"If you can't conceive of things that don't exist, you can't create anything new. If you can't dream up worlds that might be, then you are limited to the worlds other people describe."
- Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, Sparks of Genius67
What do you want?
Perhaps you have relatively modest dreams, like graduating with honors, or finding your soulmate, or becoming a millionaire. Maybe your ambitions are greater, like eradicating a major disease, or building a world-changing charity, or running a nation. Or perhaps we're really thinking big together: inventing a new branch of science, or colonizing other planets, or improving the mental state of the human race.
It's easy to figure out what you don't want: they're the things you're always complaining about, to yourself and everyone else. But do you know what you want? Have you written it down? If you get the dreaded job interview question, "Where do you see yourself in twenty years?" will you have a thoughtful answer, or will you draw a blank?
In a fascinating study by psychologist Laura King68, college students were asked to write for 20 minutes a day about their "best possible future self." She challenged them to stretch their imaginations to envision the biggest, best-case scenario for their lives. After just a few days, the test subjects who spent the time imagining a positive future were significantly happier and more positive than a control group. Another longer-term study by King showed that writing positively made them healthier as well, with fewer visits to doctors.69
Here's a mini-version of King's experiment: close your eyes and imagine your life in ten years, with your best possible outcome. Try to picture your best possible future in vivid detail. Where will you live? What will you do for work? For fun? Will you have a partner? What kinds of friends will you have? How much money will you have? What will your mind look like?
Go on. Close your eyes and see what you find. I'll wait.
Most people have a vague idea of what they want out of life, but they've never taken the time to imagine it. If you ask them point blank, they might give you a vague answer like, "More money," or "Happiness," or "A pony."
Instead of captaining their own ship, most people float wherever the waves take them. How is it that something as important as our future, the thing that should matter above all else, gets so little attention? I believe the answer is simple: imagination is difficult.
When I try to imagine the exercise above, it's like seeing a series of images flashing through my mind, but dark and hazy, like a grainy video. If I feed more questions into the stream, I get more pictures. For example: In my best possible future, how do I want to feel? Who are my celebrity friends? How many zebras do I own? Have I learned to levitate? Each one of these brings a series of accompanying images, slippery and fluid. It's hard to hold onto any of them, as they're instantly replaced with something else.
Worse, my mind keeps wanting to change the subject, to follow some other train of thought -- the disobedient dog again. So keeping it focused on the object of my imagination, to persist without giving up, is quite difficult.
I challenge you to spend the next five minutes really picturing what you want your life to look like in ten years. If you can't invest five minutes thinking about what you want to become, you have to seriously question your priorities. These five minutes could mean the difference between a life of confusion and sorrow, and a life of happiness and fulfillment. What could be more important than that?
In fact, unless you live your life under the assumption that riches, relationships, and rock stars are going to suddenly fall from the sky, it's just an obvious fact that you're going to need to figure out what you want from life. And the way you figure that out is in your mind. You imagine it.
Take five minutes and imagine. I'm patient.
Does your experience agree with mine? Did you find it incredibly challenging to spend five minutes in imagination? It's odd that something as important as your personal future -- arguably the most important thing in your life -- would be so difficult to focus on. But that's the way it is with imagination.
Imagination is hard mental work. To really imagine well, in my experience, is as difficult as actual physical work. Note I am not talking about following the "mind movie," or being caught in a daydream; I'm talking about actively imagining, focusing your mind on creating a clear mental picture. It feels more like work. It feels like moving things around with your mind, creating mental schemas or blueprints or plans.
In mind hacking, we learn to identify the "feel" of imagining, and not to shy away from it, but to actively engage in it, with persistence and playfulness. It should feel like manipulating mental objects : real manual work, moving things around. Imagine digging, or sculpting, with your mind. Only through exercising this active visualizing component (like a muscle) can we build up its power and strength.
