"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
- Albert Einstein, as quoted on every dorm room wall at every college ever
Albert Einstein may have been a genius, but he probably wasn't the best patent clerk.
Years before Steve Wozniak started building the world's largest computer company on his lunch breaks, another legendary figure was scribbling out equations at his day job. Einstein was a lowly government worker who toiled away at the Swiss Patent Office, reviewing patent applications. He had recently graduated from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic with barely average grades, and no one would hire him as a physics teacher.61
One of Einstein's high school teachers, frustrated by his lack of obedience, had proclaimed that "nothing will ever become of you," and it looked as if he might be right. Day after day, Einstein was stuck in his low-level government job, a Third-Class Patent Clerk, with little hope of escape. When he applied for a promotion to Second-Class Patent Clerk, he was turned down because his supervisor thought he didn't know enough about mechanical engineering!
What the job gave Einstein, however, was plenty of time to think. Whenever an idea would strike him, he would scribble down notes and tuck them into a drawer in his desk. (He jokingly called this drawer his "department of theoretical physics.") Einstein's revolutionary theories, and his most famous work, were achieved not by working in a lab, or by performing physical experiments. They were developed in his mind.
Free from the typical constraints of academia, Einstein developed his theories as "thought experiments." For example, what would you experience if you were in an elevator that went into freefall? Or, what would you see if you were riding a beam of light? These were ideas that could not be easily tested, but reflecting upon them led Einstein to his world-changing ideas. First he did it in his head, then he did the math. There was one way to escape his day job, and that was in his imagination.
In a similar way, your life is a thought experiment. We've seen that your mind is constantly feeding you a stream of thoughts, most of which you accept without question. We can burn a lot of CPU cycles on these thoughts, which our mind spins into elaborate stories, some of which are downright crazy.
Jim arrives at work to learn that his company has been bought out by a larger competitor. He convinces himself that the new owners will downsize his job, and begins obsessively worrying over who will hire him after he's laid off. His mind begins spinning stories that he will never find a job in program management, and he will end up managing an Arby's. (The truth is that Jim actually gets rolled into a better team at the new company.)
Lucy gets unfriended by her longtime college pal on social media. She spends the next few weeks heartbroken, wondering what she did to offend her, and how they could have grown so distant. She convinces herself that she is not friendable, that no one wants to be close to her. (The truth is that her college friend was trying to move her contacts over to a new account.)
Chris notices a small rash on his forearm. He ignores it at first, but when it grows larger, so do his anxieties. He researches "arm rash" on the internet, finding the worst possible diseases, complete with lurid photos. He phones his doctor in a panic, convinced he is the first victim in a new pandemic of the Black Death. (The truth is it's poison ivy.)
You probably have your own version of these ideas, which would be funny if they weren't so frightening. As you become more aware of your mind by practicing the exercises in the previous section, you get better at recognizing them for what they are: imaginative works of fiction.
But even though these stories start off in our imagination, they affect our actual lives. Jim spends hours working on new projects, trying to keep from getting fired. Lucy stops talking to her college friend, convinced they've had a falling out. Chris is nearly in a panic by the time he sees the doctor. What's true is that each person experienced an initial event (a corporate buyout, an unfriending, a rash), but what's false is the imagined story that became an Oscar-nominated screenplay.
Every time you imagine how much your job sucks, or how you're still stuck in a loveless marriage, or how you'll never get in shape, you are repeating your loops. Over time, these loops become deeply held beliefs, influencing your day-in, day-out decisions that over the long haul determine the direction of your life. Ultimately your loops become self-fulfilling prophecies: if you think, "I'm no good at running," you won't run, therefore you'll be no good at running.
That's the bad news about imagination: if we don't know any better, it will carry us away. The good news is that imagination, properly wielded, can also be used to come up with powerful new stories.
You can choose what to imagine!
Our natural inclination is to think in terms of what we do not want: "I need to get out of this relationship," or "It sucks to drive around in this beat-up car," or "I don't want to sit in the cubicle next to the guy who farts." To rebuild our mind, and rebuild our lives, we have to be able to picture clearly what it is we want.
Pull yourself back from the mind movie for a moment, and think about how you could rewrite those negative loops. You could just as easily imagine, "I can find a satisfying job," or "I can work on this marriage," or "I'm slapping on some Spandex and going for a jog." In your imagination, you can instantly create and destroy these ideas, like variables in code.
If you believe in those negative loops, if you think they're the way things have to be, I want to chip away at that belief. I've got my chisel, and I am cracking away at the mortar that holds together the bricks that bind you. Eventually, I hope to open a hole in this wall, and let a shaft of brilliant sunlight come streaming in.
