Obligations Can Keep Us from Creating Our Own Lives By...
Spell out the investment—the sacrifice, effort, education, relationships, discipline—that you are making now to benefit the person the letter is addressed to. The investment could be in any form of self-development—from improving your health, to getting a graduate degree, to putting a percentage of every paycheck into Treasury bills.
Think of it as an act of philanthropy, except you do not actually know the beneficiary. Not yet.
I got the idea from the great NFL running back Curtis Martin. Curtis was living the Every Breath Paradigm years before we met. He stumbled reluctantly into football, not playing until his junior year in high school, when a coach convinced him that joining the team would take him away for three hours a day from the life-threatening streets of his Pittsburgh neighborhood. He’d once been mistaken for someone else and had a gun put in his face— the trigger was pulled, but the bullet jammed. By Martin’s senior year, every major college program was recruiting him. He chose nearby Pitt.
Despite an injury-riddled college career, he showed enough flashes of talent that the New England Patriots drafted him in the third round in 1995. Whereas most young athletes regard Draft Day as winning the lottery, Curtis’s first thought was, “I don’t want to do this.” A pastor persuaded Curtis to stick with football, showing him how the NFL could be a vehicle for creating the rest of his life, which Curtis wanted to be a life of service to others.
That’s the mental picture that gave Curtis purpose and motivation – he would play football as an investment in his post-NFL self. That’s not the usual motivating force for elite athletes. They love to compete. They’re obsessed with winning now – the future will take care of itself.
But Curtis was playing a longer game. He retired as the fourth leading rusher in NFL history (behind Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders) after a career-ending injury in his eleventh NFL season. During his playing days, he had founded the Curtis Martin Job Foundation, which supports single mothers, disabled people, and at-risk youth.
On his first day as a former football player, Curtis was ready and eager to shake hands with the future-Curtis he had invested in twelve years earlier. He was living his new, pre-planned life. Curtis explained all of this in his speech at his induction into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2012. It is generally acknowledged as one of the most candid and powerful speeches in the event’s history.
It is the model for your letter to your future self.
Curtis Martin’s story is a positive example of investing in a future-you.
Rejember Gunther, the European CEO who was filled with regret, whom I wrote about in a few earlier posts? He’s a negative example of the letter to your future-self. Gunther worked his entire life to make enough money so that his three children wouldn’t have to work as hard as he did. It was a monumental error. The children were neither grateful nor productive because of the money, which they used as a license to do nothing.
His error was not investing in his future self or his legacy as a father. He was merely making a gift.
The difference is profound. An investment comes with an anticipated return. A gift comes with no strings attached. He had given his children a gift that they neither earned nor deserved, hoping for but never articulating what he expected in return from them. In the end, he had not earned their gratitude for his sacrifice, nor did he earn the fulfillment of seeing his children create productive lives of their own.
If Gunther had written a letter to his future-self, his children’s lives might have turned out differently.
The second letter is more than an exercise in writing down your goals. It forces you to regard your well-intentioned efforts today as an investment in the people you are most responsible for raising into productive, happy human beings: yourself and those you love most. It is not a gift: You’re expecting a return.