Recently, I spent time with my youngest daughter, celebrating her graduation from high school. We shared some awesome moments and father-daughter conversations. I attended her high school graduation and took keepsake photos of the event. The next night, we had a party for her with about fifty of her friends and family.
The night of her graduation, I listened to what felt like endless speeches by school administrators, faculty, and students. Of course, they all had the common themes of hope, a bright future, and their school spirit—the best ever! I began to think back to my experience as a high school student decades ago, thinking about the speech I might have written, probably arriving at the same message about how great the future would be for us all.
Had I written a speech, would my predictions have been accurate?
I began to ponder whether my high school graduation goals have really come to fruition
As I listened to the students’ graduation speeches, I got the sense that they were painting an overly optimistic picture of the future, while of course wearing rose-colored glasses.
At their age, I could not have imagined all the opportunities ahead, or the successes and failures, tragedies, and disappointments along my journey. At 18, I felt an overwhelming responsibility to support myself financially, quickly moving out of my parents’ home. My memories tend toward feeling a lot of pressure to make it on my own.
Fortunately, my work soon began to develop into a career I could never have imagined while in high school. I worked through a series of jobs with a large employer that was soon acquired by a much larger company, providing me additional opportunities. I leveraged promotions by accepting multiple relocation moves. I became comfortable with a steady paycheck, house and car payments, and putting off increased retirement savings until some mystical “later” date. Instead of taking more risks, I settled for the career I was in and began accumulating stuff.
I didn’t “take chances and soar like an eagle” as many students recommended in their graduation speeches.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” –First inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt
Back to the graduation party. I conducted an informal survey of family members and friends, asking them, “If you could do it all over again, knowing some of the challenges you went through, would you be willing to be a graduating high school senior again without the knowledge of what you experienced”?”
The overwhelming response was “NO!”
I found that answer very interesting. As adults, we were avoiding the pain more now than the pleasure of unknown opportunities that would unfold for us as recent high school graduates.
Our mind plays tricks on our memories and ability to visualize our future
On the train trip to see my daughter, I happened to pick up a fascinating book called Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist whose book “describes the foibles of imagination and illusions of foresight that cause each of us to misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our satisfactions.”
I gained some insights into how our minds and human emotions influence our happiness, memories, and expectations of the future. In many cases, what we think is accurate is completely wrong. We make assumptions and we indiscriminately fill in the missing pieces based on our current emotional states. Here are a couple of key items that stuck out for me.
Our past is not stored as movie
We each carry many memories that we have accumulated from early childhood up to the present day. Our mind is incapable of storing all aspects of the emotions, words, sights, sounds, etc. of these experiences. Much like a computer hard drive or a security video system recording 24/7, we soon run out of storage space. Our memories can store only some major pieces or blocks of these events. When we attempt to recall memories, our present mental state influences the recall of those memories and how we fill in what we think were the missing pieces.
We underestimate how past loss and disappointment affect us
There are studies that have been conducted on volunteers of how they would predict their happiness level if they became physically handicapped or disabled. The traditional response is their level of happiness would be less than it is today. Yet researchers interviewing disabled people that included blind and paraplegics found that their happiness levels were similar to the non-disabled and in some cases, they were actually happier.
Additional studies were conducted with volunteers in control and test groups asking them how they would feel about a major loss or disappointment in their lives, versus missed opportunities. Researchers found that memories of events such as divorce, family deaths, and being fired were not as unpleasant—with time—as feelings about missed opportunities. People were found to be measurably less happy when considering missed opportunities than when remembering terrible events. For those bad experiences, the mind was able to justify and minimize the events while the missed goals had too many future possibilities to consider and needed to fill in the what-if’s. There was a deep sense of loss from what “could have been”.. While time had healed some of the pain of past experiences, in terms of missed opportunities there was a deep sense of loss surrounding what “could have been.”
Visualizing our future is influenced by our emotional state
I like to plan future events and visualize how great things will be once I achieve my goals. Wouldn’t you know it, your present emotional state has a huge impact on how you visualize the future. Regarding the students’ graduation speeches about hope and success, it seemed like they were envisioning a future of rainbows, unicorns, and lollipops. That makes sense, though—it was a big day, one with a theme of a bright future.
I recognize that I have become weighed down by present situations
I can see that—after listening to the graduation speeches, attending the party, and reading a book on insights into our minds and thinking—I was feeling a bit blue. The last couple of years have been very busy for us, reaching financial independence, with one daughter’s college graduation and marriage, debt snowballs, downsizing, becoming debt free, and remodeling our new place. All of these things have taken energy and planning. Some have included disappointment, leaving me to wonder just how achievable my dreams really are. I recognize now that I must do something to spark the creative visualization of our future that includes positivity, hope, and discrete details.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened” –Mark Twain
Time speeds by—more quickly as we get older. (I can’t believe that it’s been three decades since I was in high school!) In particular, the most recent ten years have slipped by quickly for me. We are entering a new and unfamiliar phase in our lives today. Post remodeling, post becoming debt free, and on the verge of leaving work with our employers. We believe our future involves camping, travel, healthier diets, more exercise, and additional involvement in our community. This is a pivotal point for us to change from decades of accumulating and building net worth to leaving a steady paycheck and potentially drawing on savings and retirement. The Just One More Year Syndrome is rearing its ugly head, telling us to continue to wait, due to all the scary monsters and disasters that could be ahead. I recognize that and continue to work through those worries.
Seeing the hope and creativity of young graduates is energizing, and reminds me that, no matter how discouraged I’m feeling today, there is still the opportunity to create a bright future. Even 30 years after my own high school graduation, life is still a work in progress.
Thanks for reading.
How about you, can you remember your high school graduation experience and your dreams for the future? Did those dreams manifest for you in ways you expected? Would you be willing to go back again and do it all over without the knowledge you have today?
Phot copyright : Viktoriia Kazakova