Vision, Part 1: Are You Seeing Things That Aren't There?

I hope so. Unlike former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt–who mortally wounded the concept of vision for an entire nation with his now famous quote (“If you have visions, get to a doctor.”)–I would declare you fabulously healthy if you are.

Seeing things that aren’t there is a big part of how cool, new and useful things get done in the world. We see things that aren’t there, and–if they are more attractive than the currently available alternative–we get moving and find out how to make them happen.

Why am I telling you this? Well, if you implement what we propose in GTD at the detailed level of calls, e-mails and even projects, you will become more efficient. We can turn you into a machine with your next actions and projects, but–at that level of detail–we still don’t know if you are pointed in the right direction. You could, for instance, be doing all the right things–very efficiently–in the wrong career. To be comfortable that what you are doing on a day to day basis is taking you where you really want to go, you need clarity on what you want for yourself, your family and your team on a longer time horizon. One of the key components of that is having a clear and attractive vision of what you think you’d like to be, do and have in 5-10 years.

In our work with individuals and organisations, we’ve found that getting clarity at this level is extremely challenging for most people. There are a few who are gifted with the ability to generate attractive visions easily, but for many this is the kind of thing that keeps sliding down the priority list week after week and never quite gets done.

In that spirit, this is the first in a short series on vision; why it works, how to create one, and–later on–how to communicate it once you’ve got one you like.

Firstly, vision is nothing more complicated than having decided where you want to get to with a particular aspect of your life.

For those who are sceptics about what George Bush Senior called “the vision thing”, how about this: I’d be willing to bet you are reading this in chair that was–at one point–nothing more than a vision in a designers mind, in a building that was once nothing more than an idea in an architect’s mind, on a device that was once imagined by an engineer, and–depending on whether you are reading it on a PC or an Apple device–either formed part of Bill Gates vision to put a PC in every home and on every desk, or Steve Jobs vision to put beautiful, intuitive easy to use devices in to the hands of his customers. So much for vision not working.

So why does it work? There are a few reasons, but one of the primary ones is because of the way our brain has evolved. At a certain point in our evolution, our brains clearly started to get overloaded with the amount of information available in the environment, so we developed a structure in our brains that has been labelled the Reticular Activating System, or RAS. Its job is to keep us from going crazy from an overdose of inputs from our environment.

It only lets through information that is important to us, or information about things in our environment that might be dangerous to us. Everything else is filtered out. Like what? Well, as you read this, the background noises that are in your environment for instance, or the sensation of clothing on your body. As I mention those things you’ll may have noticed some background music, or the hum of traffic outside the window or the sensation of your trousers against your legs. This information was always there, but your RAS was blocking it out to allow you to focus on reading this article.

The way this structure was discovered was when they were trying to understand how it was that the mother of a young baby could–in an exhausted state–sleep through very loud noises, like a siren going by, or a truck going past, but–if her baby awoke and made a particular sound–would be up in an instant, and dealing with the needs of the baby.

There a few things that you need to know about the RAS. It is always on. 24/7. You can’t turn it off. It is like a radar device in your brain, constantly scanning the environment for things that are important to you, or that might be dangerous for you.

You can’t turn it off, but can change the settings so it will find new things. How do you change the settings? You give it a new “important”, by setting a new goal (or declaring a new vision for yourself and your team).

Then–if it is truly important to you to achieve that goal– it will start to search your environment for things that will help you to reach your new goal, or realize your new vision. If you’ve ever decided to buy a computer or a refrigerator, and then all of a sudden started to notice ads in your environment for sales on those items, then you already have changed the settings on your RAS and had it help you to find things that you previously were not seeing. It’s not that the ads appeared when you decided to buy that item; they were there all the time, you simply couldn’t see them until your RAS was programmed to pick them out of the ambient overload of information.

If you’ve ever purchased a car, and spec’d it “just for you”, then driven it off the lot an noticed all kinds of cars exactly like yours–that’ll be your RAS again, picking up information for you that was previously there, but was being blocked out to help keep you sane. Now it is finding the info, because–as humans–it is important to us to feel like we have make the right decisions.

Here is the thing; most people–not understanding the importance of goal-setting to go somewhere they want to go–are programming by default to find things to help them stay where they are. And it works. Most people are pretty good at solving the problem of maintaining the status quo in their lives. All we are suggesting here is that you put this same faculty to work on helping you move towards your vision instead.

And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you to get going on drafting a vision, here is the main reason that I think you need clear and attractive vision for your life: if you don’t, and you have even a little bit of talent, there is someone near to you who has a vision for you, and they will soon be letting you know about it. Good luck with that.

To paraphrase William Blake: I must create a vision or be enslaved by another man’s.

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