Close Your Eyes and Imagine

Back in the mid-1990s, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame was bitterly funny. Then for some reason he became mostly just bitter. In 1997 he wrote a book called The Dilbert Future which made some tongue-in-cheek predictions, some of which were silly and some of which were wrong, but some were remarkably prescient:

  • He predicted that, thanks to stupid users, the Network Computer, a ‘dumb terminal’ with no custom software and little or no personal content, would prevail over the Personal Computer. He was right, except that instead of calling it a Network Computer we call it a PDA.
  • He predicted that the day would come when people would no longer laugh when they heard the term ISDN. There was about a 6-month window when they stopped laughing, and then they started again, at the new name for ISDN — “high speed lite“.
  • He predicted that outsourcing would lead to declines in the salaries of the middle class.
  • He predicted, before blogs, that in the future “everyone would be a news reporter” and that “people will actively ignore the news because it’s irrelevant”.
  • He predicted, before Enron,  that in the future “the most important corporate skill will be a lack of ethics.”

Pretty perceptive guy. He concludes The Dilbert Future with a serious chapter on affirmations and the power of positive thinking. I’ve written once before on this subject. Adams believes that believing can actually alter reality, change the course of history. I’m not sure that I would go that far. I’ve also written about David Cooperrider’s practice of Appreciative Inquiry, the re-framing of negative ‘problems’ in terms of the realization of some positive goal through discovery, vision and design.

What got me thinking about this today was a scene between a father and son in a TV program called Everwood that my wife likes to watch. Some viewer has actually transcribed the entire script (it’s a rerun from last year), and though the transcript has disappeared from the website, an archive is still available on Google. So here’s the passage:

EPHRAM: I appreciate the crazy Dad cheering section. Itís just I get so stressed out sometimes, I forget why Iím even doing this. The truth is on my end, I donít know where I see myself in four years.

DR. BROWN: Well, then try it.


DR. BROWN: Close your eyes. Try to visualize it.

EPHRAM: (sarcastically) Yeah.

DR. BROWN: Whatís the matter, too cool to visualize with your father? Come on, picture it. Close your eyes.

[Ephram takes a deep breath and leans back in his desk chair and closes his eyes.]

DR. BROWN: You graduate. You move ahead. Youíre happy. What are you doing? Where are you?

EPHRAM: Iím playing in Juilliard.

DR. BROWN: Then thatís what weíll go for. Thatís where weíll get you.

It was actually a pretty moving scene for a silly teen soap opera. It was written by Michael Green, who also had a hand in writing the wonderful but short-lived series Cupid.

I think Adams and Cooperrider have it wrong in stressing affirmation and appreciation. The magic of this process is imagination. As I’ve said before, it is only imaginative poverty that prevents us from seeing what we need to do to make the world a better place. If we can imagine, we can’t not do anything — we have to act.

The same applies, I would argue, in making our own lives more complete, happier, more fulfilling and more meaningful. We need to be less analytical in deciding what our purpose is, and more imaginative. Close your eyes for a moment and think of yourself five years or ten years from now, under the best possible imaginable circumstances. You move ahead. You’re happy. What are you doing? Where are you?

When I do this, I suddenly start to see possibilities that I could never see from the vantage point of where I am now, what my current skills and passions are and how they dovetail with what the world needs today. Today, this ‘present’, is like a terrible anchor rooting me to continue doing tomorrow what I did yesterday. When I close my eyes and imagine myself in the future, I am freed from the constraints and shackles of today, freed from the sense of immediate responsibility for the deep and urgent needs of our society right now, freed from the limitations of what I think I can do and should do this moment, this hour, this day, this year.

