We all know that we change. We see young children changing by the day. However, Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert claims that we make a fundamental mistake when considering change in ourselves.
Gilbert did an experiment with thousands of people, asking them one of two questions: “How much will you change in the next 10 years?” and “How much have you changed in the past 10 years?” These questions allowed him to compare the predictions of people 18 years old with the reports of people who were 28.
Here's what he found: Yes, change does slow down with age, but it doesn't slow nearly as much as we think! At every age, from 18 to 68, people vastly underestimated how much change they would experience over the following 10 years. His study shows that 18-year-olds anticipate changing only as much as 50-year-olds actually do! When it comes to our personality, our values, our favorite musicians and favorite kind of vacation, we all hugely underestimate how much we will change.
A few personal examples: When I was ten I loved science. When I was sixteen I found the math just too overwhelming. At age eighteen my preferred spiritual practice was personal prayer, but by twenty-six it was meditation. When I was twenty I preferred to spend time with books, but at today I prefer to spend time with people.
At every point in my life I’ve mistakenly seen myself as the most developed person that I will ever be. Gilbert calls this the "end of history" illusion. We mistakenly see the present moment as a watershed in our lives and believe that now is the moment at which we’ve finally become ourselves.
So why does this matter? If you step into my office, you will see a lot of books I purchased when I was 18. At the time I had different interests and aspirations. I spent a huge amount of money on those books, and would give a great deal to be able to have that money back. Similarly you might have gotten a tattoo you later regretted, or invested money in one project when your interests soon shifted elsewhere. We all make big decisions on the assumption we will stay much the same, but we don’t.
It is this question – How much do we change? – that the Torah debates. Joseph could easily have assumed that the brothers who sold him into slavery were still the obnoxious people they had once been. Instead Joseph creates a test whereby he can assess whether or not they have become better people. When Judah comes forward to plead for the return of their brother Benjamin, and offers to be incarcerated in his place, Joseph’s optimism is proven right. Judah is a new man.
Dan Gilbert summarizes the main conclusion of his research as follows:
“Time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect. Only when we look backwards do we realize how much change happens in a decade. It's as if, for most of us, the present is a magic time. It's a watershed on the timeline. It's the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished.”
Just like Joseph, we can open ourselves to the possibility that those around us are capable of change. Just like Judah, we can let go of our old selves and embrace our evolution, as we continue to transform, moment to moment.