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The Power of Personal Visioning in a Pandemic

Why now is a terrific time to write your life story

Blog · Ari Weinzweig


Malcolm Gladwell said, “Once you don’t start at the beginning, your life just gets so much easier.” Why not, then, use the end as the beginning? It’s an oft-used tactic for writers and filmmakers, so why not try it in our lives? When we know how the story winds up, we will most likely alter the way we approach it from the start. When the story in question is our own life, it will pretty surely change what we do when we get to work. And when we get home today. And tomorrow. And all the days after that. Psychologist Paul Watzlawick is right when he says, “In this sense it was the future—not the past—that determined the present.”

When the currents of the country are swirling, and the world right now seems impossibly uncertain, as much as this month might feel like the last time you would want to write a vision of the future for yourself, I want to at least plant the seed of the suggestion: This week might be a wonderful opportunity to take some time away from everything else you have going on, sit down, and draft a personal vision of greatness. I know that might sound strange. There’s so much else that we all have on our minds. But as you know, I often like to go in a different direction. If the thought of drafting one causes you anxiety, I certainly understand. I started out as a cynic on the subject. But having been around the work of visioning for 30 years now, I’ll assure you that the risk is really low, and the upside is enormous. Living just to get by is often all we feel like we can do. But I believe we can do more. And that when, as Marge Piercy’s poem says, “We are trying to live as if we were an experiment conducted by the future,” life sure gets a whole lot more interesting.

As I mentioned, when I first learned about visioning back in the early 90s, I responded mostly with skepticism. Like so many other people I met, I didn’t understand its power. It was a different way of working and thinking, and I was seemingly doing fine without it. It’s been many decades now since I became a devotee. Saying that visioning changed my life is an understatement. Zingerman’s wouldn’t be here without it. My life would be radically different. Many of you, having worked with ZingTrain or learned it from the Guide to Good Leading books would say the same. It works. As the Buddha says, “What you imagine you create.”

So why write a personal vision right now? Because having a vision helps us get clear on where we’re going when we’re working through trying times. Because it helps us get clear on our purpose. Because it helps others around us to help us go where we want to go (as opposed to where they want us to go). More practically, maybe because Dr. Fauci—who seems to have a better sense of this pandemic situation than most anyone—and other high-end medical folk are saying, that by later in 2021 we’ll have vaccines widely distributed. Which means that a year from now I can realistically strategically imagine a future where restaurant seating won’t be limited to 50 percent anymore, where I’m getting on planes, where your kids go to school more calmly, where Tammie and I are traveling again. (Will everything be the same as it was? Of course not. No day ever was the same as any other day.) This is, I believe, an ideal time to dive right in and write. Maria Popova proposes in her fine book Figuring: “At watershed moments of upheaval and transformation, we anticipate with terror the absence of the familiar parts of life and of ourselves that are being washed away by the current of change. But we fail to envision the unfamiliar gladnesses and gratifications the new tide would bring.”

I take Maria’s point well. Focusing on what’s wrong is easy, but as a long-term strategy it’s not very effective. As Socrates said so many centuries ago, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old but on building the new.” It’s easy to complain or identify what’s wrong. In ourselves, in others, in politics, in social behaviors. But the more meaningful work is to work out where we want to be. Then share that. And then make it happen. As historian Robin D. G. Kelley writes, “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.”

Now is a good time too, because when we’re most frustrated, we have a chance to turn the negative into something meaningful and positive that can create the sort of lasting positive change all of us want. It’s a chance to take what we’re frustrated about, what we see wrong, and write the opposite—i.e., what we would like to see—into the vision of our own design. As 19th century women’s rights activist and pacifist Carrie Chapman Catt put it so poetically, “To the wrongs that need resistance, To the right that needs assistance, To the future in the distance, Give yourselves.”

In the last week of October 1967, Martin Luther King gave a speech to a group of high school students in Philadelphia. The talk isn’t a secret, but somehow I’d never heard it until last week. Perhaps it’s another sign that now is the time to give an hour to detailing the future of our dreams. Speaking of which, Dr. King’s inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech is very clearly about vision. This one, though, might even more so. What Dr. King told the high schoolers holds true for all of us: 

This is the most important and crucial period of your lives. For what you decide now at this age may well determine which way your life shall go. And whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint. And that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, as the model, for those who are to build the building. And a building is not well erected without a good, sound, and solid blueprint. Now each of you is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is: whether you have a proper, a solid, and a sound blueprint.