I want to convince you that imagination is real. In some ways, it is more real than the world around you. And with a little training and practice, you can develop your power of imagination to not only change your life, but to change the world around you.
Your world can become anything you can imagine.
Welcome to the Matrix
The man wears sunglasses and a trench coat. He sits across from a young computer programmer in a room with walls the sickly color of split-pea soup.
"The Matrix is everywhere," the man intones. "It is all around us. Even now, in this very room." Thunder crackles in the distance. "It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth."
"What truth?" asks Neo, the bewildered computer geek.
Morpheus leans in. "That you are a slave," he responds. "Like everyone else, you were born into bondage. Born into a prison you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison. For your mind."
He produces a small silver case, then holds out two pills: one red, one blue.
"You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
Neo hesitates, then reaches for the red pill. Morpheus warns him, "Remember, all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more."
The scene that follows next in The Matrix is incredibly weird and difficult to explain, so we'll just say Neo experiences firsthand that he has indeed been living in a simulated reality, a "mind movie." As this artificial reality disintegrates, Neo comes to understand that the Matrix -- this world he lived in -- is nothing but computer code. It can be reprogrammed.
Neo joins a group of rebels who have learned to hack the Matrix, re-entering the artificial reality they used to call home, in order to free other enslaved humans by showing them the truth. And because they now know how the Matrix works, they can bend the physical laws of reality and give themselves superhuman powers, like the ability to dodge bullets while wearing floor-length trenchcoats. (For most people, trenchcoats are quite constricting.)
Like Neo, we too are in a kind of "prison of the mind." Our mental loops keep us trapped in this prison with invisible walls, convinced that our current reality is the only reality. But like The Matrix, we can hack back into our minds, rewriting our mental code. Once again, the key question is: what do you want?
Before I got sober, for example, I would feel incredibly awkward in face-to-face conversations, because I imagined that I was no good with people. I would be talking with someone, and all I could think about was how they were perceiving me. Was I standing up straight? Was I funny enough? Did I have a piece of kale in my teeth? It's difficult to be really engaged in a conversation when your mind is obsessing over your every potential flaw. This is why many of us drink; to get rid of that sense of awkward self-consciousness.
What did I want? I wanted to feel comfortable around people. After sobriety, one of my mind hacks was to start telling myself, I'm good with people. Through hundreds and thousands of repetitions of that simple idea, I was slowly able to turn things around, so that now I really am _pretty good with people. It happens slowly, a gradual metamorphosis, but you _can work on those old thoughts of why you suck, and re-imagine them as thoughts of positivity and self-esteem.
Let's take My Emotion-Thought-Action Loop from the previous section and start to imagine what shiny new METAL might look like.
Anxiety about a new assignment at work
"I don't know if I can deliver this in a way that will make my boss happy."
Doubting the results of my work, redoing the project multiple times, unnecessary overtime and stress
"I'm very good at this job."
Depression about my relationship with my partner
"We're not as close as we were before, and we're drifting further apart."
Getting angry at my partner over minor issues, passive-aggressive behavior, and frequent criticisms
"We are growing closer every day."
Self-criticism over that stupid thing I said
"Why did I say that? Why did I say that? Why did I say that?"
Being self-conscious about everything I say to this person in the future
"I'm confident in everything I do and say."
Regret about that decision I made in the past
"I shouldn't have done that. I wish I could go do it all over. My life would look so much better."
Self-doubt and procrastination about making any decisions in the present
"I'm grateful that I am older and wiser, and making great decisions because of it."
Worry about my career after graduation
"The job market is terrible. I have no experience. There are lots of other people more qualified than me."
Reading gossip sites and watching funny llama videos instead of looking for a job
"I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."
By developing the skill of imagination, you can learn to picture what you want, not just what you don't want. Just as a technology hacker finds a new use for an existing gadget (turning a leafblower into a homemade hovercraft), you can construct new ways of thinking about yourself and the world. By choosing to think in larger, more positive terms, you begin to rewrite your personal reality in a larger, more positive direction. Your life gets not unimaginably better, but imaginably better.
Now imagine that Morpheus is standing beside you, offering you the choice between two pills. Which will you take?
I liked The Matrix better the first time, when it was called The Allegory of the Cave. It was a screenplay written by the ancient Greek dude Plato, and because the original story was a little confusing, I'll simplify it for modern times.
In The Cave, there are a bunch of prisoners chained to seats inside a movie theater. They're forced to watch the world's most boring movie: just the projector shining white light on the screen. Their heads are locked forward, like in A Clockwork Orange, which is a movie they never see. In fact, they never see any movie, just light and the occasional shadow.
