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Creative Visualization: A Primer

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

7 Tips on How to Employ it in Your Daily Life

She closes her eyes and imagines the experience of taking the test. She strolls into the classroom, dressed in a white blouse, grey pencil skirt, black heels, a thin gold necklace with a pendant, tiny matching earrings and an antique ring, a gift from her grandmother. It’s pretty formal, but appropriate for the time and place, the University of Guadalajara in the late 80’s. She sees this part of the scene from above.

The temperature is warm, slightly humid. She feels happy and buoyant. As she arrives on campus, fresh off a long bus trip to school from her home in the Colonia Independencia, a suburb about ten miles away, she smiles at her friends Sylvia and Chely. She passes and takes her seat next to them in the front row. She prefers the front row.

Marketing Professor Carlos Virgen Aguilar arrives wearing a blue button-down shirt, khaki pants and soft leather shoes, probably purchased in Tlaquepaque. He reaches into his bruised brown briefcase and takes out a stack of papers and hands a raft of them to each person in the front row and instructs them to pass the rest back to their classmates.

The Professor pauses as he glances around the room and momentarily pushes his silver rimmed glasses up the slope of his nose and closer to his eyes with the index finger of his right hand. His glasses reflect the image of Sylvia’s smiling face, hand outstretched, waiting to gather the exam papers. While taking attendance, he smiles broadly at his students. They smile in return. He is a happy, amiable presence. The students love him.

The test is about to start. It’s the final exam of the term, long and detailed. This exam tests you on content and endurance. She’s ready. There is no doubt in her mind she will ace the test.

In college, she started using visualization techniques to prepare for tests. She would do all the required studying and was already an outstanding student before adopting the mental practice. So, I wondered, why would you visualize the process of taking the test if you were already performing well?

“It provided additional practice. I imagined the questions in advance, answering them correctly and moving through the test, saying to myself, ‘This is so easy…I knew that question! And, that one!’ I also imagined the grade — an A+ — written at the top of the paper when it came back. It was important to both imagine the process and the outcome.”

“After a while, it became a game — I got really good at visualizing the outcome.” Remember, she put in the work, visualizing the outcome was not a substitute for hard work. She was already earning excellent grades. But the process amplified her work.

The practice also served to calm her.

The person is my wife Esther and she graduated from the University of Guadalajara, while simultaneously attending the University of Southern California and graduated with a near perfect G.P.A. from both schools. There was some overlap in the attendance, so saying she attended simultaneously means the last two years intersected because of an accommodation from the University of Guadalajara that allowed her to complete a degree she had already started and would now finish during Summer and Winter breaks.

My wife had no time off and bore daunting workloads amidst extremely tight timeframes. It’s a long story, but it illustrates how her discipline and the use of visualization techniques supported her achievement.

She credits doing the work (I saw how hard she worked at U.S.C.) and the practice of visualizing the outcome as reasons for her success. She possesses remarkable discipline.

I like the term Creative Visualization and contrast the practice with meditation. I have been meditating longer than using visualization techniques. But I like both practices. Esther introduced me to both.

Athletes, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and even an action hero actor turned governor use the practice to prepare themselves. I have become fascinated by how the discipline can help those of us who work in business and other pursuits with routine day jobs use it to improve our own performance.

Before approaching that question, let’s check in with athletes, coaches and others who have commented on the technique and process.

Two-time Olympic Gold Medal winner, Lindsey Vonn says about the benefits of visualization: “I always visualize the run before I do it. By the time I get to the start gate, I’ve run that race 100 times already in my head, picturing how I’ll take the turns.”

Another Olympian, Emily Cook, an aerialist who competed in Sochi in 2014, takes the process further, stating about visualization that, “You have to hear it. You have to smell it. You have to feel it, everything.” She even credits the practice with helping her heal her injured leg. She also used it to defeat itinerant negative thoughts — she would tie a red balloon to them and watch them float away before a race.

The following quote from Pete Carroll underscores an interesting observation about the nature of using visualization in a disciplined and persistent way.

“If you create a vision for yourself, and stick with it, you can make amazing things happen in your life. My experience is that once you have done the work to create a clear vision, it is the discipline and effort to maintain that vision that can make it all come true. The two go hand in hand. The moment you’ve created that vision you’re on your way, but it’s the diligence with which you stick to that vision that allows you to get there.”

I am struck by how Oprah Winfrey credits visualization for helping her earn the part of Sophia in The Color Purple. Listen to her story here courtesy of YouTube. Oprah is inarguably one of the most successful individuals of the past half century over multiple disciplines from TV Host, Actor, Businesswoman and Philanthropist.

The following tips may be helpful for you as you start to try it.

Process Based. See yourself performing the task with as much clarity and detail as possible. Esther would do this in her testing, seeing the process from entering the space to lifting the pencil to answering the questions. She exercised all of her senses along with her emotional state.

Outcome Based. You can think of these as touchstone images. Esther would see the letter grade ahead of time. You can do the same with outcomes you want to see. If you are a salesperson, picture the email announcing you earned the account or the report popping up on your monitor detailing the number of sales you wanted to achieve that week or month.

The Success Archetype. Is there someone you look up to who possesses skills you would like to master? Imagine yourself performing with the same level of skill.

Create a Joyful Place. If you find yourself in a negative, depressed or anxious spot, create a place you can always enter that brings you happiness and joy. You need not be limited. It could be several places. I like to alternate between a few. A beach on Cancun along the peninsula, white sand, crystal clear turquoise colored water, perfect 80-degree temperature, a straw palapa over my head, the sound of the ocean hitting the shore and a breeze complete the picture.

The imagined sight and sound alone will drop my anxiety immediately. I also envision multiple spots in and around Yosemite National Park. You can also create your own place, a synthetic creation of your own imagination and name it yourself!

Use Artifacts. You can supplement your efforts with vision boards, post it notes or other items that serve to compound your mental imagery efforts. Oprah is a big proponent of vision boards. Jim Carrey famously wrote himself a $10M check for “acting services rendered”, put it in his wallet and carried it around before he earned a role in Dumb and Dumber in 1994 for, you guessed it, $10M.

Coach Yourself. You have likely heard the term positive self-talk. Use visualization to imagine a coach you admire exhorting you with positive self-talk.

Do the work. The key with all these techniques is to take action to make what you imagine happen. Esther put in the work, studied hard and then used the techniques to bolster her efforts. Jim Carrey is quoted as having said, “You can’t just visualize and go eat a sandwich.”

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