Creative people in the arts and every other field are in the habit of reflecting a great deal on their goals, their success in reaching them, and the lessons they’ve learned from efforts that didn’t work out. They continually analyze what they do well and what they do not do well, and then exploit their strengths as far as they can and work to develop themselves in areas where they’re not as gifted.
And they have a particular way of dealing with apparent failures or defeats: they treat them as prods to even greater achievements and opportunities to learn lessons that are of value to their careers. People who have achieved a high level of excellence have not done so by accident and are not satisfied to reach merely an acceptable level of performance, but have much higher ambitions.
Possible Selves/Visions of the Future.
When you say “I’m a good person;” “I’m an ideal parent;” “I’m a poor public speaker;” “I’m very lazy” your self-concept is speaking. Your self-concept is the view you hold of yourself, your opinion of the kind of person you are and are not at the present time. The current self is the one we’re most familiar with. But we have other selves too, such as the selves we could be in the future. Those are our Possible Selves. One type of possible self is the ideal you’d very much like to become—a famous athlete or painter or writer, for example. There are also other selves you could become, as well as those you’re afraid of or dread becoming.
The possible selves you may hope for may include the happy self, the creative self, the wealthy self, the physically fit self, and the successful self. The dreaded possible selves could be the lonely self, the incompetent self, the drug addict self, the unhappily married self, the bag lady self. There is your good self that you’re proud of, and the bad or the guilty one that you’re ashamed of and prefer never to think or talk to anyone about.
A vision of the future and a possible self guided your decisions to choose to go to college and to take one job rather than another. A young girl sees a painting in a museum that moves her and decides on the spot on a possible self and a vision of the future: she will become a painter. She will go to art school and study.
When we think of possible selves and visions of the future that are positive and appealing we’re strong with hope. We’re liberated and set free because we realize that the present is not unchangeable. We never have to be a self we don’t wish to be, but can create a different self, a different future.
You’re free at every moment to create any variety of possible selves and visions of the future. Your life may not be going well—may be going all wrong in every way–but your positive possible future holds the promise of better days. But negative visions of the future make us unhappy and afraid. They can imprison us because they may cause hopelessness—the would-be dancer who thinks, “Day after day I don’t make progress. Nothing clicks. It’s probably foolish of me to think I could be a ballerina.”
The Impact of Possible Selves On Our Lives
Possible selves form the basis for personal growth and change. It becomes clearer to you every passing day that the main cause of personal success isn’t something that comes like a generous gift from the outside, but is your own conception of yourself and the development of your capabilities, that all real growth comes from within.
A clear view of what we could become sets our motivation in motion. No two ways about it: we must have a vision of the future to be committed to the goals we’ll need to reach the future we hope for. Day-dream, because it’s often in daydreams that our visions of the future are born.
When I was in the third grade the teacher read to the class a theme I’d written in which I wrote that playing football I was tackled and “fell to the ground like a blob of jelly coming out of a jar” and the teacher said “That is poetic language. That is a simile. David has made a simile.” Walking home after school, I decided that if I became a writer I’d get to write similes the rest of my life. Everything after that was aimed in that direction. That was my possible self that became my actual self.
In my freshman year of high school I made the track team as a middle-distance runner. One day I was getting dressed in the locker room. A senior middle distance runner—the reigning Chicago city champ –sat down beside me on the bench. That surprised me because we’d never spoken before. He said, “I’ve been watching you. You’re very good. You have more potential than you probably realize, but you’re very shy and I can see you don’t have confidence. You don’t have a conception of what you could be. Pick up your head, be strong, and say to yourself over and over, ‘I could be the best. I could be the fastest runner in the city.’ Work hard.” It meant so much to me that he cared and had taken the time to share that with me, and I took it to heart. So now I had a new ambition, a new vision of the future that right then I vowed to devote myself to, and a new possible self, a new identity that I would become. I began to study innovative training methods and to apply myself and worked very hard.
The First Step
A vision of the future of yourself as a highly successful artist or athlete or effective business person self is the first step in achieving that future. It will not only guide your decisions, but will immediately set planning in motion. It will help you focus on goals, and keep you from needless distractions.
What if right now you were to forget about the past, wipe the slate clean of failures and false starts, and start fresh, setting the goal of becoming as successful an artist, writer, sales woman or whatever as you could possibly be—to buckle down? Is that goal appealing, or don’t you much care? How would you go about achieving that goal? What would you do? Where would you start? Where would the goal take you? What would your life be like were you to achieve that goal? What would be the link between the actions you would engage in now at the present time—and in the next six months, and the next year and years beyond that– and the attainment of the future you envision?
Set short-term and long-term goals and reach them, one after another, overcoming impediments as they appear. You must have positive images of the person you’re aiming to become and negative images of the person you want to avoid becoming. Other people can serve as models—pro and con–and so can your past.
Think of your prior successes and of what steps were needed for you to succeed then and repeat the same again. Past success is the most powerful and direct basis for judging if you will succeed in achieving a new goal. If you believe you have the ability—the skills, motivation, and know-how–to achieve what you want to achieve and have done so in the past, you will try to achieve it. If you feel that way, you’ll be confident and will not likely to be haunted by self-doubt, possibly a person’s main internal obstacle. You’ll have high expectations of future success. You’ll think about past failures as useful lessons.
Share your vision with other people: talk about it; be confident. But stating an ideal possible self isn’t enough to produce sustained effort and changes in behavior. For that to occur, your goal needs to be linked with specific strategies, concrete behaviors such as an artist working with an excellent and more experienced artist, increasing your knowledge of your field, sticking firmly to a regular work schedule, and developing the skills essential to your work. Strategies help to focus on goals while also anticipating and planning how you’ll handle setbacks by developing plans of action and contingency plans. Most successful people in every field point to strategies as the main cause of their success.
Some of your goals—the important ones—won’t be easy. You’ll have to acquire new capabilities. A defeat, setback, or loss or lapse of commitment can have a devastating effect on a possible self, so be prepared. An agent’s cruel reply to an inexperienced writer’s submission can destroy the writer’s possible author self—she may quit– or a businessman’s blunder resulting in the loss of a major contract, or a field goal kicker missing the kick that would have won the game.
When you’re discouraged the hoped-for self is replaced by a weakened, vulnerable one. But even the smallest encouragement has the effect of bolstering your spirits. Being resilient and accepting setbacks as an unavoidable part of work life that even the greatest in any field can’t avoid is essential for maintaining a firm, unshakeable motivation.
It may seem illogical to think of anything negative and seem better to block all negatives out and think only of positive possibilities. But a balanced view—thinking of both positive and negative possibilities–has been shown to improve focus and to lead to important self-improvements and good results. The fear of not succeeding drives many people to unexpected success.
Having both positive and negative images in mind serves as a carrot and a stick both, reminding you of what glorious things may happen if you stay on track, as well as what may happen if you lose your commitment and fail to follow-through effective strategies: if you don’t develop your skills to a high level you will not improve.
Figuring out how you’ll become your desired self and avoid becoming your undesired self can lead to tremendous, life-changing results. Action is a necessity.
© 2014 David J. Rogers
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