There’s a piece of advice floating around yoga classes, ayahuasca ceremonies, and life-coaching sessions right now that basically goes like this: Decide what you want in life, focus on it intentionally, and eventually — if you do it enough — it’ll magically appear.

This idea is called manifestation, and it’s one of the cornerstones of the new wave of problematic self-help. It’s a concept rooted in the law of attraction, which is the belief that our thoughts determine, or “attract,” our success. Positive thoughts lead to positive outcomes, while negative thoughts lead to negative outcomes. If you want that sick house in the hills or that Lamborghini in the driveway, the law goes, then all you need to do is work on them on the level of thought, and you’ll invite — “attract” — them into your life.

There’s actually a profound kernel of truth to this idea. If our thoughts and actions aren’t aligned, then we work at cross-purposes with our intentions, which is one of the most common forms of self-sabotage. If we don’t believe that we can achieve something, it’s a lot harder to actually pull it off. If we don’t want the things we’re pursuing in the first place, then our actions lack the purpose we need to actually achieve them. And if we’re not clear on what our goals specifically are, then they’ll remain frustratingly vague, too abstract for us to ever achieve.

And the latest scientific research seems to bear this out.

We know, for example, that our levels of happiness, hopefulness, and optimism have a profound effect on our ability to fight disease and infection, and are correlated with longer lifespans. We know that our mirror neurons directly shape our capacity for empathy, determining the quality of our relationships, attitudes, and dynamics out in the world. We know that our feelings and moods — especially negative ones, like fear — are “contagious” to other people, as new brain imaging research has shown. And we all know that when we consciously look for the things we want in life — people, ideas, opportunities, solutions — we’re much more likely to find them, if only because we’ve activated our attention.

In other words, there’s an unshakable link between our cognition and our experience, our wiring and our actions, our mental models and the world around us.

The more you study the research, the more you come to appreciate that these two dimensions — the inner and the outer — are wrapped up in a very profound way. To work on one, it seems like we have to work on the other. In other words, if we internally orient ourselves toward achieving what we want externally, we clearly increase our chances of succeeding — the foundation of the law of attraction in a nutshell.

So the idea of “manifestation” isn’t entirely self-helpy BS. In its best form, it contains some very basic and timeless wisdom.

But like most useful concepts, manifestation has been co-opted by a self-help industry that profits from easy answers to the difficult questions of life. At the same time, it’s been embraced by people who are hungry for those easy answers — people who would prefer to sit around engaging in positive thinking than do the hard work necessary to achieve what they want. It’s easier (and let’s be honest, way more fun) to make a vision board of all those Lambos than to build the business that will allow you to afford it.

All of which has led to some unfortunate consequences.

The Dangers of Manifestation

When manifestation goes wrong for people — and I see it go wrong a lot — it’s almost always because they believe that manifestation is the biggest part of self-development, rather than a helpful tool along the way. They try to achieve their goals by fixating on those goals in the abstract — visualizing the huge house, the attractive partner, the sick whip — instead of breaking those goals down into choices and actions and behaviors they can pursue.

Unsurprisingly, these people rarely achieve the things they claim to manifest, because their manifestation isn’t attached to any real-world enterprise. And so they remain stuck, clinging to their vision boards and daydreams, wondering why their best intentions aren’t paying off.

But even if pure manifestation did work, it still wouldn’t be enough to secure your success in life. Even the greatest manifestor would need to manage that success, to capitalize on it, to invest it in ways that would generate more of it down the line. They’d need to be generous. They’d need to act (and not just feel) abundantly. They’d need to know how to listen, how to cultivate purpose, how to build relationships.

In other words, manifestation would be the least of their success.

That’s the other danger to embracing manifestation: It lets you off the hook for becoming a capable, self-aware, fully actualized human being.

It encourages you to believe that success is just a function of how badly you want something, rather than a function of what kind of person you’d have to be in order to achieve it.

That, in turn, can cause you to unconsciously avoid people who actually push you to do the work, leading you to associate with people who share your approach. A vicious cycle gets created, in which the people you surround yourself keep you stuck in place, which leads you to keep surrounding yourself with those same people. (Which actually explains a lot about why militant manifestors can be so hard to be around!)

At the end of the day, manifestation is one aspect of success and self-development.

For some people, it’s an indispensable mindset. For others, it’s a handy tool. In my experience, what matters most in manifestation is the manifestor’s relationship to it — how they use it, how they view its importance in their lives, and how much they balance their “manifestation” with good old fashioned hard work.

