However, I do think there is a method to the madness of visualizing a big goal for your career and life and being as clear as possible about what that looks like.
Perhaps that sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. I’m not, so let me explain.
I’m not talking about “like energy attracting like energy.” I’m not talking about visualizing money flowing into your life, and voilà! Money miraculously makes an appearance in the next few days (that’s horse hockey).
In the classical lab research, participants would be exposed to stimuli (e.g., words), and their subsequent recognition of the stimuli — or related stimuli — would be much faster. For example, if I say “bacon,” you are likely to recognize and respond more quickly to the word “eggs” than “truck.”
It’s also why you think that you see a lot more Ford Mustangs on the road if you’ve been researching and shopping for a Ford Mustang. They were always there, but now you are primed to notice them.
These are simple examples. However, the priming effect can occur in much more complex situations. It can affect how you respond to people, react to stimuli in your environment, and recognize opportunities.
I like to call this “setting your intention to guide your direction.” When you have clarity around what you want, where you want to go, and how you will get there, you start to recognize opportunities that you would have completely missed before.
I’ve experienced this several times in my own life.
Priming your perception and recognition
What is it that you want most in your life? By the way, it isn’t helpful to start with a huge list. You may have many goals in mind, but take a moment to distill it down into the biggest, most important thing that you want to achieve.
Now, visualize the end state when you have achieved this goal. What is your life like? What does your success look like? What do you see in your mind’s eye? What represents attaining that goal?
Many years ago, when we first moved to Silicon Valley in California, we were renting a house in Campbell. We knew that it was temporary, but we hadn’t thought about what would come next. Every evening, we’d carry our babies for a stroll through the neighborhood to help put them to sleep.
As the evening grew darker, you could see tiny lights starting to warmly glow in the distance nestled into the dark Santa Cruz mountains. On one walk, I turned to my wife and said, “Someday, we’ll have a home up there on the side of the mountain. That will be our warm lights twinkling down.”
This was long before Pinterest or Instagram, so my “vision board” was in my head. My life vision was reinforced every evening during our walks for years. It became a long-term goal with a clear intention to own a home there in the mountains.
This goal guided me through the twists and turns of our lives and my career over the next seven years.
We eventually did buy a home in those very mountains and raised our family there. I know that decision — and the years of planning that went into it — were shaped by that vision that I set in motion years ago.
At the time, it seemed almost impossible. But, we made it happen. Since then, I’ve applied this strategy to many other significant life changes.
A vision board is not a static creation. As you change, your board needs to change.
Perhaps you were motivated by that Ferrari photo from 3 years ago, but now it leaves you cold. You have a very different vision in mind for your life now. That’s ok; update your board to reflect that.
Getting clear with your intention
It’s all well and good to have a beautiful and inspirational vision board, but what are you going to do about it?
Do you just want to add pretty things to it, and look at the board when you’re feeling down at work on a Monday afternoon? Or, do you actually want to make a plan to bring that vision to life?
You can’t just want something and have it suddenly appear (sorry, my manifesting friends). You will have to take action to guide yourself to that outcome. However, before you can take action, you have to establish a clear and focused intention.
You could go in a hundred different directions and choose from among a thousand different actions. If you don’t make a firm choice, you’ll spin your wheels with indecision.
What can you tangibly do to make the most meaningful goal come true? What will you commit to doing right now? What pain are you willing to endure for your dreams?
Setting your intention will help you recognize opportunities when they arise. You suddenly see moments — that would have slipped away before — as the next step that could bring you closer to your goals.
Note: you may find one of my courses useful for getting clear about your future and your long-term goals:
Explore, define, and plan your ideal future. Where do you dream of living? What is your ideal job? By the end of this course, you will have a goal for the upcoming year, what needs to happen to achieve it, and explored your long-term career and life goals.
Intention without action is merely dreaming
Dreaming big can be fun. We all daydream about how beautiful our lives could be. There’s nothing wrong with that.
As I’ve explained, dreaming can also help establish your intention. It takes a fun dream a step further into a more concrete goal. It becomes something that you intend to achieve.
But, if you never take action, you’re still living in a world of dreams. Creating a vision board to make yourself feel good doesn’t count for much if you don’t step up and seize the new opportunities that will present themselves.
