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The Power of Visualization

What do LeBron James, Jim Carey and Will Smith all have in common? Aside from wealth, fame, and success, they all use a mental trick to help them get where they want to be. It's called... visualization. 

Although visualization has been considered "woo woo science" for years, research now provides a scientific basis for how and why it works. It’s not just a vision of a dream; it is an appeal to our better selves, and a pathway to get there. Before you dismiss this as “hope” or a “think it and you will be it” gimmick, visualization is a well-developed method used by professional athletes and successful people across a range of fields.

A 2003 study published in Neuropsychologia found that imagining to move certain parts of your bodies trains muscles almost as much as the actual movement. Visualizing outcomes that you want can increase your confidence and enables you to "practice success." "Seeing" yourself succeed helps you believe that it can – and will – happen.

  • LeBron James worked with a sports psychologist who suggested that he watch a 10-minute highlight video of his best shots every night right before sleep. 

  • As a young athlete, Arnold Schwarzenegger used visualization techniques to reach his bodybuilding goals and then carried that strategy forward into his career beyond athletics. 

  • Gold medalist Olympic skier, Lindsey Vonn visualizes herself on the run and physically simulates the path by shifting her weight and breathing as she envisions herself on the slopes. 

  • Muhammad Ali prepped for his fights by seeing himself take down his opponents over and over in his mind. 

  • Back when Jim Carrey was a nobody, he wrote himself a check for $10 million dollars for “acting services rendered.” He carried that check in his wallet as a source of inspiration, and he looked at it when he was discouraged by the frequent rejections he received. In 1994, he was selected to star in Dumb and Dumber, and he received – you guessed it - $10 million for his role. 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, visualization is “the act of visualizing something or someone” or “forming a picture of it in your mind”. It’s like looking through your subconscious, your imagination and seeing a desired vision in your mind's eye.

“In my mind, I've always been an A-list Hollywood superstar. Y'all just didn't know yet.” – Will Smith 

The Science of Visualization

Through brain imaging technology, we now have substantial scientific evidence to support the power of visualization. When we visualize an act, the brain creates new neural pathways that work together to create both memories and learned behaviors.  These new neural pathways create the conditions for the body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined. In other words, the same regions of the brain are stimulated when we visualize an action and when we actually perform that action.

For example, if you imagine yourself lifting a glass to your lips and sipping wine, the same regions of the brain are activated as if you were actually sipping a glass of wine. This concept of shared brain activation when we imagine an action and perform it has been demonstrated extensively in the literature.

Visualization doesn't just apply to physical challenges. Visualization is a great way to keep you calm and focused and decrease the physical symptoms of stress like an increase in cortisol or heart rate that occur with mental challenges. Visualizing yourself remaining calm and focused in a difficult conversation or situation helps you condition your neural pathways as a familiar behavior the same way you recall a memory. Neuroscience aside, on a purely psychological level, when you see yourself achieving your goals, you increase both the motivation and confidence necessary to tackle them. 

"He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right." - Confucius 

Making Visualization Work for You

Begin visualizing your day from the moment you open your eyes as the best day it could possibly be. Think about your schedule and watch yourself walking through it with optimism and confidence. See yourself finishing the reports you keep putting off, taking on that big project, or nailing the presentation in the conference room. Add as many details as you can in that vision and imagine what it will feel like to achieve that goal. 

This process primes the brain to look for cues that connect to the vision. When you’re focused on looking for those positive cues, you’re not focused on the negative ones. As John Lubbock would say, you’re allowing yourself to see what you are looking for. You don’t need to spend endless hours doing this to make it part of your success arsenal. A few minutes with a positive vision of what you’d like that day to look like will point your head in the right direction. 

Creating the world we want isn’t just a catchy tagline for simply rambling through life with rose-colored glasses. It’s about intentionally developing the vision that sees the world for what it is, while also seeing what is possible within that world. It’s understanding that our own biases and experiences can either enhance or impede our success. 

If you can't envision yourself being successful, it's more likely than not that you won’t be.   

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