I used to really hate the job interview question: Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? I think maybe it was because I was more comfortable living in the moment than getting stressed out by the thought of having to work really, really hard to fulfill whatever ambition I shared.
If I actually said out loud that I wanted the job of the person sitting opposite me, or that I pined for neighbours who would complain to the Evening Standard about the construction of my new mega basement in my already sprawling Primrose Hill mansion, then surely I was going to slog my guts out to make it happen. And, if I’m really honest with myself, I just can’t be arsed to break my back in order to acquire more material wealth.
Recently I was asked to handle a similar question but, this time, in a completely different context. With no job on the line, I was simply invited to see where I would be in a year’s time. By see I mean really take a moment to visualise things in an almost meditative sense – to let my imagination and creativity open up to what might be possible. I understood that, for this to really be worth trying, I would need to allow my brain to picture what I am capable of and relax enough to accept what I might be ready for in life.
I closed my eyes and let myself explore the notion of effectively writing my own future for a few moments. Then I opened them again and looked around the room with a huge smile on my face. When the time came for me to talk, I couldn’t stop. My happiness and enthusiasm was clearly infectious because the people around me began to smile back. I had – in my imagination at least – made a lot of big things happen in the space of twelve months. And I felt amazing; I felt alive.
I wanted to know why the act of visualising life differently had made me feel so good, so I turned to research for the answers. I found evidence to suggest that the brain, however magnificent it is, doesn’t necessarily distinguish what’s real from imaginary. I felt too comfortable in my cynicism when considering the idea of positivity overcoming negative thoughts, though, so I decided to explore the concept from a different angle. I looked at how we deal with stress instead.
I discovered that our human stress response evolved to give us the ability to fight or flee in the face of danger. Cortisol and adrenalin push blood towards the major muscles to provide out bodies with strength to take on real danger. But this happens when we imagine danger, too. The process, and often the sensation we feel, according to research, is exactly the same.
It didn’t seem entirely unreasonable to me, therefore, that what we imagine to be happening is actually happening as far as our brains are concerned (this is something I can certainly buy into as a person whose brain is often struck by anxiety fuelled by situations that haven’t even happened yet and that probably won’t ever, either).
One thing that I was sure of was that I wanted to hold onto the positivity I felt and also achieve a lot of what I’d ‘seen’ when I’d been asked to picture life a year ahead.
I knew that I couldn’t just go through life like some sort of late-30s Peter Pan, closing my eyes and imagining myself happier, though. I’ve been buying Men’s Health for long enough to know that I’m never going to get the perfect six pack by just looking at someone else’s on the cover. You don’t just get fit, either mentally or physically, by doing nothing. If you want to be good shape, you need to put in the effort.
So I find myself at a crossroads. I’ve spent much of the last five years talking about the past, sharing my grief and opening up about how bad I’ve felt. I don’t regret a moment of it but I have come to understand the impact committing words to paper has upon me.
The stories I wrote about grief and heartache became ever more real. It was as though, when they hit the page, they were acknowledged by my whole sense of self. They became me. And that, I think, is why I stopped. And this, I believe, is why I’ve seen an opportunity to start afresh.
I’m going to turn the old approach on its head. I’m going to write about life now instead. I’m going to continue to visualise a positive future and avoid ruminating on an unfortunate past. I’m going to experience and acknowledge more things that make me feel good. I’m going to see what happens when I try to write myself fulfilled and I’m going to enjoy learning the art of living well.
It’s time to open my eyes and explore again. Time to listen, learn and live. Feel free to join me if you like.
Click here to read more about my story and the purpose of my new blog.