Without that awareness, manifestation usually devolves into toothless aspiration or fantastical daydreaming. Sadly, that’s the kind of manifestation we hear about in our culture. Ironically — or maybe not — the people who struggle with success tend to talk about their intentions the most. Whereas truly successful people are too busy executing on their goals to spend time talking about their intentions.

When you study how those successful people approach the idea of manifestation, you usually find that there’s one aspect — one core technique — that they embrace the most: visualization.

And that, in my view, is actually the most important part of manifestation.

The Power of Visualization

In his recent interview on the show, Beau Lotto — world-renowned neuroscientist and author of Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differentlyshared some fascinating insights on the way we experience the world around us.

According to Beau, there really is an objective world out there, but our brains don’t experience it the way it is, because we humans are separate from that world. In reality, our brains experience sight, sound, taste, smell, touch — the physical world around us — through our various faculties. Our brains then process all that data and construct a meaning out of it — meaning that isn’t really “out there” in the world, but entirely created within our own minds.

This view, by the way, confirms the latest scientific research and builds on what David Eagleman — Stanford neuroscientist, host of PBS/BBC’s The Brain and author of The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World — shared in his recent interview with me. The world, at least as we experience it, is essentially just data. Our minds then process that data, adding layers of emotion and significance along the way.

So the way we think and the way we experience the world are intimately connected. They’re not the same thing, as some edgy philosophers and your friend who goes to Burning Man every year would argue. But they’re definitely inextricable.

If working on our thoughts shapes our perception of the world, then working on our thoughts can also shape our perception of ourselves, our lives and our futures.

This is where the concept of visualization comes into play.

Visualization — whether it’s practiced by a musician in the wing of a stage, an athlete on a football field or a politician on the campaign trail — is the practice of picturing an imaginary goal, task or outcome as a way of “experiencing” that goal, task or outcome in advance.

By visualizing the thing we want, we make it real for ourselves, and increase our odds of successfully achieving it. It’s one of the most common techniques in manifestation and, according to the latest research, one of the most effective.

Visualization, Beau explains, activates the parts of your brain that would be active if you were actually looking at something in the real world. He gives the example of a skier going down a ski slope. If you actually skied down the slope, your brain would experience the slope “directly” — as directly as possible, anyway. But if you imagine skiing down the slope — picturing the mountain, the air, the speed, the sensation, all of it — you actually activate the exact same areas of the brain, only less intensely.

In other words, Beau explains, “Visualization is seeing.”

So visualization can actually be a powerful form of training. Chess players, for example, visualize endless permutations of moves as a way of upping their game. In their visualizations, they explore different choices, make mistakes, then backtrack in the game to make the right one — using their brains to imagine the consequences of a certain strategy with far less risk.

What visualizers are doing, really, is exploiting their ability to “experience” life in their imagination to improve their experience of life in the real world.

Interestingly, we can do this forward (by rehearsing) as well as backwards (by reflecting). Just as we can visualize a future scenario, we can also visualize a different outcome of a past event — a trauma, a conflict, a decision — as a way to understand, learn and grow from our experience.

“While we can’t change the things that happened,” Beau points out, “we can change the meaning of the things that happened.”

That, he argues, is the real beauty of consciousness — to experience the possibilities, consequences, and meaning of life in different ways, often at a much lower cost.

The Right Way to Manifest What You Want

All of which makes visualization a kind of superpower.

But it’s not a superpower based on the abstract notion of “attracting” what we want into our lives. It’s a superpower rooted in the very specific cognitive ability to imagine a certain outcome and visualize the means of achieving it, so that the work becomes real to us in our minds.

This also means that the best visualization isn’t just about results, but about processes.

If we visualize the things we want — the kitted-out Lambo, the corner office, the dream St. Barts vacation — we might feel a little closer to those goals, we might even be inspired to pursue them, but we’re attaching to the least productive aspect of the goal: its completion.

But if we visualize ourselves doing the work of pursuing that goal — going through each practical step along the way — then we’re making the most of the faculty of imagination, by turning it toward the specific actions and mindsets that will actually help us achieve it.

That’s exactly how the world’s top performers use visualization.

An Olympic swimmer doesn’t just visualize a gold medal around her neck and call it a day. She visualizes herself entering the water, executing a perfect stroke, breathing efficiently, managing time, and pushing through when she gets tired.

Just like an effective CEO doesn’t prepare for a major negotiation by visualizing the respect and admiration of his shareholders. He prepares by visualizing himself giving his pitch, answering difficult questions, holding his ground, and pushing for the best possible deal.

