What holds us back from answering is often a disconnection from our narratives—the story that tells the listener where you’re from, who you are, and where you’re going. Your narrative is not just a powerful source of connection for strangers over drinks, it’s also an effective tool for personal growth.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to map out a future narrative is partly because of the erroneous belief that you need to have one direct path and that you need to have it all figured out before you take the first step. This is both intimidating and immobilizing.
If you’ve ever felt stuck in your job, confused about what your next steps are, or intimidated by a lofty goal, visualizing your future narrative can be a useful tool for helping you out of your rut. Uncertainty is scary, and not knowing what’s next can feel paralyzing, leading to your stumbling answer at the cocktail party. But when we use visualization as a tool to deal with uncertainty by crafting future vision stories, we can improve our day-to-day performance, become more comfortable taking action and making changes, and prime ourselves to see opportunities that we might not have seen before.
It is difficult to change our lives because we constantly tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we’re capable of. However, your story is often changing, so you may feel compelled not to mention anything until it is certain or has already happened; we aren’t something, until we are. Parents are familiar with this phenomenon: for all of your life you weren’t a parent, and then, holy smokes, you are. The same goes for students, new employees, and business-owners: you weren’t a graduate, until you were. It happens slowly, and then, it seems, all at once.
The benefits of visualization
Strong personal, relational, and group narratives can be powerful sources of connection, resilience, and happiness. Future narratives (that is, what we want and where we are going) can be a source of motivation: they help us map where we want to go, let us visualize our potential, and allow us to make that potential real by creating safe spaces within our brains to understand and accept these new possibilities. It’s a chance to experiment while simultaneously nudging us to move in a new direction.
This isn’t to suggest that we should dwell in positivity and fantasy at all times — research suggests that too much positivity, in fact, might not help us as much as we might expect. Some studies show that affixing yourself to goals and outcomes can even be depressing when you focus too much on the goal, becoming discouraged by the difference between your present state and the desired outcome. The power of visualization lies in closing the gap between your future narrative and any current narratives when you imagine in detail by picturing the steps it will take to accomplish your goals.
The best place to begin facing fear and uncertainty is in our minds: often we have deep fears in our subconscious about change, and these fears can keep us from growing into the next scary, uncertain phase of a project or life change. Dr. Catherine Collaut writes about the power of unconscious fears and anxieties, and how we must “dissipate the tension between our conscious goals and desires and the subconscious fears and beliefs that create resistance.” In other words, by taking the time to imagine our future stories, we can become more comfortable with, and less scared of, the outcomes.
A talented designer, for example, may have grown up in a small town—and the idea of moving to a big city is cause for anxiety; this underlying fear of the big city holds him back from applying to a job that’s otherwise perfectly matched to his talents. To help dissolve this fear, he can begin to write a mental story of this life change by visualizing each of the pieces of the move: the new apartment, the transit ride, the crowds of people, the winter conditions. By visualizing each area of uncertainty and how he can positively deal with the components, he will make the idea less scary and more possible. The key distinction, however, is that you’re not only visualizing an outcome: you’re also visualizing each step of the process.
Visualizing is so important that it’s been proven to change behaviors even when people don’t actively change anything except their mental stories. In a famous basketball study, players were divided into groups that visualized perfect free throws, a second group that practiced their shots, and a placebo group that did nothing. At the end of the study, the players that visualized their perfect throws improved almost as much as the group that practiced—without ever touching a basketball. It’s a practice used by Steve Nash, the all-time leading free-throw shooter in NBA history. (Note that the players weren’t just visualizing being winners, but the specific steps and actions it takes to perfect the free-throw shot, a crucial distinction.)
Multiple sketches: dreaming in possibilities.
Instead, bring your narrative to light by performing this thought exercise: sketch out “possibility scenarios” and try them on like you would clothes from a store rack. You’re seeing how you like the look with your identity.
Because our brains can only take in a fraction of the information around us at any given point, we can prime our minds to see the world in certain ways. Priming is a psychological tool to shift what your brain focuses on. If I asked you to walk down the street and look for the color red, you would start to see stop signs, traffic lights, warning signals, and red-lettered storefronts. When you imagine your surroundings in a certain way, you begin to filter it and see it that way.
Sound crazy? It’s not. In your visualization, if you begin to map out your possible scenarios (you as CEO, you as the chair of the department, or you as the author of multiple books, etc.) and start to articulate the actual components of what that vision would entail, your brain will be wired to start seeing potential meetings and opportunities that fall in line (or in opposition to) this vision. By priming yourself with this narrative, in turn, you’ll begin to piece together openings in your present world that make sense with the visualization you’ve crafted.
Here’s the important thing — each of these possibilities (usually there are three or four) are just that. As you sketch and play with these future possibility narratives, you allow your subconscious to become more familiar, and therefore more comfortable, with the ideas. Parenting becomes a little less scary (perhaps). Leading a school becomes a little easier to wrap your head around.
Once you’ve identified your future stories, take the possibilities you’ve written out and begin to imagine the future as the present. Delete all of the future tense from the story and write it out in first person. Ten or twenty years have passed. You are these things. The New York Times writes your bio at the end of a profile, and it says… What, exactly? Amazon uses a similar tactic when brainstorming products, as all pitches must have an accompanying press release from the future. This is leaning into the future narrative.
As you lean into the story of your own future self, you shake off some of the current narratives that are holding you in place. That little voice that says, “I can’t write this essay,” responds differently when you’ve already considered yourself a writer.
With your future narrative established, there is now dissonance between the story of you as a successful writer and you being unable to finish your piece today. You are a writer; so you write. You retrain the part of your unconscious that was afraid of what was different by telling it a story of you already owning the new narrative. For example, in Willpower, Dr. Kelly McGonigal, writes of triathletes who hit their “wall” before the finish line. They teach themselves to switch from “I can’t do this” to “I already am doing this.” They bring their future narrative to the present and complete their race by actively reinforcing who they are becoming.
Your present narrative, the one you used at the after-work party, the rambling that might have included, “We’re thinking about having kids, and I might work on an essay, but I don’t feel like a writer just yet,” can begin to shift. As you identify ways you can pull from your future narratives, you can use them in the present. This subtle change shifts your language to “We’re going to have kids in the next few years,” and “I am a writer; I’m working on several pieces and my dream is to write a book in the next couple of years.” This becomes a better story, and it also helps push you in the direction of your goals.
How about you?
How do you ensure your goals become reality?