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Looking ahead and looking back

We are never who we thought we’d be

Published: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 10:27 a.m. CST

I went to Highland Park High School last week to teach a writing workshop and was asked a question I’d never been asked in public.

Up in a bright classroom on a gray day, after we’d talked for a while — about how to pick a topic, how to start and end a piece, how to avoid mush in the middle — a student raised her hand.

I thought she might have a question about voice, pacing or whether in the digital age writers were doomed to write for no pay beyond the pleasure of attention.

What she said instead was, “What were you like in high school?”

Pause for a moment. Ask yourself the same thing.

What were you like in high school?

There’s something breathtaking about the question, about having to turn around and look hard at the mirage that was you at 16, to see it accurately and describe it honestly.

I gave her the best, quick answer I could muster, something about being perceived as sociable (pom pon girl, student body officer) while I hid my inner churn, my family’s difficulties and the sense that I was removed and different from everyone around me.

I added that I know now that a lot of people feel that way in high school — different, apart — even though others may not notice and they themselves may not be able to name it until a long time later. We went back to talking about writing.

It was only after the workshop was over that I realized that while that young woman may have asked her question because she was interested in me at her age, she may have been doing something more: trying to imagine herself at my current age, projecting into the deep woods of middle life and trying to decipher the path there.

And that raises another question: When you were in high school, how did you imagine yourself at the age you are now?

At 16, how did you imagine yourself at 26, 36, 56, onward?

Probably not very accurately, if the research can be believed.

Not long ago, a team of psychologists published a report in the journal Science that got a lot of publicity. It suggests that at every age, we underestimate how much we’re going to change.

“Why do people so often make decisions that their future selves regret?” they wrote.

The short answer: Because we can’t fathom how different our future selves will be from our present ones.

The researchers studied more than 19,000 people from the ages of 18 to 68. They looked at personality traits, values and preferences of many kinds.

Young to old, the people studied thought that they had changed a lot in the past decade — but wouldn’t change much from then on.

“People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives,” the researchers wrote.

That doesn’t mean people don’t envision the future, just that most of us can’t see how different what we want now is from what we’ll actually want when the future arrives.

In high school, I’d have predicted that I’d always want to be tan. I would always have to know the lyrics to the hit songs. I would always want to wear my skirts eight inches above the knee.

In my 20s, I would have been sure that I would always like trashy novels set in international locations, as well as excruciatingly slow intellectual novels about the domestic lives of women. I would always prefer a man with long hair.

In my 30s, I would have sworn I’d always want to run great distances and take vacations that required extensive travel.

Many preferences in my life have remained, but by now, none of the above apply.

We all box up our lives into stories. One story is the memoir, who we once were. The other is the fantasy, who we will become. We live in between, changing without even knowing it until it’s happened.

Whether you’re in high school or long out of it, you can’t know who you’ll be until you get there.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She can be contacted via e-mail at mschmich@tribune.com

©2013 The Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services

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