Friday, May 6, 2011

Backwards advice: "Visualize your goals"

Yesterday I wrote about the Tommy fallacy, the misguided idea that you can copy someone's results by painstakingly mimicking their actions.

Of course, there are some things that you can effectively imitate and copy. You can watch how a chef chops onions, watch how a rhythm guitarist uses his whole body in the rhythm, or watch how a singer's facial expressions enliven the vocal line. By teaching your body the same motions that you observed the experts doing, you can improve your technical skills.

You can also find, on the web, recipes and how-to instructions for a million different problems. That's a very precise and practical way to copy someone else's successful actions.

But a generation of slightly confused success coaches took the copying idea too far and made it the centerpiece of their success advice.

They made detailed studies of some extremely successful people, people who had accomplished extraordinary things. They discovered common behaviors among all of those highly successful people. And thus they reverse-engineered a recipe for success. If you imitate all of these success behaviors, they said, you too can be successful.

Of course, those success books that delivered this recipe weren't really any more helpful than the diet books, one shelf over in the same bookstores, were. Unfortunately, their methodology fell prey to the Tommy fallacy; they assumed incorrectly that you can copy the results by copying the visible behavior.

The trouble with relying on a strictly retrospective methodology is that it can only show correlations between two variables, but it can't actually tell you which variable is the cause and which is the effect. The behaviors they observed and recommended were actually the results (or side effects) of being successful, not the ingredients of success.

For example, successful people are passionate and work long hours to achieve their goals. But this doesn't mean passion and hard work are the cause of success. The truth is the opposite: feeling passionate and working hard are the result of highly effective, successful action. Of course you work hard and feel enthusiastic if you see that your actions are highly successful.

Along the same lines, successful people quite often start out a vivid and compelling mental picture of their goal, almost as if it were already real. This observation was turned into a bit of widely repeated advice: "visualize your goals."

The advice goes like this: First, pick a goal. Then, take the time to develop a clear and powerful mental picture of that goal fully achieved.

Visualizing your goals isn't a bad thing in itself. But there are two things wrong with this line of advice:
  • For most people, it's not easy to generate vivid, detailed mental pictures on demand. It takes a lot of time and real effort.
  • Even if you can painstakingly build a mental picture of your goal, this willfully-created image still isn't the same as the visions that led other people to extraordinary success.
The original observation was correct: People who accomplish extraordinary things usually had a vivid picture guiding them. But none of those highly successful people picked a goal and then sat down and spent an hour trying to create a mental image of it. The truth is the opposite. These people had the vivid mental image first, and because they couldn't get it out of their head, they adopted it as their goal. They let their visions guide them.

My read on the profiles of extraordinarily people is that they were not so much driven to be successful per se; rather, they were driven to accomplish specific worthy goals. These people were struck by inspiration, powerful inspiration that arrived with a detailed vision, with a flurry of helpful ideas, and with a big blast of energy to get them started. Each of these people were poked pretty hard by one of those angels who drop in, seemingly at random (from our human perspective), with a mission that they could not ignore. Given a clear sense of direction, these people worked hard, overcame big obstacles, and invented things that had never been seen before, all to bring their visions to life.

You could go through the motions until you drop from exhaustion, but you cannot willfully recreate this pattern of success.

For those of us who have the capacity to receive the poke from an angel, the gift (if you can call it that) of this kind of inspiration, we still have very little control over how and when the angels of inspiration will visit us. I've written at length about how to encourage inspiration in your life and how to make the most of it when it arrives, but inspiration still remains a force that is fundamentally outside our control.

Here's some forewards advice about visualization: A strong, clear vision of a possibility is a good sign that that might be a good goal to pursue. But if you can't seem to visualize a creative goal, or if it's a weak, confused image, that might be a sign that it's not the right goal, or that the time isn't ripe for you to pursue it.

If you are struck by a powerful, vivid, detailed picture of something, something that seems cool and exciting and worthwhile, you might want to consider adopting that as your goal — even when it seems to go against ordinary business logic and common sense. That clear and vivid image just might be a hint that you have an opportunity to accomplish something extraordinary.

1 comment:

Paul Nordquist said...

I re-read this post and decided to rewrite it substantially. For those of you who caught this post right away, I haven't changed the central point at all. I'm not censoring myself. I just wanted to pull back on my criticisms of earlier thinkers. They had good intentions, were sincerely trying to help people be successful, and got 90% of the story right. Here's hoping that my own advice will look about 90% right a generation from now!