feel that their work has been reduced to meaningless things like test scores or evaluation ratings; resisting such soul-sucking reductionism is something I've written a whole ebook about, but it's also as simple as keeping our eyes on a self-defined Everest as we go about our work.
- Achievement/Accomplishment: This can be earning an award, learning a skill, or turning a student's life around through persistent, prayerful mentoring. Everyone defines achievement differently; people who report stable experiences of well-being tend to have in common that they've accomplished something they're proud of. Another reason, perhaps, for us to Do Hard Things.
Okay, so we need to work today toward PERMA: that's a tall order, Future You. Sounds like a lot of work. Do you have any ideas for making any of this doable in light of my often insane life as a twenty-first century educator?
2. Future You wants to reap the fruits of “the compound effect”
If I offer you either $3 million today or a single penny that doubles in value every day for 31 days, you end up with nearly $11 million if you take the penny — more than triple the offer of $3 million cash. That penny doesn't seem too promising after the first 10 days (it's only $5.12), or the first 20 days (it's only $5,242.88); it's not even winning at Day 29 (it's $2.7 million). But there's power in small things that consistently grow.
We've all heard of this, right?
What's cool is that, as Darren Hardy explains in The Compound Effect (audiobook), the magic of compounding exists beyond the world of finances.
The story of the three friends
I don't have Hardy's book on hand (I'm traveling as I write this), so let me see if I can do it justice. The following illustrative tale is taken from The Compound Effect:
There are three friends. They're all middle-aged, all married, all earning the same amount, all developing a little bit of marriage belly.
Friend Number One — Adam, let's say — plods along and does life. He doesn't do anything to invest in his future, but he also doesn't do anything to harm his future. He's consistent with a capital C. He would say that he's happy, although sometimes he complains that nothing ever changes.
Friend Number Two — Ben — decides he's going to make small, almost unnoticeable changes in his life. He's going to read 15 minutes from a good book each day, and he's going to use his 30 minutes of commuting time to listen to instructive or inspirational podcasts or audiobooks. He also recently read an article on the productivity-boosting effects of good health, and so he decides to cut 100 or so calories from his diet per day, switching from a daily can of soda to a can of sparkling water, let's say. Additionally, he gets one of those new-fangled watches (my colleague Erica Beaton has one of these things; she randomly stands up during meetings because it buzzes every hour and tells her to; Hi Erica) that counts your steps and resolves to add a few thousand steps to his routine each day — parking further away from the stores he's entering; taking a post-lunch walk each day.
Ben's not going for any kind of All or Nothing, drastic life change — he just wants to be consistent with a few small things that he knows he could easily fall into abandoning.
And then there's Friend Number Three — poor Charlie — who decides he's going to make a few tiny, poor choices. He gets a big screen TV with a built-in TiVo kind of thing. This makes watching his favorite shows easier and more enjoyable, so he does it more often. And hey — it's way more fun watching TV with good food, so he ends up adding 100 calories or so to his diet per day with a few Cheetos here and a beer or two there. He spends an average of sixty minutes watching TV each night, and he listens to talk radio on his 30 minute commute.
Charlie's not doing anything insane here — just trying to enjoy life a bit more. You can't judge him; it's not like he's picking up a heroin addiction or anything.
Five months pass, and — you didn't guess it — there is no difference in the three men. Adam, Ben, and Charlie have the same waistlines, the same jobs, same marriages.
Ten months go by, then twenty months. They've been at these new habits for more than a year now; still, no major differences.
All of a sudden, at about the twenty-four month mark, things start changing rapidly. (See Fig. 1)
Adam is where he was when he started, although not quite as self-reportedly happy as he used to be. He's become bitter about how nothing awesome seems to come his way.
