When I was a teenager, I’d go to bed thinking about the future in so much detail that it felt like a hallucination. I’d picture walking down a sidewalk between skyscrapers, hearing taxis honk and smelling fried onions from a food truck. The dream would blur and change. Then I’d be walking through a field in a gauzy dress, stooping to pick a flower, the sun wobbling close to the horizon. The future felt like that: a field of wildflowers with endless possibilities, all ready to be plucked, once you find the perfect one.
The truth is, we know so little about where we will be in 10 years. Despite the many psychics I’ve visited, there’s no roadmap for the future. Sometimes, it feels like you have very little control in where you might land. That is, of course, what makes the future both exciting and utterly terrifying.
In 2018, I encountered writer and artist Debbie Millman’s affirmation exercise called Your Ten-Year Plan. In it, you imagine the details of your life, a decade ahead of the exact point at which you stand. Unlike other forecasting exercises, this one does not boil to a tidy list of goals or even desires. Rather, it’s an act of lucid hallucination, like the ones I used to practice before bed. The questions you ask yourself are specific: How many pets do I have? What is my bed like? What excites me? How is my health? Then you describe a day in your life, 10 years from now, with as much courage as you can summon. As Millman says, “Put your whole heart into it. And write like there is no tomorrow; write like your life depends on it because it does.” You read the plan once a year — and you let the magic do its thing.
I’m convinced there will be two types of reader reactions to that last paragraph: those who will roll their eyes and move on to the next article, and those who will immediately grab a pen.
My friend N. and I were the latter. At the time, we were at a crossroads in our lives, and frankly, game for any escapist exercise. So, lodged in our homes across the country from one another, we wrote down our plans. I still have the document, three computers later, and open it religiously every spring. The plan itself has never changed, but my reaction to it does, every single year. That reaction always tells me something about myself.
I’ll give you the bare bones of my 10-year plan: In 2028, I’m in a seaside cottage. I work for myself, designing romance novel covers (I mention “airbrushing pectorals” in the plan) and occasionally writing about food. I ride my bike and eat a lot of pasta. My daughter and I spend our evenings in our sunroom, reading while we wait for my husband to get home from the brewery/bookstore he’s opened up in our small, progressive town. In my plan, I think I’ve been sucked, quite willingly, into a Nicholas Sparks novel. Beyond the actual setting and costumery for my future self, my vision embodies a sense of profound peace. An end to that itchy, need-to-escape-from-my-skin feeling I’ve always had. No more climbing of ladders. No more comparing myself to others. My future life feels like a clean sheet falling slowly over a bed on a sunny afternoon.
Two months after we wrote our 10-year plans, my friend N. came out as gay and transgender. They identify as nonbinary. While writing about their future self, they said, “I didn’t want to become an older woman any more than I ever enjoyed being a younger woman.” Part of their plan entailed opening their marriage and exploring intimate spaces beyond the commitment they made at 21, when they got married during our senior year of college. I was privileged to witness the ways they have since embodied the intention from that 10-year plan, choosing to commit to themselves in the bravest and most honest way I have ever seen. While reminiscing about the plan, they recently told me, “A self emerged who I actually wanted to imagine a future for.”
It’s been only four years, but for my part, I don’t yet live in a coastal town and don’t ride my bike as often as I’d hoped. However, I do work for myself and sometimes write about food. I don’t design covers for romance novels, but I read a lot of them. I eat a lot of pasta, too. In my own family, I have found a sense of comfort that has me gazing less and less outward. I think I finally understand what emotional safety means.
When considering the 10-year plan, I’m resistant to claim that things “came true.” That phrasing suggests that I didn’t have much agency in shaping the life I have, or that N. didn’t do the grueling and ultimately revelatory work of discovering themselves. We did, and we’re both standing in different places than we once were.
But what has surprised me is that the core of my dream-slash-plan still rings true. I might not care so much about what my furniture looks like, or whether I’ve maintained my Korean skincare routine — both things I wrote about in excruciating detail in my 10-year plan — but in my daily life, I do feel waves of that perfect contentment I described in the plan. Not always, because that’s not life – but much more frequently than I did four years ago. I think a lot has to do with the act of articulating a vision, then continuing to read it every year, as a kind of recalibration of the self. A compass north, guiding me slowly (sometimes imperceptibly) forward.
I maintain that the 10-year plan is magic. But it’s the kind of magic you weave for yourself, out of determination, big leaps, and, yes, sometimes privilege and luck. It emerges from the alchemy of language and intention. Of hope and conviction.
And, if one year in the future, I open the document and discover none of it rings true anymore? If I encounter my old plan and see not an iota of my current desires? Well, then, I’ll just write a new one. There are always more flowers in the field.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, is forthcoming in 2023 from HarperCollins. She has also written for Cup of Jo about books and motherhood and alternate fathers.
P.S. The Grand Canyon trick, and what are your simple pleasures?
(Photo by Sophia Hsin/Stocksy.)