What I imagine is myself in action — showing people, teaching people (outdoors, not in classrooms), coaching people in essential life skills that most of us today lack, so that they are self-sufficient and not dependent on employers and governments for their livelihood and welfare. I imagine that my novel about a future world living in balance with nature, built around intentional communities and natural enterprise, is not a novel at all, but a screenplay for a movie that has transformed the thinking and sparked the imagination and courage of millions about what could be, and which has become a catalyst for a movement that is taking flight, and now carries me along with it, as a simple advisor. I imagine that the framework for learning and discovery I have been developing in AHA! has turned out to be a new and astonishingly different way by which almost all people in this imagined future learn and make decisions — and that my contribution to it is unrecognizable but that does not matter, because in this imagined future learning takes place outside, through observation and practice, not inside through reading and abstract thought, and because in this imagined future decisions on what to do emerge from collective wisdom rather than being made ignorantly by those with the wealth and power to purchase the right to make those decisions for everyone else. I imagine that this learning and awareness have brought about the end of factory farming, military adventures, pollution, waste, and the political and economic oppression that preys on ignorance and fear. I imagine that the Internet has forced the news media to focus on what’s important and what’s actionable, and that people now go online or engage the media not for distraction or useless ‘news’ but to inform them with the capability to know what to do next, and how to do it. I imagine the great challenge for each person in this future is striking a balance between doing a million things generously and reciprocally for others, out there in the real world, versus learning how to increase one’s capabilities so that one can do even more. I imagine a world in which I am, and everyone else is, never passive, never merely consuming, never just putting in time, but instead always out there doing meaningful stuff, always moving, making the world a better place in remarkable and tangible ways, connected and networked with everyone else in common cause.

This imagining, unlike most ‘self-help’ methodologies, does not start from introspection, a mulling over of one’s purpose and meaning and value and capabilities, here and now, but starts instead with what’s outside, in the frame of the whole universe, in which one suddenly imagines oneself dropped, naive, ten years in the future, and landing doing what one imagines, without constraints, one should be doing, must be doing, then. Gary Paul Nabhan in Cultures of Habitat writes:

Walking along, my restlessness increased as I considered the premise put forth in the meeting room: that the shortest road to wisdom and peace with the world is the one that turns inward, away from direct sensory contact with other creatures. I will not assert that meditation, psychotherapy, and philosophical introspection are unproductive, but I simply can’t accept that inward is the only or best way for everyone to turn. The more disciplined practitioners of contemplative traditions can turn inward and still get beyond the self, but many others simply become swamped by self-indulgence. There are far too many people living in our society who forget daily that other creatures–five kingdoms’ worth of them–are cohabiting the planet with us.

Over half a century ago, Robinson Jeffers suggested that it may be just as valid to turn outward: “The whole human race spends too much emotion on itself. The happiest and freest man is the scientist investigating nature or the artist admiring it, the person who is interested in things that are not human. Or if he is interested in human beings, let him regard them objectively as a small part of the great music.”

I finished my walk on the forest’s edge, where the great music of crashing waves flooded into the tide pools, where wind ruffled devil’s club leaves, and hermit thrushes sang. I reminded myself that the wisest, most inspired people I knew had all taken this second path, heading for what I call the Far Outside. It is the path found when one falls into “the naturalist’s trance,” the hunter’s pursuit of wild game, the curandera’s search for hidden roots, the fisherman’s casting of the net into the current, the water witcher’s trust of the forked willow branch, the rock climber’s fixation on the slightest details of a cliff face. Why is it that when we are hanging from the cliff–beyond the reach of civilization’s safety net, rather than in it–we are most likely to gain the deepest sense of what it is to be alive? Arctic writer-ethnographer Hugh Brody has brooded over this question while working in the most remote human communities and wildest places he can find. There, he admits, “at the periphery is where I can come to understand the central issues of living.”

I think that, like walking in wilderness, imagining is a way to jump out of civilization’s horrifying limits, to this Far Outside. In imagining we are not constrained by today’s laws and today’s suffocating realities and today’s learned helplessness and all the things we’re told, every day, in a million different ways, we cannot do, that are impossible.