Ben is dominating. If he reads at a rate of one page per minute, he has read over 10,950 pages of good books during the past two years. He's starting to see connections across the books he's reading, and he's developed mental models for approaching life that he never had before.  In addition, he's listened to over 15,000 minutes of instructive or inspirational podcasts — it's as if he's spent 260 hours listening to some of the brightest, wisest, and most compelling people he can find. Dude is trim now, too — he's lost that marriage flab and, when he looks in the mirror, he sees a person who's in the best shape of his life. He's heavily invested in his marriage — after all, he's learned the importance of quality relationships in his reading and listening — which is, as a result, better than it's ever been, and he just got a sweet promotion at work.
And Charlie is floundering. He's picked up 30 pounds, feels lethargic most of the time, and has a depressingly poor marriage. This latter piece is largely because his consumption that could have been spent with his partner was instead spent catching up on missed episodes of That Really Addicting Awesome Show. Charlie has invested 43,800 minutes into Really Great TV Shows during the past two years — that's 730 hours — and as a result he's had 730 fewer hours to connect with his spouse (unfortunately, it has turned out that simply watching TV alongside her isn't synonymous with investing in his relationship with her). Finally, he's spent the 260 hours of two years of commuting on talk radio, the result of which has been a few good laughs, a slightly better knowledge of trivia (one time he even answered one of the call-in questions correctly), and no gain in wisdom, knowledge, or insight.
Summing it up
I once asked Jim Burke how he's managed to produce so much great work. He didn't cite his intelligence or his work ethic or any of his many giftings; rather, he said that instead of watching an hour of TV each night, he spends an hour reading or writing. (I'm paraphrasing.) I had a chance once to ask a similar question of Doug Fisher; he simply said, “Nancy (Frey) and I do two things every working day: we teach and we write. Every day, no exceptions.”
What small habits today could compound into huge PERMA returns for you tomorrow? A reader of this blog once said that great teachers have great lives; great teachers, then, are PERMA people.
So no, New York Lottery — Future Me doesn't want me to buy a lotto ticket; Future Me wants me to make penny-sized, daily investments toward PERMA until I reap the benefits of compounding.
- Ben tapped into a truth reaffirmed in Brown, Roediger, and McDaniels' Make It Stick: the more you learn, the more you learn. In my AP World History class, I keep telling my students that it gets easier — because it does! The more they know about world history, the more they'll be able to learn about world history. The same is true with learning in any field.
Another great post! This reminds me – I just watched Back to the Future and there is an assumption in the movie that there are these singular events that can radically alter and even define our lives. What a scary way to view the world.
In reality, it is the minute and seemingly insignificant choices that make the difference. It is the small daily choices over a lifetime that define us, and if you have a growth mindset then you are going to keep trying to implement these good habits even when you fall out of the good habits from time to time.
Yes! Hence me needing to get the physical going.
Give my regards to your sweet ladies, James. It is so good to hear from you.
I forgot to mention – you posted recently about getting good sleep. I struggle with getting good sleep, but lately I’ve been putting in my earbuds and turning on an audio book in YouTube (there are thousands and they are all free – you could also use LibriVox for this). If I’m not asleep at 3 am, I’m no longer worrying about it because I’m too busy focusing on “Dune” or “Moby Dick” or whatever it is, and before I know it I’m asleep again. I was thinking of this since you mentioned in your post and reading good books. I’m not the greatest reader, but I’m an avid listener 🙂 Now that I’ve had my dose of Dave while eating lunch, I’m off for a post lunch walk.
James, I need to take up your post-lunch walk habit! Keeping some sort of physical work in my day has been a struggle since the days got shorter; I was jogging most nights after the kids went to bed — for two months or so, it was awesome. But then it got darker and I’ve just got to get the physical back in. Thank you for the update — and perhaps I’ll tempt myself into that habit using an audiobook! (Although lately, I can’t stop listening to Tim Keller sermons — check out the Gospel in Life podcast channel, all kinds of free sermons. So. Good.)
I read this article for the first time almost four years ago and immediately started sharing it with others. I just recently spoke at a weekend retreat and shared this with a group of college students as a way to take the next step forward. This simple and realistic approach has so much potential to change us and our communities.
Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) says
James, thank you so much for this follow up note — I am so glad that this post is still helping.