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Are you spending enough time visualising failure?

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

“You should spend time visualising success. Picture yourself living the life you want.”

I have used long-term ‘strategic’ visualisation for more than 30 years to help maintain focus on where I want to go. But until very recently, I didn’t know how much the fear of failure had sustained me.

As a teenager, I dreamt about flying over my home town in an F/A-18 fighter. 10 years later I did it.

Before my airline command course, I would drift off to sleep visualising leading a crew on a flight to Europe in an A350. Before long, I was doing just that.

But, for all those ‘nice, fluffy’ thoughts, there were hundreds of hours of worrying about the consequences of failure. As a junior pilot in the Air Force, I can recall mowing my (very large) backyard lawn. This was a (painful) two hour task performed every Saturday, and I vividly remember spending the entire time thinking about the consequences of not making it as a fighter pilot. These were horrible hours…gripped with the fear of having to call my family and tell them I'm going to fly something far slower than the F/A-18.

Conventional wisdom had taught me to try to shut those thoughts out. I’d read ‘Awaken the Giant Within’…all I had to do was think positive and take massive action right?

Well, partly…

In yet another recent stint in quarantine, I stumbled across the work of Dr Andrew Huberman. If you are interested in the science behind human performance, I highly recommend his YouTube channel and website. Dr Huberman pointed to recent research which found that visualising the consequence of failure actually INCREASES the probability of achieving a goal by up to 200%!

Let’s be clear here…we aren’t to spend time visualising the golf ball going into the bunker, but rather contemplating the consequences of failing at golf itself.

I won’t bore you (or lead you astray) with my limited knowledge of the science, but it seems to be related to the fact that our motivation to avoid pain is much stronger than our motivation to gain pleasure.

Caveman family are sitting around the campfire. Cave-toddler sees a ripe berry, tastes it, and is somewhat motivated to taste it again. 10 minutes later, cave-mum and cave-dad are preoccupied by a domestic in the back of the cave, and cave-toddler picks up a very attractive red-hot coal that has just rolled out of the fire. Cave-toddler is EXTREMELY motivated to avoid that pain in the future, and never picks up a hot coal again.

Cave-toddler has just undergone what is known as ‘one-trial learning’, which is a very useful evolutionary tool to survive longer than the ‘cave-terrible twos’.

So, how do we use this practically? (As always, what is the ‘how’?)

Well, don’t stop focusing on your big goal. Visualise it too, but realise that the fear of not succeeding is immensely powerful. Make the pain of failure stronger than the pleasure of success, and you will find the energy to sustain you along the long road to achieving your 'something great'.

Write down the consequences of not making it.

Daydream about all the ways failure will affect your life.

Ruminate on ruin.

Sounds strange, but how many times did you need to touch the hot coal?

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