Chris Wilson calls this his Master Plan. Here at Zingerman’s we call it a vision. Dr. King called it a “blueprint.” They’re ultimately just different words for the same thing. An inspiring, strategically sound vision of the future—our future—that we write down, and then actively share with others around us. There’s much more about these four characteristics and how we use them at Zingerman’s in Part 1 of the Guide to Good Leading series. Dr. King asks us to put three other things in our “blueprints.” All are implicit in what we already teach, but I like the way he brings them to the forefront:

Number 1: “Principle of Somebodiness”

I love the way Dr. King phrased that statement. Writing a personal vision is one of the best ways I know to honor who we are. To uncover our inherent uniqueness. In an era where epithets and antipathy are the order of the day, telling our own story—set in the future of our choosing—is an inspiring and effective way to make our way in the world. When you draft a personal vision, it will, like you, be completely unique in the world. If the means need to be congruent with the ends as I believe they do, visioning is a way to bring our innate value as individuals into the open. As Dr. King said, the vision should include, “A deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth and your own somebodiness. Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you are nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.” Dignity, as you know, is close to my heart. As Dr. King suggested, if we embed it in our visions, the odds go up a lot that we will go on to make it a reality in our daily lives. 

Number 2: “Determination to Achieve Excellence”

This is why, at Zingerman’s, we call these “visions of greatness.” What you choose to do, I always believe, is fully for you to decide. The idea here is that whatever that is, do it well. Better than well. Wonderfully. If you want to retire, do it with grace. If you want to start a business, or a family, or a nonprofit, do those well too. As we teach it, we write these drafts with our hearts, not our heads. Going for greatness, we know, is always more work. But it’s good work. Settling for so-so is ultimately exhausting. Driving for excellence, as Dr. King has suggested, is the other way—more work, but energizing! 

Number 3: “Commitment to the Eternal Principles”

Dr. King called on us to honor our values. “In your life’s blueprint,” he said, “must be a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice. Don’t allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them. . . . You have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody. And so, you must be involved in the struggle for freedom and justice.” When we write a vision that’s aligned with who we really are and what we truly believe in our hearts, everything will go better. 

The benefits of having a vision—or a blueprint—run in what seems like millions. In Part 1 I wrote a list of reasons why having a written vision of greatness is a good thing. In Part 4 I added a bunch more of my beliefs about visioning, why it works, and why it’s so important. It’s infinitely easier to hold course when working through a pandemic if one is already clear and committed on where one is going. Our energy is higher. We feel better. The positive beliefs that come with it have a positive impact on our health. We have clarity on our sense of purpose. Visioning, I will say with confidence, creates the positive future we can get excited about working towards. Right now, there is much to be unhappy about in the world. I’ve always had long lists of what we can do better here at Zingerman’s. Years ago, I used to be pretty harsh in the conversation in my head about why we weren’t already doing better. But I’ve learned over the years to treat myself more kindly, to strive for excellence, while still driving for a positive future. Visioning was one of the ways I learned to make peace with myself and carve out a piece of the future that felt really right for me.

Do you have to write a vision? Of course not. Most of the world will continue on apace without doing so. And yet, visioning gives us a chance to choose our own future; to design our dream, to put out the blueprint of our lives as Dr. King said so eloquently. But in my experience, when we’re without vision, life can get very hard. As John O’Donohue said, “When we lose sight of beauty our struggle becomes tired and functional.” 

Worried that you won’t know what to write in your vision? I understand. I had the same feeling when I first learned about this process. But the beauty of the way we do visioning is that you don’t need to know now what you want to do. You just have to sit down and start writing. We all, I believe, already know in our hearts where we want to go and how we want to live. As John O’Donohue says, “Your soul knows the geography of your destiny.” Hugh MacLeod wrote that “Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug’ is just a wee voice telling you, ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.’” (Maybe we should be concerned that the word “adult” is taken from the Latin verb adulterāre, meaning “to corrupt”?)

As I wrote in Part 4, in Secret #47, “My Beliefs about Visioning”:

I’ve watched the visioning process work with thousands of people over the years. Many have a hard time writing at first. Worry and overthinking start to get in the way. But the discipline of the “hot pen” always takes them to the next level. As Pablo Picasso points out, “One doesn’t paste one’s ideas on a painting . . . One simply paints.” Time after time I’ve seen the change in their faces—eyes come alive, smiles soften, energy is increased. All from 40 or 50 or 60 minutes of free writing. The process is the point. The pen becomes the paint. You are the painter.

This piece is a call to all of us to grab a box of mental crayons and start coloring. When you write, insert the beauty you want; bring alive your life story in ways that make you smile. Remember that the delight (not devil) is in the details. The “how to” of the process is in the books. Secret #35 is all about personal visioning and includes the recipe for writing one. Just to help you over the hump, I’ll guarantee it. If you buy a pamphlet (or a copy of Part 3, which includes that essay) and it doesn’t help you, just send me a note and we’ll send you back your money. What’s to lose? What’s in it for me? The better you do, the better I do. We’re all in it together. Cleary, these are tough times. I’m due to write my next personal vision too. I’m going to do it next week. Because as Patti Smith said, “The ones that endure are the ones that really stay true to their vision.”

P.S. If you want a real life story of how visioning works that has nothing to do with Zingerman’s or ZingTrain, look up the life of science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Her work, and her life, are an inspiration. And, if you want an odd aside about futuring in science . . . 

For much more on visioning, see Secrets #6-9, #35 & #47.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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