2011-10-05

Visualizing Success

Why do some of us have an easier time visualizing success than others?

In The Marathon: Part IX, I discussed certain strategies for being effective when visualizing success.Then, as now, I believe that it's important to have something specific and possible in mind, rather than poorly defined, nebulous goals that only serve to discourage you, because they are unattainable by definition.

I may have done a half-decent job discussing how to express your goals in a way that lends them to attainment, but after discussing the idea of "visualizing success" with a faithful Stationary Waves reader recently, I have realized that some people - for a variety of reasons - may not be well-equipped to visualize success.

Why Can I Do It?
Perhaps the primary reason why it is so easy for me to "visualize success" is thanks to my almost twenty years of competitive sports experience.

I am a big fan of getting children involved in competitive sports, because it is an opportunity to learn a variety of important life-lessons in an environment that is defined to be "not taken so seriously." What I mean is, when we're playing sports, on some level everyone knows that it's "just a game." Because of this, we approach these situations from the perspective that no matter how heart-breaking it might be to lose, or how great it might feel to win, what's really important in life is... pretty much everything else. This is a neat feature of competitive sports because it means children get to experience dizzying heights of success and terrible heartbreak on a "make-believe" level, years before they ever have to experience true success or heartbreak in real-life. This helps them develop the mental tools they need before they need them.

One such mental tool is the ability to see long-range plans as bouts of iterative effort. Children know that they won't hit a home run every time they step up to the plate. But sports help them understand that if they put in the time and effort, and really try, they will be able to hit a home run at some point. When they finally do it, they see that all the hard work paid off. They have learned something invaluable: they have learned how to visualize success over a long period of time and persevere.

Why Can't Others Do It?
Granted, sports aren't the one and only source of these kinds of life lessons. There are many different ways children can develop these kinds of tools and attitudes. However, it can be said in general that those children with more exposure to these life lessons will internalize the tools better than those children with less exposure.

It stands to reason, then, that some of us adults find ourselves without a good internal framework for visualizing success. It becomes more like make-believe, and less like defining what you want and how to get there. If you find yourself to be a member of this camp, what do you do?

Some Tips for Learning How to Visualize Success
First, just like anything else, practice makes perfect. If you never even try to visualize success and write the whole exercise off as silly from the get-go, then - by definition - you'll never be able to do it.

I remember the first time I heard a running coach tell me to imagine myself crossing the finish line in first place. I thought it was silly, definitely. I closed my mind and had a quiet little Chariots of Fire moment in my head. I laughed about it, I didn't take it seriously. It didn't work, either. But after years of learning to visualize more than just a movie scene - to visualize the effort required to achieve something and the steps required to complete that effort - I eventually picked up on it. So it takes some practice.

Second, try to learn from those things in life you actually do successfully. Consider your thought process as you tie your shoes, for example. You hardly seem to think about it at all, but if you slow yourself down and break the process up into its basic components, the process is quite iterative. You see that your shoes are untied, you understand that you want them to be tied... Then, you recall one of the infinite memes by which you learned to tie your shoes, either with rabbits running around trees and into holes, or whatever else.

You have the desire to tie your shoes - that's visualizing success; you know what that looks like. You visualize on some level the steps required to tie your shoes - again, that's visualizing success. Finally, you stoop down and tie your shoes - you succeed.

Well, running a marathon or achieving what you want out of your career isn't all that different, it's simply a question of a longer time horizon and a greater number of steps.