Forget Setting Goals…This New Year Try This Instead.

What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.

– Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse

Two years ago my life was completely different than it is now.

At the time I was sharing a two bedroom apartment in San Diego with my close friend from high school. I was in a longterm relationship with a beautiful woman who cared deeply about me, and I for her. I was consulting for a successful business I had previously managed while working on a new project that was meaningful to me. In describing my life, you might have been tempted to use the word “successful.” On the outside things looked pretty peachy.

On the inside things felt profoundly discordant. Worst of all, I couldn’t figure out why.

Just getting through the day required most the energy I could muster. Whatever remained would be sucked up by the constant war of self-persuasion I was waging. I saw coaches, read books, and tried all sorts of tricks designed to help me “find my why”, “unlock my potential” or just “fix” whatever was wrong with me. On the inevitable days when my energy faltered, those ever-circling jackals —self-doubt, confusion, anxiety— would begin closing in, hungry for a fresh kill.

Stifled and overwhelmed, I felt pinned beneath a weight I couldn’t see. A desire to distance myself grew, but detachment, like a heavy dose of chemotherapy, killed the good and the bad indiscriminatingly.

As the light was fading I was busy futilely trying to swat away the enveloping darkness. It hadn’t dawned on me that maybe I should get busy starting a fire.

Sunset on the Janapar Trail in Nagorno-Karabakh.
THE MAGIC OF VISION

If you were to suggest, two years ago, that perhaps I should create something called a “vision board” I would have smiled at you, nodded politely and thanked you for your suggestion while silently wondering if that was a second or third grade art activity and what the best way to end our conversation might be before other words like “attraction” or “vibration” might enter. Then, afterwords, I’d get back to never fucking thinking about creating a vision board again.

So it made total sense, that two years ago, my business partner and I were hosting a vision board party to bring in the new year.

We bought snacks and drinks and set up six plastic, folding tables in a friend’s photography studio. On each were stacks of magazines, markers, scissors and glue sticks. As our guests arrived we greeted them with a 2′ x 3’ foam board. Once things had kicked off I sat down and stared into the abyss of my own blank, black board.

When I looked up again two hours had passed. People around me were standing, talking jovially and waving around their completed boards. I looked back down at a still mostly empty board in front of me. I’d managed, more or less, to complete the bottom right corner.

When I got home that night I threw my board into a corner, unsure I’d get around to finishing it. Before long however, it had grown into a weekend obsession. I began dropping by my local library every few weeks for more magazines. I wasn’t sure why, but completing it seemed increasingly important. On Sunday mornings, I’d brew up some coffee, put on my headphones, and scour magazine pages. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Every so often I’d come across something that gave me a jolt or a buzz and I’d cut it out. I’d stare at the board for minutes at a time in deep concentration, contemplating the exact spot each word and image belonged.

Another four months passed before I was finally able to stand back and bask in the glory of my finished vision board. When I did I had a sudden realization, followed by a faint-but-definitely-there twinge of terror: the life on this board wasn’t the life I was currently heading towards.

I took a photo and made it the desktop picture on my laptop and put the board over the head of my bed. I looked at it every morning when I woke up. I looked at it while I meditated. I looked at it during breaks from work. I looked at it before I went to bed. It became my shrine.

My vision board from 2014.

I never felt any pressure to “achieve” my vision board. Probably because there wasn’t really anything on it to achieve —it was just a collection of images and words that evoked a certain feeling in me. Before long though I realized it was helping me make strategic decisions in my life. In considering tough choices I’d take a look at my vision board and ask myself which way feels more like that? It wasn’t my only criterion, but it was always an illuminating one.

Later that summer, my business partner and I sat in his back garden discussing our values. I brought over my vision board and offered to leave it with him so he could take a look at it. A week later he gave it back to me. The board had become slightly faded and I noticed some of the clippings were peeling off at the corners —I suspected he had left it outside overnight. Our partnership dissolved months later.

I no longer have the vision board. Recently it’s become apparent to me that I should make a new one. Not because I don’t still have a photo of the old one (I do and I still routinely look at it) but because for the most part, I’m living the life I had imagined years ago on that board. It’s time for a new vision.

BROADENING MY HORIZON

Vision is not some concrete destination we can arrive at (that’s a goal), vision is what we can see —it’s our current range of possibilities.

In his book, Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse explores the magical properties of vision by considering the horizon:

A horizon is a phenomenon of vision. One cannot look at the horizon; it is simply the point beyond which we cannot see. There is nothing in the horizon itself, however, that limits vision, for the vision opens onto all that lies beyond itself. What limits vision is rather the incompleteness of that vision.

