Life in the imagination forest

Why Your Imagination Will Ruin Your Future (and How to Stop It)

Adolph Fischer was not a happy man. Fischer was a labor leader in the late 1800s and spent his short life in poverty. His primary claim to fame was being accused, based on perjured testimony, of inciting the Haymarket riots. He was nowhere near them.

Fischer was sentenced to death by hanging due to this fabricated account. As he walked to the gallows, he was beaming. His last words were, “This is the happiest moment of my life.”

Contrast Fischer’s life with George Eastman, one of the most impressive entrepreneurs of his time. He founded The Eastman Kodak Company (known today as Kodak), which pioneered photography and film, bringing the camera to the mass market.

George Eastman (left) hanging out with Thomas Edison

As of the early 1900s, Kodak was one of the most successful companies in American history, but Eastman didn’t stop there. He shortened working hours, provided disability benefits, and set up profit-sharing with his workers. Those benefits were exceedingly rare at the time, making Eastman not only a titan of industry but a champion of the working man.

In 1932, he went into his office, wrote a short note, and shot himself.

A seemingly miserable life ends with its happiest moment, while a wildly successful life ends in suicide. What the hell?


As you read those stories, you were no doubt (perhaps unconsciously) imagining what it might be like to be in Fischer’s and Eastman’s shoes. That’s why the endings of Fischer and Eastman’s lives are so staggering. We think we know how these men should have felt about their lives, but the evidence suggests we’re quite wrong.

That’s because what we left out of their stories is every bit as important as what we envisioned.

Fischer, who felt that his life’s work had been in vain, saw his death as a path to notoriety for his causes and immortality for himself. After being frustrated in his attempts to create change in life, he could become a martyr for his beliefs.

Eastman, on the other hand, had enjoyed a wonderful life. Now in his waning years, he suffered from a painful and degenerative spinal disorder. His suicide note read, “My work is done. Why wait?”

With a bit of additional context, these men’s ends (and their feelings about them) make much more sense. But the mistake we made in evaluating the stories of Fischer and Eastman is all too common when we assess possible futures for ourselves, per Daniel Gilbert:

“When we look down the timeline at the different lives we might lead, we may not always know which is [better]. We are forced to consider the possibility that we did something fundamentally wrong when we mentally slipped out of our shoes and into theirs, and that this fundamental mistake can cause us to choose the wrong future.”

What’s happening here, and how can we avoid this trap?

To answer these questions, we’ll make a couple of stops. First, let’s get some ice cream.

Filling in

Imagine a fresh ice cream cone, just starting to melt on a hot summer’s day.

How much would you pay for that ice cream? $3? $4? $10?

The amount you were willing to pay is probably highly dependent on what kind of ice cream (and the quantity) you envisioned.

What flavor did you imagine? Custard or soft-serve? Two scoops or three? What toppings did it have? Regular cone or waffle?

When we want to imagine an object (or a potential future), our minds are all too happy to create a plausible-seeming reality for us to explore. That’s why your imagined ice cream probably wasn’t anchovy flavored.

The unique details of the ice cream you imagined – mine was two scoops of cookie dough in a caramel cone – determine how much you’ll pay for it.

The ice cream experiment highlights that when we imagine the future, we envision a certain kind of future. We may not closely examine the details, but they’re critical determinants of the futures we seek and which ones we avoid.

Let’s talk about something slightly higher stakes than dessert: choosing an apartment. If I told you I had an apartment to show you with high ceilings, all new appliances, and a big bedroom, you’d probably have enough to generate a full-fledged mental picture.

Unfortunately, it would only bear a passing resemblance to reality. Your mind may have filled in new hardwood floors or lots of light – images conjured by the descriptors I gave but not related to them.

Those ingoing expectations would be made apparent by your disgust with the 20-year-old linoleum flooring throughout, the lack of a living room (surprise, it’s a studio!), and the one measly window facing another building.

Because we don’t question what our brains fill in, this trick has real consequences for our happiness. We’re far more willing to pay up to acquire our dream jobs, houses, and desserts when we’re envisioning the versions we want – even though we’ve fabricated a considerable part of what having those things would actually be like.

Unfortunately, the filling-in trick isn’t the only one our brains are playing on us. Next, we’ll examine the filling-in trick’s partner in crime – the cropping-out trick.

Cropping out

In every perfect photo, there’s an uncaptured world surrounding the subject. Yet when we look at a picture, we rarely stop to consider the things outside the frame:

  • The mouth-watering shot of a decadent dessert doesn’t show the crying baby at the next table ruining dinner.
  • The picture of a tourist casually holding up the tower in Piza doesn’t show the people behind the photographer waiting impatiently to do the same.
  • A picture of a gorgeous Hawaiian sunset doesn’t show the mosquito biting the photographer.

