You know a picture is worth a thousand words, but could it also be worth a million dollars? If so, what does a million dollar picture look like?
My daughter Savannah and I found out last summer when we wandered into famous nature photographer Peter Lik’s gallery in Las Vegas. I love the outdoors and Mr. Lik’s pictures are stunning. One of them, in particular, caught my eye, not because it was my favorite but because of the cost. The price of the photo was a cool million dollars.
The picture, which consisted of blurred streaks of red, yellow, and white, looked more like modern art than a photograph. I am certain my daughter and I didn’t look like prospective buyers of a million dollar photograph but the gallery attendant, a friendly middle-aged man from middle-east, saw us looking at the photo and came over to tell us about it nonetheless.
He explained that the photo was taken in an aspen and maple forest in the autumn and that it was a “drop shot.” This means that Mr. Lik, after planning, composing, and selecting the settings, simply opened the shutter and droped the camera. The falling camera and the open shutter caused the blurred, abstract, modern-art feel of the photo. I assume the cost to repair or replace the broken camera is built into the million dollar price tag. While I preferred some of the more realistic nature photographs the million dollar “drop shot” photo was undoubtedly beautiful.
A Different Kind of Million Dollar Picture
I don’t have a million dollars to spend on abstract nature photography and if any of you did you probably wouldn’t need my advice on personal finance. Luckily this post is not about nature photography. I am thinking about a completely different kind of million dollar picture; one anyone can obtain quickly, easily, and at no cost. In fact, not only is the million dollar picture I am thinking of free, it can help turn the future you into a millionaire.
You see, many of us have a difficult time forgoing present spending to send money to our future selves. This is a particular problem for the young since many of them don’t believe they will ever grow old. Intellectually they understand it is inevitable but on an emotional level they haven’t come to grips with it. This was demonstrated by some interesting research conducted by Hal Hershfield and his colleagues that I wrote about in a previous post entitled Become a Better Saver by Connecting With Your Future Self.
In the study the researchers had people think of their future selves while connected to a brain scan. In some of the subjects the patterns revealed by the brain scans looked like what the researchers would expect to see when people are thinking about a stranger rather than themselves. Not coincidently these subjects were also less willing to save money for the future. On a deep emotional level they felt that saving their money would be the same as giving it away to a stranger.
The researchers concluded that in order to become better savers we need a way to connect with our future selves on an emotional level so that we recognize them as us, not strangers. Further research showed that age-progressed photography is one useful tool to accomplish this. After looking at age-progressed photos of themselves the research subjects were willing to save more money for the future than a control group that was shown only pictures of their current selves
Why Age-Progressed Photos Work
Walter Mischel, the psychologist behind the famous marshmallow experiment, has spent much of his career studying the topic of self-control. He has concluded not only that self-control is vital for success, but also that it can be learned. We are not simply born with or without self-control, but we can develop or improve our self-control by learning and practicing various techniques.
All of these techniques work because they do one of two things. They either distance us from the temptation in front of us or make the future consequences of our present choices seem more real. In other words, to improve our self-control we need to either cool the present temptation, heat the future consequences, or both. Mischel summarizes these principles as follows:
“To resist temptation we have to cool it, distance it from the self, and make it abstract. To take the future into account, we have to heat it, make it imminent and vivid. To plan for the future, it helps to pre-live it at least briefly, to imagine the alternate possible scenarios as if they were unfolding in the present. This allows us to anticipate the consequences of our choices, letting ourselves both feel hot and think cool.”
Age-progressed photos make us better savers because they make our future selves “imminent and vivid.” Seeing a picture that is undeniably us, but looks much older, forces us to come to grips with our own mortal timeline. It forces us to understand on an emotional level that we will grow old and that we need to prepare for it now.
Create Your Own Million Dollar Picture
I recently found a website, www.in20years.com, where anyone can upload a headshot of themselves and quickly and easily age it either twenty or thirty years. It is free, doesn’t require you to sign up or subscribe to anything, and only takes about five minutes. I recommend everyone take a few minutes right now to create a million dollar picture of yourself.
Here are million dollar pictures of two of my lovely daughters. Savannah, on the top, is currently 18. Shannon, on the bottom, is currently 20. The pictures age them 30-years to make them appear 48 and 50.
Finally, here is a link to a website with information about other fun internet-based tools to help you connect to your future self. The tools include age and life-expectancy calculators as well as other image progression tools, some of which require you to create an account, pay a fee, or both: Top 25 Incredible Age Progression Tools Online
How to Use Your Million Dollar Picture
Now that you have your million dollar picture, what is the best way to use it? As Mischel’s quote above suggests simply looking at the photo of your aged self is not enough. To plan for the future you need to take a few minutes to “imagine the alternate possible scenarios as if they were unfolding in the present.”
Look at the picture of your future self and imagine that you are retired and living only on Social Security. What kind of life will you have? Are you financially secure? What type of house are you living in? What opportunities are available to you? Do you have the money to do the things you wish to do with your children and grandchildren?
Now perform the same exercise assuming you start saving and preparing for retirement now. How does this change the future you? What opportunities would this open up for you? What hobbies would you like to pursue? What talents would you like to develop? What experiences would you like to have, and who would you like to have them with? Let your imagination run wild and “pre-live” the two scenarios in advance.
The future is now hot but we haven’t done anything yet to cool the present. The best way I know to do that is to make your retirement savings automatic. To, in the words of Craig Matters, “use technology as a substitute for willpower.” This cools the temptation to spend everything you make by creating a distance between the money you are setting aside for your future self and the money available to you now.
The best thing about using technology as a substitute for willpower is that you only need to make the decision once. After that it simply happens. You grow used to your slightly reduced paychecks and move on with your life. You don’t have to deal with the “hot” decision each month on how to divide the money between your present and future self.
Right now, while the future is hot, is the best time to set up an automatic savings plan or to increase your rate of saving if you already have one. With the aged you looking on and the memories of future scenarios fresh in your mind you are more likely now to be generous to your future self than ever before. Make the decision now before the future cools and the present heats back up.
I asked Savannah and Shannon to perform this exercise and they both reported that seeing and imagining their future selves was strange but did make them want to save more. Savannah is already a great saver while Shannon tends to live more for the present. As they are both in college neither has the resources to save much presently.
I think I will put these photos back and present them to each daughter when they graduate from college and get steady jobs. Having their future selves looking on as they fill out 401(k) paperwork will certainly help them be fair as they divide resources between the present and future.
Now it’s your turn. If you haven’t already done so create your own million dollar picture and use it to connect with your future self. I would love to hear comments about everyone’s experiences as you meet the future you. Your pictures might not be as visually stunning as the million dollar Peter Lik photograph in the Vegas gallery but it could be just as valuable. So what are you waiting for? The sooner you start the sooner the future you can be a millionaire.