A while back, I picked up a couple of self-improvement books to help me in the change I wanted in certain areas of my life. Interestingly, they had one key message. Visualize your success. Visualization, the theory went, not only opened up your sub-conscious mind to the opportunities out there, it also fooled it into believing you were already everything you wanted to be thus boosting your confidence in actually getting there.
It seemed to make sense and so I began the various exercises in earnest. I spent many hours pouring over magazines, cutting out pictures for my vision board. I wrote fervently as my future self, describing in painstaking detail the dream life I was living. I even started a mindfulness practice every morning where I spent twelve minutes imagining I was the person I wanted to be and quite honestly, feeling on top of the world for the most part of the twelve minutes.
Soon enough though, feelings of disappointment started creeping in. My dreams began to feel hollow and somehow strangely distant. I tried to hang on to the excitement I had had in the earlier days, but it was getting harder to evoke. After one full month of visualizing, I was getting nowhere nearer to my goals and my confidence in achieving them was rapidly slipping. I knew I had to put the books away.
Visualization is great
Visualization in itself was good. It got me on a high and made my dreams seem achievable. It took me out of the toil of the ordinary and showed me what I truly wanted in life. It made the unreal feel real and it made life exciting and invigorating. And yet, I was left with few plans of where to invest that energy. I knew what I wanted but barely some vague clues as to what I needed to do. I needed more. I needed specific, concrete steps.
But the path to it is not
And so I went about making detailed plans. It all seemed great on paper. Each step led to the other in a linear path that took me straight to my goal. Little did I realize how differently life really would be. Every step opened up unknown obstacles and unplanned diversions from the path. Things took much longer than anticipated and the smooth sailing soon turned into emotional turmoil. I had an easy feeling that something had gone wrong and began to seriously doubt my own abilities.
Serenity In Disguise
You see, visualizing was my sanctuary. In its safe quarters, I was the heroine of my story. I was all I wanted to be and life ran smoothly. Once I would step outside though, reality was vastly different. I could deal with the gap between the present and the anticipated future. What I could not handle was the chaos and messiness of the path to get there. The reality of the struggle seemed to take me by surprise and I felt both daunted and deterred by it. It seemed to take me off my path and I rushed back into the soothing embrace of my dreams…
Acknowledge the obstacles
What I have learnt in the many failed attempts and the many successes thereafter, is that success is no walk in the park. No baby learnt to walk steadily and gracefully on their first attempt – see The secret of Baby Steps. The road to success is laden with obstacles, and according to motivational psychologist and author, Dr. Heidi Halverson, Ph.D., unless we learn to visualize them along with the outcomes, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Being aware of the obstacles prepares us to face them by devising strategies, having plans and seeking help for the steps we would need to take. This preparation is key to getting things done and builds our confidence to not only reach our goals, but also to brave whatever challenges we meet along the way.
The price of dreams
This is starkly different to what Dr. Halverson calls Unrealistic Optimism. Unrealistic optimism was what I was practising in my earlier days. Dreams are free – and I loved to dream. If anyone dared question my castles in the air, I believed there were pessimists who needed to have dreams themselves. But in reality, it was me who rapidly turned into a pessimist when my dreams on a cloud started to blow away and my castles in the air crumbled about my ears.
Build those muscles
Realistic Optimism, on the other hand, is about knowing that success is a rocky ride. That knowledge in itself prepares us mentally and emotionally. We have strategies in place, we do not turn away when faced with frustrations and we call upon our inner strengths to hold us up along the way. Using these inner strengths of perseverance, hard work, patience and hope builds them up like muscles and enhances our capabilities in positive ways.
Best of all, the benefits of having fought fair and hard to achieve our goals far outweighs the ease of being handed our dreams on a silver platter. For one, it builds self-efficacy – the belief we have in our abilities. And secondly, it builds happiness. We cannot help but savor our success – and the moments spent in savoring, however brief, go down our memory and change the neural structure of our brains. The person we become is not only successful, but capable and confident to take on new challenges in literally never ending spirals of growth and flourishing.