If we only occasionally question the carefully curated views of the world that photos offer, we never question what’s left out of our daydreams about the future.

As with a picture, what we leave out of the frame matters. A lot.

In Stumbling On Happiness, Gilbert explains this trick:

“Most Americans can be classified as one of two types: those who live in California and are happy they do, and those who don’t live in California but believe they’d be happier if they did. Yet, research shows that Californians are actually no happier than anyone else – so why does everyone (including Californians) seem to believe they are?

California has some of the most beautiful scenery and some of the best weather in the continental United States, and when non-Californians hear that magic word their imaginations instantly produce mental images of sunny beaches and giant redwood trees. But while Los Angeles has a better climate than Columbus, climate is just one of many things that determine a person’s happiness – and yet all those other things are missing from the mental image.”

In other words, we believe that Californians are happier than Ohioans because we imagine California with almost no details besides lovely weather. We’re so enamored by the warm breezes that we don’t think about things like traffic (maddening), wildfires (devastating), and higher taxes (annoying).

In short: we believe that future events we imagine will happen and future events we don’t imagine won’t happen.

If we were wrong about either of those things, our choices might change. And we are frequently wrong about those things. Unfortunately, we seldom notice it.

“The problem isn’t that our brains fill in and leave out. God help us if they didn’t. No, the problem is that they do this so well that we aren’t aware it’s happening. As such, we tend to accept the brain’s products uncritically and expect the future to unfold with the details – and with only the details – that the brain has imagined. One of imagination’s shortcomings, then, is that it takes liberties without telling us it has done so.”

If you’re like me, you’re already looking at your brain the same way you might eye someone wearing a giant backpack in a crowded subway car. Unfortunately, there’s still one more stop on our Brain Mistakes tour: impact bias.

The final pixel

We tend to remember life as a series of highlights – memorable events that Changed Our Lives. The day we got the acceptance letter to college, met our partners, or got our first job.

Then there are the terrible times – when we got fired from a job, lost a loved one, or humiliated ourselves in front of an audience.

Memorable life events like those have big, lasting effects. We’re just routinely wrong about how big the effects are and how long they last.

We might expect that getting a promotion and raise would increase our happiness by something like 20% and that we would keep much of that happiness boost for the next year. Likewise, we might expect that losing out on a job we desperately wanted would put us in the dumps for months.

Fortunately or unfortunately, neither of these things are true. While high-impact events, both good and bad, can change near-term happiness, they tend to deliver a smaller impact and for a shorter duration than we expect.

Why is that? The short answer is that we imagine our lives unfolding in broad strokes; instead, life happens in tiny increments – day by day and hour by hour. Those daily occurrences have some emotional impact, which means the day’s events can hold more sway in determining happiness than last month’s big life event.

That’s why research suggests it’s best to view our baseline happiness – unique to each person – as a powerful magnet. Significant life events may cause us to deviate from the baseline for a little while, but our happiness quickly returns to equilibrium except in the most extreme cases.

Picture correction

So when we imagine our futures, we mistakenly believe the mental image we’ve conjured will:

  • Happen precisely as we’ve imagined it, with no additions or subtractions
  • Permanently change our happiness level

These blind spots are fine for minor decisions. We’re not going to screw up our lives by ordering the wrong thing for dessert, so it’s not worth wasting our mental energy evaluating whether the cheesecake is a good purchase.

On the bigger things, we need to spend some time actively questioning our assumptions to ensure our brains aren’t doing anything shady without permission.

That should be the end of the story. We learn not to trust our imaginations so much and to interrogate the possible futures they serve up. Roll credits.

But, meh. That doesn’t sound so great. Most big things in life – relationships, jobs, and cities – don’t come with 30-day money-back guarantees. Are we on our own for these things, fighting against our brains with no reinforcements in sight?

Sometimes, but not always. To get the help we desire, we’ll have to turn to some unlikely sources – ones you’re probably not going to like.

Phone a friend

Gilbert offers a way to circumvent our shortcomings and make better decisions. When in doubt, ask a person who’s already done what you’re considering.

You’re probably thinking, “Only one person? How do I know if they like the same stuff I do? Surely it would be better to ask more people, just to be safe.”

If anything were to convince me how similar humans are, it’s their near-universal disbelief in the surrogacy approach.

Despite what our instincts suggest, the phone-a-friend route tends to better than using our imaginations to predict what we’ll like:

“When people are deprived of the information that imagination requires and are thus forced to use others as surrogates, they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.”

