The First Step in Planning is Writing a History of the Future
The following is adapted from The Runway Decade.
Imagine sitting at your future retirement dinner at your favorite restaurant, in a private room with your spouse, adult kids, and a few grandkids, along with some close friends and other important people from your professional life. Everyone is congratulating you on a great career, and at some point, your best friend raises a toast with a nice glass of the sommelier’s recommendation of the house’s best wine.
“Enjoy retirement, my friend,” they say. “You’ve earned it!”
As the emotion of the moment wells up inside of you, your mind flashes back a handful of years to the age you are today, and you recall the decisions made, the gratification delayed, and the journey that got you from this moment to a place of confidence about retirement.
Now you’re back to the future, receiving the toast from your best friend. Your mind starts to drift forward as you think about all of the things you want to do, the places you want to see, and the memories you want to make with the people you love. This is your picture of life in retirement, in as vivid a color as you can dream it up. Where will you go? What will you be doing when you wake up each day? What have you put off that you now have time and freedom to get to? This is your vision of your retirement, so dream big.
We call this “writing the history of the future,” and it’s a crucial first step in planning. You have to see it first. In client conversations, we often share a couple of quotes that were ingrained in Pete’s brain while playing college baseball at LSU for legendary Hall of Fame Coach Skip Bertman.
The first one is the classic Paul J. Meyer quote: “Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon, MUST inevitably come to pass.” The second is a well-known quote from William Johnsen: “If it is to be, it is up to me.” The former is about believing in a big future, and the latter is about who has to make that future a reality. You get to decide, and you have to see it first.
We know this sounds like a pretty basic message that you have probably heard over and over: Decide what you want, when you want it, and what you need to do and are willing to do to get it. That’s just Goal Setting 101, right? We agree! The problem is, few people actually do it, and that’s especially true when people are planning for retirement. Almost the entire population stumbles forward and takes whatever circumstances the universe dishes out to them, and then asks themselves, “How did I end up here instead of there?”
While most people can easily pick numbers as goals that represent progress from where they currently stand, numbers by themselves will fail to inspire you when challenges arise. Pictures and visions are great as well, but even they can be hard for others to grasp and may seem a little “out there” to you or your family, who might accuse you of dreaming too big.
The best approach is probably some combination of the two: not just the measurements and milestones you want to strive for, but the qualitative factors as well. What will it feel like, why do you want it, and what does your ideal retirement look like? What will you do for fun to celebrate the wins along the way, and with whom will you celebrate?
Maybe there is no right way to do it, but what has worked best for many people is to mentally put yourself into that future time like we did earlier at the retirement toast and use your imagination to think vividly about what has to be true for you to feel happy, accomplished, confident, and successful with what you’ve experienced between now and then. In a sense, you really are writing the history of the future the way you want it to be, and just like any other type of creative writing, the more detail you use, the more those images will sear themselves into your unconscious mind where they can be worked on even while you’re sleeping.
This is a key distinction to grasp. You aren’t projecting forward what you hope happens or what you wish possibly could happen. You are, in fact, writing in past tense about what has already happened because you’ve put yourself into the future and are now turning around, looking back, and telling the story about what you experienced. We don’t know why or how, but this makes it real in a way that simply thinking and planning forward does not.
Pete Bush, CFP®, is the CEO and partner of Horizon Financial Group, a full-service financial planning, investment advisory, and retirement planning firm. Focused on bringing confidence and clarity to his clientele, Pete has worked in the industry since 1991, serving clients who include business executives, retirees, and professional athletes.
Bill Bush is a Chartered Retirement Plan Specialist℠, Certified Plan Fiduciary Advisor®, and the Media Manager for Horizon. He produces Horizon’s podcast series and co-hosts Inside the Plan with the 401(k) Brothers. Before Horizon, Bill was a CEO in the healthcare industry and had a lengthy career in television broadcasting, business development, and marketing operations.