It is only then that one is brought back to Earth with the terrible question that always puts us back in our place: What is the point in such imagining if there is no conceivable way to get there? But this question is a trick, a trap: If you can imagine yourself in such a future you have already conceived of its possibility. You have already started the process in motion. Rather than falling back you must continue to imagine, continue the process. You don’t need a plan. If what you have imagined is your true purpose, your destination, you will find your way there — everything you do will start being informed by this new objective, this new intention. The key is to let it drive you, to haunt you, and not sedate yourself with the lie of its impossibility. It is what Feith Stuart calls ‘Acting in Accordance’:

This is the most difficult step. Youíre going to find yourself arguing with yourself like a loony. Fake it until you make it in this case. Whenever you start doubting yourself, shift your focus. Start thinking about something else entirely. Focus on the fact that the process is already underway. And then do something, one thing, that will lead to your intention.

You think perhaps you don’t have the courage to do this, to keep it up until you’re suddenly there, having realized your intention? Read this remarkable woman’s story and be inspired by her courage. Courage is realizing you don’t have any other choice but to be brave, and then doing it. You don’t have any other choice. This is your intention. This is why you’re here.

Close your eyes, and imagine. Five years, ten years from now. What are you doing? Who are you?

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7 Responses to Close Your Eyes and Imagine

  1. Meg says:

    That was beautifully written, Dave… tons of food for thought. Thank you.

  2. Sean says:

    Wow – a wonderful vision. I think part of the poverty of imagination stems from the fact that the majority are stuck in ego-based MeWorld, and fail to “feel” the interconnected nature of the world. The introspective self-help methodologies you mention are largely born from MeWorld thinking, and when people create a vision in this manner, the inevitable question is: “What’s in it for me? What’s MY life going to be like?” As for the question, “What is the point in such imagining if there’s no conceivable way to get there?” I’ve found that, as a cancer patient, the fatalistic nature of such questions that point to our inevitable demise actually work the opposite way that we naturally suspect. When a person is faced with the real certainty of death, one tends to start taking action HERE and NOW to improve life while one has it. I think the same is starting to happen on a societal level, however slowly. I guess the question, which you’ve brought up before, is whether it’s too late …

  3. This is critical…and I run a little to the defense of Cooperrider. Ai is not about affirmation and appreciation per se…but it does start with discovering what our assets are and then DREAMING the future we want to create. I think in every sense that profoudn transformation of all kinds proceeds from visulized futures, and the struggle of all of these writers is finding ways how.Glad you found Nabhan.

  4. lugon says:

    Dave, I have a blog in my mother tongue language and it’s called “imagine-*” (* being “my place”). And yet I haven’t done my full homework, as I was kindly reminded by a friend.Just yesterday I skyped a friend in Canada and, using vnc software, I saw *my* cursor move under *his* command. We’ll be helping people to translate wikis in a couple of months, I hope. Imagining this almost hurt!I think part of the picture is the others, as you point out in your imagination. I imagine lots of people reaching out to each other to make the dreamed world possible indeed. Building a future so compelling to so many!I also felt exhausted, or maybe I was exhausted beforehand and the imagination session made me feel relaxed.I can’t articulate the feelings yet.

  5. Minerva says:

    I am so flattered that you referred to me, but I, in turn, would point you to others who have ‘real’ courage…We just continue with what we have, don’t we?And a merry Christmas…I loved the story with the skunk..just loved the peace and contemplation there..Minerva

  6. This is such a full post, you have so much of value to say… and I have so little time to sit at the computer and read it! The first part of this post is wonderful. I also am a big believer in imagining what you want first, so that you have some idea what you’re aiming for. I hope to get to the second half before long!

  7. Tina says:

    IMO, AI cannot be reduced to a methodology, nor can it even be deemed simply an approach. AI is a worldview arising from social constructivism. Cooperrider asserts that change occurs at the moment we ask the question (inquire), and that what we focus on grows (appreciates). So in asking an appreciative question about the future, we immediately begin creating that future. (Cooperrider calls this the principle of simultaneity.) You said it, too! “If you can imagine yourself in such a future you have already conceived of its possibility. You have already started the process in motion.” Yes!

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