The 5-Year Rule Is The New Growth Mindset


As I share in 5-Year Rule Of Adult Development: Decades Of Research Shows How To Live Up To Your Full Potential, human development is not linear. It happens in stages. And, each new stage provides us with new perspectives, abilities, goals, and values.


One of the most interesting patterns of the stages paradigm is that each stage lasts for approximately five years according to Harvard-trained researcher, Susanne Cook-Greuter:

It is estimated that it takes about five years to move to a new level if circumstances are favorable and the person is open to change. It takes minimally a year of a well-designed developmental program for participants to shift to a new level. — Susanne Cook-Greuter

Others have come to a similar conclusion anecdotally. In Reinvent Yourself, James Altucher points out that it often takes five years to reinvent yourself...

  • Year One: you’re flailing and reading everything and just starting to DO.
  • Year Two: you know who you need to talk to and network with. You’re Doing every day. You finally know what the monopoly board looks like in your new endeavors.
  • Year Three: you’re good enough to start making money. It might not be a living yet.
  • Year Four: you’re making a good living.
  • Year Five: you’re making wealth.

Although Altucher and Cook-Greuter aren't talking about the exact same thing, it's interesting to notice the similarity.

After holding the 5-Year Rule in my head for awhile now, I've come to believe that...

The 5-Year Rule Is The New Growth Mindset

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck famously introduced the world to the idea of the growth mindset. At its most basic level, if you believe that you can't get smarter (fixed mindset), then you'll act in ways that slow down your learning. On the other hand, if you believe you can get smarter (growth mindset), you'll act in ways that skyrocket your learning.

Just as the belief in a growth mindset results in more learning, so too does the idea of 5-Year Rule.

Let me explain...

First, the 5-Year Rule implies that you are not just one person. Rather, you are separate selves.

Subjectively, it feels like I am a constant and unique self. Sure, I change over time. But, I am still me. Right?


The 5-Year Rule implies that we should think of ourselves as essentially becoming a new person every five years (albeit with the same name).

To try this idea on, I invite you to join me for a quick thought experiment...

Think of yourself from 10 years ago (I'm using 10 years instead of 5 years to make the point more clear and simple). Think about what your goals, perspectives, abilities, and values were. What did you think was important? How did you spend your time? Now, think of your current self. How would you answer these questions now? What would be different?

Now, for the big question...

Would you even be friends with yourself from 10 years ago? My answer is no. (Please share your answer in the comments. I'm curious to see how people's responses shake out.)

Here's why I wouldn't be friends with my former self...

When I was 28 years old, I had just become a father. Parenthood had shocked my operating system, but had not transformed it yet. I hadn't yet embraced my passion for learning how to learn. Today, I am a full-time writer and teacher on the topic. My 28-year-old self looked down on lifestyle businesses and was goal obsessed. My 38-year old self values lifestyle is suspicious of goals. While each self might appreciate the other, they resonate on different frequencies. I'm not even sure that my current self would be able to mentor my younger self. I'm reminded of a Michael Dell interview where he was asked what he would advise his 18-year old self, and he said that his younger self would've probably been too stubborn to listen. to anything.

If I go back another 10 years, I had just graduated high school. I had never had a girl friend. I had just discovered my love of learning and entrepreneurship. I was living under my own roof for the first time. Again, different frequencies.

Although these selves are separate, they are deeply connected. Therefore...

These separate selves are Siamese Selves

In other words, the actions of our current self literally create the conditions for our future selves. This is why I think of each self as a Siamese Self—to take after the fact that Siamese twins can share organs with each other. So today's actions performed by Michael Simmons 3 create the results for Michael Simmons 4 & Michael Simmons 5.


The idea of Siamese Selves is profound for me...

When I make decisions, I think about my future Siamese Selves, and I value them just as highly as I value my current self. This makes me more willing to invest in compounding processes (long-term relationships, lifelong learning, health, financial). If I make a small investment today that pays of 10x in the future, it is silly not to invest. It is unfair to rob my future self of '10' of something, because I'm not willing to give up '1' of it now.

Over time, I've also realized that thinking of one fixed self can be dangerous. If we operate based on the assumption that we will stay relatively the same then...

  • We will likely under-invest in personal development.
  • We will treat parts of ourselves as fixed that are actually malleable.
  • We will make flawed future plans (more on this below).

#2: Long-Term Goal Setting Is Fundamentally Flawed

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." —Heraclitus

Long-term goal setting is based on the flawed assumption that your current self's values and opportunities will be the same as our future selves'.

Said differently, when you set a long-term goal, you are making several predictions. You are asking...

  • What do I predict I will want in the future?
  • What do I predict the world will be like?
  • What opportunities will my future self have?

The problem with asking these questions is that they are impossible to predict even though we feel like we can.

To see the prediction fallacy, just rewind. Could your self from 10 years ago have predicted your current self? Could you have predicted 2020 in 2019.

Put simply, the world is much more unpredictable than we like to acknowledge. (hat tip: Nassim Taleb's Incerto series)

Let me give an example to prove my point. Every time I write an article a few things happen...

  1. I learn. I understand my own ideas better (see Explanation Effect). Next, I get new knowledge as a result of research. Finally, I get a little bit better at writing.
  2. I get feedback. First, I get quantitative feedback (quantity of views, likes, comments, and shares), which I can compare to other articles I've written. Second, I get qualitative feedback from the comments and from conversations I have leading up to the article.
  3. I build relationships by having a positive impact. I get new followers and studentswho read my old articles and who will read my future articles. In addition, I deepen my relationship with existing subscribers.
  4. I make money. A percentage of people who read my content sign up for our courses.

In a very real way, every article makes me into a new person with new knowledge, relationships, and money. This means that after every article, I can see and capitalize on writing opportunities that I couldn't before. Every article influences what I write next. For example, part of the reason I'm writing this article is because my other article on the 5-Year Rule really resonated with others, something that surprised me.

The same thing happens whether you're a writer or not. Every project changes you in ways that are impossible to predict in advance. Or as the authors of Algorithms To Live By eloquently put it...

It’s rare that we make an isolated decision, where the outcome doesn’t provide us with any information that we’ll use to make other decisions in the future.

The anti-thesis to this organic writing approach would be creating a content calendar at the beginning of the year and pressuring myself to stick with it. There is no way that I can predict what I will write in the future. A year ago, I didn't even know what the 5-Year Rule was.

In other words, as a result of the 5-Year Rule, I set very, very few long-term goals. Instead, I focus on what I will write next. Then, I trust my future self to figure out what to do after that. Who am I to presume what opportunities my future self should pursue?

Side note: I think goals are vastly over-estimated. There was a great book by two AI researchers that completely flipped my thinking. You can read more about the other approach here.

Bottom Line: Because I understand the 5-Year Rule, I have a fundamentally different approach to learning and goal setting. This approach new approach is both more effective and more joyful.

"Travel, there is not path. The path is made by walking." —Antonio Machado