In other words, the best visualizers are primarily visualizing their work, not the fruits of their work.

There might be some role for visualization of the end reward to play here, too. Maybe the swimmer feels inspired to perform at her best when she pictures that medal around her neck. Maybe the CEO feels motivated to negotiate harder when he imagines how happy his shareholders will be.  But visualizing the rewards alone won’t generate the most meaningful results.

What does generate meaningful results?

Visualizing the nuts and bolts of the work. Visualizing your style and approach. Visualizing specific milestones and outcomes. Visualizing your intentions and attitudes. Visualizing your skills in action and your technique in practice. Visualizing obstacles and solutions. Visualizing every step of the goal, in sequence, rather than just the last step — the positive outcome — in isolation.

This is when manifestation — if you want to call it that — usually succeeds: when it’s built on disciplined thinking and real-world execution.

By the way, this is why vision boards and daydreaming usually don’t work. They’re oriented toward the surfaces of success — the end results, the pretty images, the grandiose fantasies — rather than on the steps required to get there.

Of course, if you tried to create a vision board of a detailed process, you’d end up with something far more useful but way less sexy: a roadmap. And who wants that when you can just sit in a room fantasizing about pulling up to the club in that Lambo?

But visualization isn’t just about picturing what you want. It’s also about picturing — or rather, not picturing — what you don’t want.

The Olympic swimmer, for example, doesn’t visualizing her fatigue, her self-doubt, or her competitors’ success. The CEO doesn’t visualize his anxiety, his insecurity, or his shareholders’ skepticism. When they visualize what they want, they also visualize the qualities they want to embody — focus, calm, optimism, or even neutrality — rather than allowing the qualities they don’t want to embody to take over.

As Beau points out, this is actually a form of meditation, which “is really about practicing and exercising your brain to let go of the meanings that it’s already attaching to something.”

Visualization then becomes a way to undo that programming and “change our statistics” by visualizing the best possible version of our lives. That visualization might seem like a delusion, and by definition, it is. But it’s an incredibly useful delusion.

Beau’s advice? “Choose your delusion,” he suggests. Otherwise, we’re left with the default delusion of our conditioned brains. We think we’re making a choice about how we view the world, but in reality, we’re reflexively defaulting to the scripted beliefs and patterns we find most efficient and useful. Only when we bring conscious awareness to our thoughts, Beau argues, do we become “an active agent in the constructions of the meanings” that we pursue.

Which is really what visualization is all about: preparing for a future whose meaning we decide.

When that practice links up with strong intention and execution, it gives teeth to the concept of manifestation. But rather than passively “attracting” something into our lives, we’re proactively preparing for it. That might feel like attraction, and on one level, it is. But what we’re really “attracting” is the result of deliberate, intentional work.

Visualization in Practice

I was recently talking with a director who works on a super popular TV series about law enforcement. The tagline of the show is “Help is on the way,” which pretty much sums up the plot.

As the director explained it to me, the production is insanely complicated. There are huge action sequences, last-minute rewrites, hundreds of locations, and endless logistical nightmares. Every single day on this show, things are going wrong, and it’s the producers’ job to fix them.

Which is why they came up with their own version of the tagline: “Help is not on the way.”

Now, whenever sh*t hits the fan on the show, they repeat that tagline to remind themselves that the solutions to their problems are entirely on them. They then imagine the most optimistic version of events, and make every decision with enormous hope and positivity. Every person who works on the show approaches their work as if everything is going to work out perfectly — has to picture it all working out perfectly — because it’s the only way that it actually does.

I think about this story a lot.

What these producers are doing, really, is a form of manifestation. Their process begins by accepting that there is no escape from their difficult situation — help is not on the way. That awareness forces them to commit to the future they want to see, and to imagine it clearly in their minds. They visualize themselves solving these impossible problems, and, almost by magic, they find a way to solve them.

But it’s not magic. The useful delusion of their optimism — combined with deep experience, hard work, and disciplined execution — secures the result.

You could say that they’re manifesting the solution. You could say they’re visualizing it. Or you could say that they’re aligning their intentions with their actions, so they can do the work necessary to succeed. Either way, they’re embracing the best form of this practice in action.

That practice is available to you too. You could invite this combination of visualization and execution into your life, and see how it makes your goals more vivid, your execution more specific, your intentions more effective.

Or, you know, you could just keep daydreaming about that Lambo.

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