simple question asked in the moment as we try to anticipate the future: What
if? The whole point is to imagine what
might happen in the future. It is asked
as we consider the impact of current events or decisions. The way we approach this question can lead to
liberating, powerful decisions. It can
also lead to unfortunate, debilitating fear and inaction.
perspective can make “what ifs” very potent questions. What if I go back to school to become the
photographer I’ve dreamed of becoming? “It will be fulfilling!” What if I pursue my dream of dedicating two
years to the Peace Corps? “It will be a
highlight of my life!” What if I say yes
to devoting one hour a day to reading those novels I couldn’t find time
for? “It will be cultivating!”
commonly, though, the “what ifs” create a spiral of inaction. Should I take any
chances with my career? “What if I lose my job?” Should I take that exotic vacation I’ve been
dreaming of? “What if the plane crashes? You know, there are terrorists.” Should I run a marathon? “What if I have a
heart attack?” Should I speak up for
myself? “What if she leaves me?” Should
I take the entrance exam? “What if I fail?”
These questions originate from a place of anxiety and fear. We fret over these questions knowing the generic
answer will be “Stay safe. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.” Some of us enter this kind of “what if” inertia
spiral very readily, others less so. It’s
familiar to us all, though. The spiral predictably ends exactly where you now
no one can actually see the future so an individual’s answer to “what if?” will
always come from one’s imagination. It is a made up scenario and this is a very
important point to recognize. You stand
in the moment asking “what if?” and your imagination replies with an
answer. How does your imagination render
this prediction of the future?
I rode my motorcycle from San Francisco to New York. It was an adventure that
tested my riding skills and confidence. On some occasions I was buffeted by
strong plains winds that tossed me around the road. That loss of control was
unnerving. At night, after settling into a new motel I would turn on the
Weather Channel to see what the next day had in store (this was a mistake). Toward
the final leg of the trip the forecasts became ominous. There were threats of tornados, hail and
thunderstorms across the region and up through my only available route for a full
week. I was not ready to wait out the weather and extend the trip by a week and
not confidant that my riding skills were up to the challenges. The forecast did
not change and in Memphis I decided to abandon the journey. I was tired, doubting
myself and coming up with all kinds of reasons to put the bike in a U-Haul and
drive home. What if I get caught in prolonged thunderstorms? What if it hails?
What if the wind picks up again? Tornados!? What if I can’t find someone to
watch the dog at home if I need more time? In fact I found a motel near a U-Haul shop so
I could load up the bike and leave the next day. The plan was to quit.
I received some great advice from a friend, something I hadn’t considered. “Why don’t you take a day off, relax in
Memphis, and see how things look after that?”
It was a welcome idea. That night
I slept for eleven hours. Apparently I was much more fatigued than I
realized. After rethinking my decision I
recognized that quitting would be an unacceptable outcome. I confronted my
doubts, one by one, and resolved to finish the trip on the bike doing whatever it
would require. Ironically (and instructively), the next few days were the most
beautiful riding days of the journey. In West Virginia I passed a U-Haul truck of
the kind I had reserved and was profoundly grateful not to be driving it.
happened? I became mired in negative “what if” thinking. These thoughts were
fueled by exaggerated weather headlines, fear, self-doubt and fatigue. I
allowed my mind to run wild with these things and imagined a future comprised
of potentially catastrophic outcomes. This projected future was, of course, one
that was fabricated from negatively biased perspectives and selective attention
to information that supported these biases. I imagined a scary future and it
was all false.
some people are predisposed to an anxious, fearful imagination. However, we
seem to live in an era that exaggerates fear-provoking news. Despite less war,
crime and illness than in past decades many of us feel that greater dangers now
exist. There are myriad reasons for this, beyond the scope of this essay, but
the important point to recognize is that our fears and anxieties tend to be fed
by and attentive to distorted “facts” that amplify these fears and anxieties.
When we then use our imagination to answer “what if” questions we are often drawn,
like moth to flame, to imagine negative future outcomes. Questions like “What
if terrorists attack?” “What if my worst fear comes true?” “What if I make a
wrong decision?” or “What if poodle-size hail falls on me?” seem reasonable
rather than absurd.
possible to avoid “what if” inaction spirals? The first thing to recognize is that it’s your
imagination that must be tamed. You imagine the future and then base your
behavior on that projected outcome. The image of a frightening future can only
lead to inertia. Clearly the image of a more appealing future would provide
positive motivation and the energy required to work toward that future.
It is also
important to consider the role of self-fulfilling prophecy in “what if”
scenario outcomes. A terrifying scenario can create a distracting, negative
target that you may be pulled toward. If you envision appealing goals and stay
focused on them you are more likely to achieve them.
can be done to avoid these “what if” spirals?
a break from your thoughts to disrupt the spiral.
yourself to imagine other futures and list them. Ask someone for feedback as
well as other ideas.
someone else how likely your worst-case scenario really is.
your worst-case scenario really so bad? Ask someone else.
on the past to gain some perspective on the future.
something that helps you relieve stress (art, exercise, sex, games, etc.)
It’s important to recognize that negative “what
iffing” can be countered by adjusting your perspective. Imagining a negative
outcome is simply adopting one unproductive perspective from among many
possible perspectives. Actively choosing
to embrace the likelihood of a rewarding outcome will not only lift your
spirits but also increase the likelihood of good things actually happening in
your future. (Other Thoughts and Essays)