One Click, One Idea
In 1997, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was having lunch with Amazon's first employee, Shel Kaphan, and his programmer Peri Hartman. Websites at the time were still clunky, and Bezos was obsessed then, as he is now, with making it as easy as possible for customers to order products from Amazon. He issued them a crazy challenge: invent a way for customers to order from Amazon with a single click.70
The idea of "1-Click Ordering" is now so natural that we barely notice it. Back then, the idea was nuts. This was a time when the idea of ordering products from a web site still made many people nervous. Will my credit card be stolen? How can I see the products first? What if I need to return it? Ordering online seemed risky and weird, much less ordering with one click.
The development team worked like mad to develop the single-click ordering feature. When they showed the first prototype of 1-Click to Bezos, it ended up requiring twelve clicks. They explained to Bezos there were certain steps you simply couldn't eliminate: a customer had to give Amazon a mailing address, for example, and a credit card number. Customers needed a confirmation screen, so they wouldn't place an order by accident.
"One click," Bezos replied.
After many more hours of deliberation, the team came back to Bezos with an improved prototype. This one allowed customers to save their mailing address and credit card information in their accounts (another crazy idea for the time), then make a purchase with one click. But they still needed one more click, to confirm that the customer wanted to make the purchase.
There was still just one problem: their one-click ordering system required two clicks.
"One click," Bezos demanded.
Finally, the team hit upon the solution: let customers place the order with one click, and if they placed it by accident, let them easily cancel the purchase. It seems obvious in retrospect, but good ideas always do. As soon as Amazon showed it was possible, other online retailers rushed to copy the idea. The idea that had recently seemed impossible now seemed indispensable to online success.
And in fact, it was. Thanks to the power of that idea, and many others like it, Amazon grew to dominate the online retail industry. And it all started in Bezos's frighteningly large imagination.
We have a strange attitude toward imagination. When we see it in geniuses like Jeff Bezos, we call it "vision." When we see it in children, we call it "cute." When we see it in ourselves, we often call it "a dumb idea" or "a crazy thought." In reality, however, it's the same skill: the skill of developing a clear mental picture.
Bezos used nothing but his imagination to transform reality. What did he actually do? His developers did all the work. Trust me that Bezos was not mocking up wireframes and writing functions. All he did was create a clear mental picture in his mind of what he wanted, then ride the development team until they got it done.
Let's picture the world of ideas, the world of imagination, as being something like the working memory of a computer. This is a state where the computer is holding a great deal of data "in its head." It hasn't been written to a hard drive or saved to the cloud -- if you pull the plug, you lose it all. It's a kind of mental workspace.
Our minds provide that same mental workspace, a place where we can dream, develop, and refine the ideas that will eventually shape our physical world. Imagination is not just a toy for children; it's the blueprint for reality. And in fact we use imagination every day, to decide where to meet our friends for dinner, or how to tackle a difficult algorithm. It happens up here, before it happens out there.
How is it that we do not teach this in schools? There are no high school Imagination teams, no standardized tests for Imagining, no extra credit given for drawing a picture of an insane motorized animal on your biology homework. You do not get an "A" in History class for writing a short story where Eleanor Roosevelt fights Nazis by shooting lasers from her nipples.
Perhaps this is why we do not value imagination for its fundamental importance: as a mental workspace where everything begins. Imagination has reality. It is real in the same way that a blueprint is real to the finished building. It is real in the same way that a schema is real to the database. It is real in the same way that an idea jotted down on a whiteboard is real to the business itself.
Put another way, imagination is a representation that precedes the thing itself. And you -- the "you" that is separate from "your mind" -- are able to summon it at will. It is an awesome power.
Imagination, then realization.
In 1962, legendary science fiction writer and geek hero Arthur C. Clarke wrote an essay entitled "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination." In that essay, he famously declared that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." As an example, if we took a human from the Dark Ages and showed him a modern computer or microwave oven, he would be convinced they were powered by sorcery and witchcraft.
Looked at from Clarke's perspective, our imagination is both an incredibly advanced technology, and indistinguishable from magic. The fact that you can conjure up entire worlds in your mind, that you can visualize the future course of reality, really is like a kind of magic.