One never reaches a horizon. It is not a line; it has no place, it encloses no field; its location is always relative to the view. To move toward a horizon is simply to have a new horizon. One can therefore never be close to one’s horizon, though one may certainly have a short range of vision, a narrow horizon.

The project I had been working on two years ago was a network of mastermind groups which met every week, mostly on Friday nights (putting something on Fridays is a good way to weed out the less committed). Our groups were chock-full of incredibly inspiring and capable people. It was common for new members who joined the group to make phenomenal changes in their lives in relatively short periods of time. When I’d ask them what had happened their response was always the same. This didn’t surprise me because it had also been my own response after joining the group: until I saw others doing it, I didn’t know it was possible. Surrounded by friends and peers who were thinking and doing incredible things, I had no choice but to see that I could think and do incredible things too.

Me taking in the view along the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.

But what I find most inspiring in Carse’s observation (and also true to my own experience) is that as we pursue the limit of our vision —our horizon— we find we never actually reach it. Instead, our horizon continues to move with our vision and new possibilities continue to emerge.

What a wonderful way to see things.

WHAT MIGHT YOU FIND?

It only occurred to me, while writing this post, that I no longer feel that strong sense of discordance in my life that used to plague me. I suspect that’s probably in part because over the past two years my life has become much more self-directed. It becomes much easier to follow the direction of someone else’s vision for my life if my own is absent.

A shepherd in the Himalayas.

The process for seeing what was previously unseen is a mysterious one. I don’t know a fail-safe formula for it. I can only suggest creating a vision board as an expedition that I think might prove worth your while.

SOME PRE-EXPEDITION TIPS

+ Consider the vision board exercise a tool that can help us become receptive to the new and the unknown and bring new possibilities into play.

+ It is not a goal-setting exercise. To use this as a “goal board” is to miss the point of the exercise. When we set goals, we operate from the realm of an already-known past (past experience, past desires, past performance, etc.) in the hopes of bringing about a desired future. Our vision is not a destination, it’s our current range of possibilities.

+ Vision, as we’re talking about here, isn’t a product only of our eyes or even our mind’s eye. Vision refers to the sensing of new things as possible. Think back to a time you sensed something to be possible. Did you see it or feel it to be possible? Or was it both? I’ve experienced this feeling as a sense of expansiveness, connection and energy. It may feel different for you.

+ This exercise doesn’t require you to believe anything —all it requires is a few bucks and your time. Approach it as an experiment and keep in mind that there’s plenty of things in life that continue to happen without the precondition that we understand how they happen.

Trekkers attempting a pre-dawn climb to the 5,416 meter high pass of Thorong La in the Himalayas (look for the almost invisible, tiny specs of light towards the bottom right…those are the trekkers).
10 STEPS FOR CREATING YOUR VISION BOARD

1) Visit your local crafts store and pick up a foam board you like. Two feet by three feet was a good size for me. You’ll also need a glue stick, a pair of scissors and if you enjoy drawing, some colored pens and markers.

2) Visit your local library and ask them if they have any old magazines. I was able to purchase ten for a dollar at my local library. Make sure you pick a wide array of magazines including ones completely outside your interests. The more magazines the better! I probably went through between 50 and 100 total.

3) Find the time of day and week when inspiration comes easiest to you and set aside time then to work on your vision board. Take it to your favorite place, drink your favorite drink out of your favorite mug, listen to music that you love or a motivational speech that inspires you…whatever it takes. I’d recommend being alone while you work on it.

4) Tune into your feelings and suspend judgement. Avoid the urge for things to need to make sense or be “practical.”

5) If you notice your energy beginning to dwindle or your inspiration departing, stop. You’re done for the day. Doesn’t matter if it’s after 2 minutes or 2 hours. Return to it when you again feel fresh and open.

6) Your vision board isn’t a task to get finished. It’s an invitation to have a conversation with your imagination. Be patient and give it time to develop and flourish.

7) Rinse and repeat until your vision board feels complete.

8) Make a digital copy.

9) Keep your vision board visible. Put it somewhere where you’ll see it often, preferably where you will see it both in the morning and at night. Your bedroom or work space are both good options. I also like using it as my computer’s desktop background.

10) See what happens.

This isn’t where things end…but it just might be where they begin. Have fun with it! 😀

Along the West Highland Way, Scotland.

**Featured image at the beginning of this post is of Swayambhunath in Kathmandu, Nepal. 

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Hello. I’m Alasdair.

Hello. I’m Alasdair.

I believe that being aware of who I am and mindful of who I am becoming is the best investment I can make in my life —and that when we focus our efforts within, the rewards naturally flow outward to those we love and through the communities we belong to.