The power of negative visualizations

A simple addition to your morning routine to help fight founder-burnout and improve resiliency

The power of negative visualizations

I know I should be more resilient, but how?

In the startup community, we often speak of resiliency as one of the key ingredients of being a successful entrepreneur. But nobody talks about how to actually become more resilient. The most common strategy I see in my many weekly conversations with founders and CEOs is to endure the suffering. The inherent belief seems to be “If I can only continue to suffer, eventually I will become more resilient.”

That strikes me as a tough setup.

In my own time as a CEO, and now in my work as a coach, what I have found more helpful is to experiment with daily practices that help to reshape the way I, or a client, hold the circumstances at hand.

Negative visualizations are one of the most powerful daily practices I have found for building resiliency, and optimism, in the face of difficulty.

Here is how it works.

Pause the goal posting

I see in many other founder-types a superpower I too possess. Like most superpowers, this one comes with a dark underbelly.

The superpower is to look at any market, product, or situation and quickly assess areas for improvement. It is this vision that allows us as entrepreneurs to envision the world as it might be rather than as it is. These insights enable us to build products and services the world does not yet have but from which it would benefit.

The dark underbelly here is the suffering this ability frequently causes in our lives. I will illustrate with my own.

In my work, for as long as I can remember, I have been plagued by a feeling that I am way behind where I ought to be.

Because I can see how things might be in another year or two, I look at today and deem it a failure. By extension, I look at myself and deem myself a failure.

I do the same thing in my life.

Left to my own natural instincts, I will spend only minutes a day enjoying the many wonderful parts of my life. By contrast, I might spend hours each day agonizing over the parts I wish were different.

In short, both in work and life, rather than celebrating what I already have, or what I (or we) have already achieved, I continue to move the goalposts. I tell myself, or historically also my team, that now is not the time to celebrate. The celebrations can come later. (But of course, because I keep moving the goalposts, later never comes.)

Sound familiar?

A daily practice for resetting the goal posts

I have written at length about my personal morning practice and how the various elements may be helpful for other leaders.

Here, I am sharing an additional practice I find helpful when I am feeling deeply stuck in the problems at hand and out of touch with wins or positive parts of my work or life.

The practice is negative visualizations. Some meditation teachers train this practice in the form of visualizing worst-case future scenarios. I prefer to use it in the present.

Here is how it works:

To begin, I make two columns

In the first column, I make a list of all the ‘What if’s’ I can imagine that would make my life (or work) dramatically worse than it already is. I might include things like: ‘What if I hadn’t met Holden (my wife). Or: ‘What if my kids had not been born healthy?’ Or, in work, ‘What if I had not discovered the meaningful and profitable work I now enjoy?’

In the second column, I note things I wish would change, but I frame the sentence as a ‘What if’ where I invite the possibility that the change I desire is inevitable and out of my control. If I am feeling some frustration over my son’s behavior, for example, I might note ‘What if Marco is being exactly who he needs to be?’ Or, if I find myself feeling self-critical in my work, I might note: ‘What if I will naturally and inevitably become a wonderful coach over time?’

I might then read each list a few times. In the following days, I will revisit the lists for a minute or two each day.

That’s it! It is that simple.

Let’s talk about what we are actually doing here and what makes it so effective.

The power of expanding the view

When you watch a soccer match, each player on the field inevitably has a zoomed-in experience of the game. She experiences the game only from her corner of the field and only from her personal field of view.

By contrast, the coach on the sideline and we in the stands or behind the television have a much broader field of view.

When we goalpost ourselves or our teams, we are often like that player. We are so zoomed in on the current change we would like to make that it is impossible for us to see the broader field of play or our broader life.

In life, speaking from experience, this causes us suffering often in the form of anxiety or self-criticism.

As leaders, when we fail to see the broader field of play, and when we fail to anchor ourselves and our teams in the broad successes and reasons for optimism, it is easy to fall into despair. This often leads to cultures where we never celebrate the wins because there is always more to do, and it does not take long before burnout comes knocking.

Give it a spin

Would love to hear how this practice resonates for you as you give it a try.

As any Spiderman fan knows, part of owning our superpowers is learning to control them and use them for good. If you find yourself spinning at times because all you can see is your work or your life as you wish it was, you are not alone.

The good news is, there is hope. We can learn to leverage our abilities for good and also how to protect ourselves and our teams from the dark underbelly.

With love from LA.

-Matt