This is because the prison warden is also the projectionist, and he paces around in the projection booth, frequently walking in front of the projector as he shouts at them. Sometimes his girlfriend comes over, and they argue or have sex, so all the prisoners see is shadows and light, and the distant sound of bickering or moaning.
After a few years of this, the prisoners begin to think that the shadows are the prison warden, or his girlfriend, or the other people that stop by.
"But how do the prisoners eat?" you might ask. "How do they go to the bathroom? Wouldn't they figure it out?" Plato's screenplay had a lot of plot holes, I'll admit. That's probably why it was in turnaround for thousands of years. But it gets better.
One day, one of the prisoners breaks free. Our protagonist sees the projectionist, and his mind is blown. He walks out the doors of the theater, and into the lobby. Popcorn! Candy! Starbucks! He walks outside, into the mall. His eyes are dazzled by the overhead fluorescent lights. He can't make sense of any of it. It's so utterly different from his light/shadow reality that he struggles to come to grips with this "reality behind the reality."
Eventually, he goes back into the movie theater and tries to tell the other prisoners what's out there. "There's this crunchy yellow stuff you can eat, called popcorn!" he raves. "And this hot brown liquid called coffee! You buy it all with money, which is valuable green paper!"
The prisoners look at each other and began to whisper, "Clearly, he's gone insane. Let this be a lesson to all of us: whatever happens, do not leave your seat."
The premise behind Plato's Cave (I don't think he ever wrote Cave II: The Redemption) was that most of us take physical reality at face value, but underneath, there is another world, a world of ideas. The ideas, in fact, are the true reality -- they are, in a sense, morereal than what we call "reality."
Think of how much of your personal reality starts in your imagination. You want to spend a night out with friends, you plan it out in your head first. If you desire to build a company, first you build it in your mind. Before you produce meaningfully, you produce it first mentally. Your mind is the workshop for your life.
The British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington was the Stephen Hawking of his day: an immensely popular science writer who became a household name during the 1920's and 1930's due to his clear, humorous explanations of difficult scientific topics. He liked to describe the universe not as a purely physical reality, but as something more like a "great idea."
It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.62
It is still difficult to accept the view that "everything is of mental character." But once you accept that your mind is where your life starts, everything gets so much simpler. To change your life, change your mind. And once you change your mind, you can change your life in any way you can imagine.
Thinking of your world as a "great idea" really is a great idea.
The Reality Distortion Field
"Illusion is first of all needed to find the powers of which the self is capable." - Paul Horgan, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
In February 1981, Bud Tribble, one of the key software developers on the original Macintosh computer, welcomed one of Apple's new employees, Andy Hertzfeld, by telling him they were scheduled to ship the Macintosh software in just ten months.
"Ten months?" Hertzfeld remarked. "That's impossible."
Tribble agreed. "The best way to describe the situation is a term from Star Trek," he explained. "Steve Jobs has a reality distortion field."
It would make sense that a guy named "Tribble" would use a Star Trek reference. He was referring to a two-part episode entitled "The Menagerie," in which the crew finds a planet called Talos, whose inhabitants are able to create virtual realities in the minds of other people -- or as Tribble later put it, creating "their own new world through sheer mental force."
Tribble went on to explain this "reality distortion field" to his new employee: "In [Jobs's] presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he's not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules."
Note this was a veteran developer making this claim, not some woo-woo weirdo. Hertzfeld thought that Tribble was exaggerating, until he saw it for himself. Hertzfeld later wrote:
The reality distortion field was a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. Amazingly, the reality distortion field seemed to be effective even if you were acutely aware of it, although the effects would fade after Steve departed. We would often discuss potential techniques for grounding it ... but after a while most of us gave up, accepting it as a force of nature.63
Jobs's "reality distortion field" was a personal refusal to accept limitations that stood in the way of his ideas, to convince himself that any difficulty was surmountable. This "field" was so strong that he was able to convince others that they, too, could achieve the impossible. It was an internal reality so powerful it also became an external reality. Whatever you may say about Jobs, he was a master mind hacker.
To use Tribble's phrase, Jobs created his "own new world through sheer mental force." Now compare that with our typical approach: when confronted with a new idea, we quickly assess whether it seems feasible for us. "I'm terrible at talking to people," we fret to ourselves at a club, and sit it in the corner. Or, "I could invest my money in that stock, but knowing my luck, I'll probably lose it all."
We might tell ourselves, "I'm a lousy runner," or "I'm no good at math." We might say, "Everyone in my family got divorced, so I will, too," or "I come from a long line of engineers, so that's why I don't do well with emotions." Think back to the problem loops you identified in the previous section. Most likely, these are limitations you've placed on yourself, or others, or the world -- limitations that exist largely in your mind.