This approach works in endeavors large and small. Whether choosing a meal or choosing a city, it’s probably best to ask someone else how they like it. Basing your expectations on their current feelings will probably closely approximate how you end up feeling about the choice.

Gilbert warns that most people reject this solution because we fail to realize how similar we all are. Do so at your own risk.

Choose like an expert

In Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions, Gerd Gigerenzer offers a simple way to make decisions under uncertainty: heuristics.

“Calculated intelligence may do the job for known risks, but in the face of uncertainty, intuition is indispensable. Our society, however, often resists acknowledging intuition as a form of intelligence, while taking logical calculations at face value as intelligent.”

There are three characteristics of every good heuristic:

  • It appears quickly in the consciousness
  • The underlying reasons for it aren’t apparent yet
  • It’s strong enough to act upon

This is far from some underinformed idiot YOLO-ing through life by the seat of his pants. Most experts rely on only a few pieces of data, ignoring the rest – even on big decisions.

Let’s take one of the thornier issues in life – choosing a career path. I’ve never been entirely sure of What I Want to Do With My Life. But when evaluating a new job opportunity, I’ve learned to focus on three key questions:

  • Am I excited by the prospect of doing this work?
  • Does this role allow me to meet interesting people, even if it doesn’t work out?
  • Does this role give me a chance to build valuable skills that will help me in future endeavors, even if it doesn’t work out?

If the answer is yes to all of those, it’s a go. If not, it’s a no.

Gigerenzer offers another, lower-stakes example: choosing a meal at a restaurant you’ve never been to before. Rather than agonizing over the menu, he suggests three strategies for maximizing your enjoyment of the experience:

  • Ask the waiter what they would order at the restaurant that night. This is a more powerful question than what they would recommend, which has other inputs than food deliciousness.
  • Scan the menu until you find the first option that looks good, then order it.
  • Ask the person at your table who has been to the restaurant most often what they plan to order, and follow their lead.

Heuristics like these seem too simple to be trusted when there are infinite job listings or Yelp reviews to sift through. But they work surprisingly well and offer quick solutions to complex problems.

Piss off your math teachers

Remember when you used to take multiple-choice math tests in school? You’d have an equation to solve and four possible answers it could be. The teachers would drill you on how to handle the equation and would admonish you not to “test-and-check,” plugging in different answers to see if they work.

In adult life, we don’t get a lot of multiple-choice questions. I would love for someone to supply four possible choices for me to evaluate on the question, “What should I do with my career?” I’d have a 25% chance of being right the first time I chose – way higher than my current “guess forever and have no way of knowing if I was even close” method.

Alas, this will never happen. For most big decisions, we operate under uncertainty, not risk. There’s no right answer to optimize for – we can’t even know the full possibility set.

Instead, we must piss off our math teachers and test-and-check with abandon.

Complete a sample work assignment for the job you’re interested in. Considering a move? Visit the city and get a sense of what it’s like to live there. Borrow gear for a new hobby from a friend before buying your own on spec.

Yes, this process is expensive and time-consuming. But this period of exploration will make you an informed decision-maker when it comes time to make big decisions. If you’ve worked in three industries and five cities, you’ll know much more about what you like to work on and where you want to live than someone who’s done one of each.

As David Epstein writes in Range, “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.”

A brain error in your favor

It’s been quite the journey. We’ve visited a lot of places, introduced tough problems, and mostly solved them.

Still, we’ve relied on imagination to help us make decisions for our whole lives. Knowing just how flawed our primary tool is can be paralyzing.

But there’s one final piece of good news: the minute you choose something – a meal, a partner, a job, or a city to live in – your brain begins cooking the books in your favor.

If you’ve ever bought a car, you’ve noticed dozens of the same model magically appeared in your neighborhood shortly thereafter. We spot these cars – which have, of course, been there the whole time – because of confirmation bias. Our brains are helpfully alerting us to information that makes our purchase seem like a good one.

In this case, confirmation bias is a feature rather than a bug. When you choose a meal or a life direction, the same forces that alert you to Nissan Altimas set to work rationalizing it.

The result: you’ll believe that any other choice would have been the wrong one.

Like with the surrogacy trick, we don’t trust that this is how our brains work. We think that we’ll regret an active mistake more than a road not taken – but it tends to be the reverse. As Gilbert notes:

“Because we do not realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice, we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.”

That means all the indecisiveness and agony about whether you did the right thing is contained to the short-term – right before and right after you make a decision.

After that, you’re free – and very likely happy. 

Related reading:

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World – David Epstein

Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions – Gerd Gigerenzer

Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert

Life is a Picture, But You Live in a Pixel – Wait But Why

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