Vail Daily column: The possible vs. the probable
Years ago, in the fall of my senior year in high school, my English teacher gave us an assignment to write a letter. While it seemed simple enough, this note was unlike any we’d written before. This letter was written to ourselves and would include where we thought we’d be and what we’d be doing a year after high school graduation. She asked us to think about where we’d be living, whether we’d be going to school and, if so, where we would be attending college and what we would be studying. Not giving it much thought, I did as she instructed and wrote about where I thought my life would be in twelve months. After about 30 minutes, she collected the letters without saying much about what she would do with the exercise. We went back to our standard curriculum and, as the bell rang to signal the end of class that day, I never gave the exercise or the letter a second thought.
The following year brought many changes in my life; along with graduating high school, my family moved from Arizona back to Colorado, and I began my freshman year as a mechanical engineering student at Northern Arizona University. One cold, fall day during the first semester at NAU, I received a curiously addressed envelope in the mail. Interestingly, the plain white envelope I was holding in my hands was addressed to me in my own handwriting.
“Hmmm, what could this be?” I wondered. Intrigued by what may be inside, I quickly tore the envelope open anticipating what I might find. Much to my surprise, I found the letter I had written to myself just twelve short months ago. As I rapidly read through the two-page description of my life projection, I was struck by how vastly different my life actually was. Almost nothing about my life (outside of the fact that I was still in the state of Arizona) was as I thought it would be; I was going to a different school, studying in another field and living in a city that I hadn’t anticipated.
The experience of comparing my thoughts on where I thought I’d be to where I actually was brought me to ask myself, “If I could be so far off about where my life would be in twelve months, where might my life be in ten or twenty years? What are my possibilities?”
While I didn’t realize it then, but have since learned, life presents us two futures, one that’s probable and one that’s possible. As a college freshman, I had just recognized and experienced the difference.
Most often as we look ahead in life we think about our probable future. We extrapolate our lives and activities without much creativity or imagination. Just as I had done in my high school letter, thoughts of our future are pretty much a continuation of status quo — what we’re currently doing and where we presently live with only some minor consideration of anticipated possible life events such as school, marriage, having kids or retiring.
Fast forward my life to 28, I’m now sitting in the audience at a company conference listening to a life performance and creativity expert talk about thinking outside the box. His central theme or premise was that in order to discover what might be possible in life, one needed to think about their life in reverse. While it literally seemed backwards, he guided participants to project themselves to the end of their life and look in reverse. He challenged us to complete the following steps:
1. Write about what you would have done, accomplished and experienced as if it were the last day at the end of your life. Include what you’d like to be remembered for almost as if it were a memorial someone would one day read at your funeral.
2. Make one list with all your significant milestones and identify an accomplishment date (month or year) for each.
3. Pick your top three milestones and, for each one, list all the reasons accomplishing it will be important in your life.
Wanting to apply some of what I learned at the conference, when I arrived home later that week, I did as he had suggested. One quiet afternoon, I shut the door in my office and spent about 45 minutes writing. As you can imagine, being only 28 and believing that I’d live into my 80’s, I had a lot to cover with potentially 50 more years of life ahead of me. When I finished, I was stunned at how many milestones, opportunities, accomplishments and contributions I listed that I had previously never given much thought. From this backwards-looking perspective, I was now thinking about the many possibilities in my life.
I still have that list somewhere and periodically I’ll pull it out and reflect on what I wrote almost 30 years ago. When I do, I am always amazed at how that list has guided my life, consciously or unconsciously. In my role at think2perform, I am often asked about personal and business visioning. In order for any kind of vision to be compelling, we must think about what’s possible. In order to think about what’s possible, sometimes we need a shift in perspective to allow us to see broader opportunities.
Chuck Wachendorfer is a partner and president-distribution for think2perform, a consulting firm designed to help businesses and individuals achieve sustained optimal performance. He can be reached at (970)926-0841 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Think2perform is a partner of the Vail Chamber & Business Association. They offer a series of “Breakthrough for Business” workshops throughout the year, helping local businesses achieve their best practices. To learn more visit http://www.vailchamber.org.