You have within yourself your own reality distortion field. What you consider "possible" and "impossible" for yourself are just ideas. They're loops that can be reprogrammed. You can find the boundaries of what you consider possible, and consciously widen them. You can achieve the "impossible" by training your mind to believe otherwise.
Thinking "anything is possible" does not mean it's possible next week, or even next year. We need to make a plan for what we can achieve, and do the work to make it a reality (we'll cover this in Part 3). But an attitude of "anything is possible" is the foundation from which we should begin. As the great author and naturalist John Muir proclaimed, "The power of imagination makes us infinite."
This is so much bigger than just reprogramming your negative thought loops. If you were learning to program, and all you did was debug other people's code, you'd lose interest pretty quickly. But being able to build something completely new and amazing is the joy of hacking, and mind hacking is no different. As Mark Zuckerberg said about programming, "If you can code, you have the power to sit down and make something and no one can stop you."64 Your life -- your future -- is a wide-open vista.
Consciously reshape your thoughts, and you can actively reshape the world around you. Once you think about it, anything is possible.
The Infinite Loop
"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the drugstore, but that's just peanuts to space."65
So begins the famous interplanetary travel guide The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, preparing the adventurous traveler for the nearly unlimited variety of experiences available while hitchhiking around space. From the breathtaking beaches of B'bbahl (where time flows backward, so it is possible to leave your two-week vacation earlier than you arrived) to the Nightclub at the Beginning of the Universe (where you can watch the Big Bang unfold beneath a pulsing disco beat), anything is possible in space.
Similarly, your mind is a vast unexplored landscape -- we might even say infinite, since there is no limit to what can be imagined. It is a universe of possibilities, a limitless horizon of potential. Our minds have unlimited imagining power. This is not just some phrase to put on an inspirational poster underneath a photo of a man hanging onto the talons of an eagle in flight. It's a simple and obvious fact. Your mind is as big as you can imagine it to be.
Dr. Ellen Langer, the longest-running professor of psychology at Harvard, came up with an ingenious experiment to test the effects of imagination on aging. She first created an environment straight out of the 1950's, down to the smallest details: a black-and-white TV playing Ed Sullivan clips, an old-fashioned radio playing Perry Como. Then she recruited eight men in their 70s to live in this environment for five days.
When they entered this virtual reality, Langer asked the seniors not just to reminisce about their younger years, but to make a psychological attempt to be the person they were in 1959. In other words, to imagine they were young again. "We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this," she told them, "you will feel as you did in 1959."66
Throughout the experiment, as the senior citizens talked about current events (events of the 1950's), they were encouraged to talk about them in the present tense. There were no mirrors, no current photographs, nothing that would spoil the illusion of being young again.
The results were astounding. At the end of their stay, the elderly subjects were tested on a number of age-related factors, from memory to dexterity, and were shown to significantly improve versus a control group. A panel of independent judges said they sat up straighter and looked younger. Although it seems impossible, even their sight got better. As the New York Times Magazine reported, they "had put their minds in an earlier time, and their bodies went along for the ride."
Our minds are as large as we imagine them to be. We instinctively know this, when we refer to a "small minded person" as someone who is petty or bigoted, and "an exceptionally large mind" to talk about someone like Stephen Hawking. Indeed, Hawking is a terrific example of someone who did not allow his physical handicap to limit his greatness. How many of us, if confined to a wheelchair with nothing but a few eye movements to communicate, would approach the world-changing creative output of Hawking?
I've been lucky enough to work with a number of entrepreneurial advisors. What the best advisors do is continually expand your sense of what's possible: they take your initial number, then add a zero. If you want to grow a $20 million business, they encourage you to think about a $200 million business. I've found this a useful concept as we've grown Media Shower, our content marketing company: keep adding a zero. Always think about the next level of scale: from 100 to 1,000 customers, from 1,000 to 10,000 customers, from 10,000 to 100,000 customers, and so on.
After I got sober and began identifying my problem loops, I started to think about how I was going to reprogram those loops. As I realized my reprogramming could become as big as I imagined, it became an intellectual challenge for me to think up the biggest loops I could. While I suppose an infinite loop would technically be the largest, I found the idea of an exponentially increasing loop to be more exciting. Now, each night before I go to sleep, I mentally repeat the loop:
> My ability to bring amazing things into the world is exponentially increasing.
What will this simple thought bring over a lifetime of repeating it? I intend to find out.
You can believe that your mind creates your internal reality, and to a large degree, your external reality as well. Using imagination, you can learn to not only be happier and think more positively, but to create bigger and better things for yourself and the world: to create your own "reality distortion field."
Thinking big, however, is easier said than done! Developing big plans requires programming your best possible future, a fundamental technique of mind hacking that you'll learn next.