This is where “reverse planning” can help, and I’ll describe that strategy a little later.
Taking action may seem overwhelming when there is a large gap between where you are now and where you want to be in 5, 10, or even 20 years. But, if you start with the vision and assume that you have achieved it, you can then take one small step backward from that point and describe how you made that step happen.
Then, take another step back, and another…
But, action without direction is wasted energy
With intention, you can now chart a clear course and focus all of your energy on achieving that goal instead of spinning your wheels. This also allows you to understand that sometimes you need to take one step to the side, or even back, to find a path that lets you choose the correct two steps forward.
You will often feel blocked because you’ve been trying to “sail directly into the wind” and meet an obstacle head-on. However, once you determine your real intention and recognize the right direction, you can chart a course that will take you to your eventual goal regardless of the previous obstacles.
Short-term setbacks become less frustrating when you can view your overall progress to the goal with some perspective. Without that overarching goal, it’s easy to waste your time and effort on short-term activities that don’t really take you closer.
The 9-5 corporate lifestyle can feel pointless at times. It often does for many people that don’t know their “why.” Establish your own why, and then every movement you make will have meaning.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
Planning in reverse
Another powerful strategy is at work if you are clear with your big goal, set your intention, and then start planning backward with the steps that make it achievable.
Researchers studied this “reverse planning strategy” and found that, for more complex goals and tasks, it is more effective and enjoyable than traditional chronological planning.
“True retrospection is used to review events that have already happened, but using one’s imagination to think of future events as if they were in the past facilitates visualization of both the end goal and the steps required to get there. This ‘future retrospection’ tends to increase the anticipation of pleasure from achieving the goal and helps bring about goal-directed behaviors.”
I’ve found this to be true in my own life.
As I mentioned earlier, planning forward can feel overwhelming when your goal is ambitious. It is too hard to imagine all of the tasks that must be accomplished between the now and the then.
Planning backward helps me see it all as achievable. I start with the assumption that I’ve accomplished my goal (e.g., I have my home in the mountains).
Then, I define the logical step that needs to take place right before that. I ask and answer a series of questions to determine each move.
Why am I able to live there?
How could someone there make a living?
How could someone like me do that for a living?
What did I have to do to make that possible?
How did I prepare for that?
And so on, and so on.
Don’t be afraid to dream big
Intention + Direction + Ambition = Reaching your destination
Creating your version of a vision board can help you commit to a dream, instead of just leaving it in your head. Putting it down on “paper” makes it real. Sharing it with someone you trust establishes your accountability to make it come true.
Evolving and prioritizing that vision board sets your intention. You can then say, “If I truly want that, then my next step must be this.” Planning in reverse will improve your odds of success.
Set a realistic goal and chart your direction and path, now that you have committed to your intention to achieve it. That clarity of purpose will light up every opportunity that comes your way, and allow you to seize the moment instead of letting it slip by.
Do the following Career Tips interest you?
Is there a wrong way to follow up after a job interview? You better believe there is.
How to create a framework to prioritize your most important tasks and activities, and then protect the time you need to focus on them.
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How you can connect more deeply with people you admire on social media.
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What I’ve been reading and writing
I distilled my 30+ years of experience working with leaders (and my journey to becoming a leader) down into 10 top leadership traits. These are traits that I’ve admired in some of the greatest leaders I’ve known across a wide variety of environments and industries (e.g., Tech, small business, military, academic, etc.). They are also traits that I’ve strived to develop in myself while attempting to eliminate habits that I feel made me a less effective leader.
I wrote something a little different last week. It is somewhat related to work, but mostly about life. I dove into the genuine problem of grown-ups struggling to make new friends. At first, I thought that this friendship issue was unique to older folks, like myself (e.g., 2.5 million men across the UK have no close friends). But, this summer, I read about a YouGov survey that found that Millennials are “the loneliest generation.” 30% of Millennials say they always or often feel lonely.
In Stop Letting Someone or Something Define You, I explored how being defined by your work happens slowly over several years. Without even realizing it, you’ve attached your identity to a profession — or even a specific job title at a particular company. It’s all too easy to limit how you think about your future because of some job title that you haven’t thought to question for years. It’s risky also. What happens when you are fired or laid off?