However, we must be careful to avoid falling into "magical thinking." I am regularly amazed at how many well-educated people suffer from one of the two following superstitions:
Magical negative thinking: The belief that if we think or say something terrible, it will come to pass. You can spot this thinking through the use of phrases like "God forbid" or "knock on wood," or putting a little too much faith in fortune cookies at Chinese restaurants. Certainly we are constantly imagining things that do not come to pass; we do not need to be afraid of our own dark thoughts.
Magical positive thinking: The belief that all we need to do is think positive thoughts, then sit back and relax as life "manifests" them for us. When I talk about imagination being like a kind of magic, I am not saying that imagination will make things magically appear. That requires hard work, and the techniques you'll learn in Part 3. But consistently applied, and mixed with work, it will make things more likely to appear, just as 1-Click eventually appeared for Jeff Bezos.
It is a simple and obvious fact that nothing of value can be achieved until you first see it in your mind. So tell me: when you unlock that secret treasure chest in your mind, what do you see?
Feel, Do, Have, Give, and Be71
Now that you're warmed up, we'll play five easy imagination games. The goal is to simply write down one result for each of the following mind games.
The Mood Chip: A group of biotech-hardware entrepreneurs have developed a revolutionary new "mood chip" that can be surgically implanted into your brain. Originally developed to treat Alzheimer's, they've found that it can treat a wide array of symptoms, from depression to ADHD. The chip can be programmed to give you a "feeling boost" in any emotional direction you like; in fact, different versions of the chip are marketed with names like Happy, Calm, Focused, Inquisitive, Ambitious, Compassionate, Decisive, Empowered, and Positive. (Think of these in relation to the problem loops you identified earlier.)
You have the funds to buy exactly one Mood Chip. Close your eyes and imagine: What is the one word that describes how you would like to feel?
The $50 Million Inheritance: It's a story straight out of a movie. A great-great-great-aunt whom you've never met passes away, leaving behind a small fortune. Her will stipulates that her estate must stay within the family; because she was quite old herself, all her relatives are now deceased, except for you. She lived very frugally, so other than selling her mobile home and twelve cases of Diet Pepsi, the rest of her $50 million fortune is yours, right now, in cash. You now have the freedom to do anything you want in life, from building your own monster truck to climbing K2.
Close your eyes and imagine: What is the one thing you've always wanted to do?
The Genie in the Lamp : Some people buy scratch tickets; you buy antique lamps. You travel the world, shopping in obscure Middle Eastern bazaars, in hopes that you will finally find the enchanted lamp that contains a wondrous genie. One day, you return to your hotel, shopping bags full of lamps, and found that you've hit the jackpot: not one but two lamps contain a genie, each granting you one wish. Knowing the genii are crafty, and will do anything to trick you out of your wish, you pull a meta-wish, and wish the first genie to force the second genie to honor his word. Now you have one wish left.
Close your eyes and imagine: What is the one thing you would like to have?
Your Evolution Contribution: The legendary hedge fund manager Ray Dalio, in his excellent book Principles, talks of evolution from a very practical viewpoint. He describes evolution as the desire to "get better," stating, "society rewards those who give it what it wants."72 In other words, the way to get rich or be "successful" in worldly terms is not to chase money or success, but to contribute something genuinely useful to the world. This is ideally something you're passionate about, whether raising great children, writing great music, or developing a great new compression algorithm.
Close your eyes and imagine: What is the one thing you would like to contribute to the world?
The Funeral Speech: One day, both you and I will be dead. (Sorry to break the news.) During our funerals (I don't know how we both have funerals on the same day, I'm just trying to make you feel better about being dead), our loved ones will stand up and say a few words about our lives, nicely condensed into a ten-minute speech, because a lot of people will be anxious to get to the sandwich trays at the reception. When they give your eulogy, what is it you want them to say about you? In other words, who do you want to be?
Close your eyes and imagine: What is the one adjective that describes who you would like to be?
MIND GAME: The Five Words
Complete the five imagination games in this section. (It's better to get it done than get it perfect: You can always add more later.)
Write down the five words on your practice pad.