In my last job advising working professional students, I met with an adult student who was completing his bachelors degree at the University of Denver’s college of professional and continuing studies (University College) after a 15 year hiatus. He wanted to continue his education at the graduate level and was in the process of applying to our masters program in leadership.
Right off the bat, I noticed he had a real thirst for learning and education. After exploring his interest in the program, he shared with me the obstacles he had overcome to be where he is today. He started his undergraduate education in the mid-1990s only to be lured away to a lucrative career like so many of his peers at the time. During the time he spent away from the University, he experienced many successes and failures in his personal and professional life. Now, some 15 years later, he was confronting his fears around his schooling and was overcoming his resistance to education to follow through on a major life goal.
After all this adversity, I wanted to know how he did it all. How, I wondered, did he stay motivated to continue learning after all these years? He responded that from an early age, he dreamed of driving around town sporting the university-sponsored license plate reserved for alumni. Growing up in Denver, there was something very special in his mind about what this symbol represented.
I was immediately fascinated by this. It reminded me of the importance of inspiration and visualization in my own life and the role it’s had in my successes. When I set out to plan and capture goals and outcomes for myself and my work for the year, I often focus solely on information gathering at the cost of the emotional process, which involves both seeing and feeling how to do a particular task or function that you can’t do today.
As an example, one of my 3-5 year visions is to complete a sprint triathlon. Gathering the necessary information for this would involve researching the best bikes to purchase, training programs to join, coaches to hire, races to participate in, and so on. It would also involve seeing myself going through the motions on race day: showing up early, getting my gear adjusted, interacting with other racers, etc. This important phase gets me moving forward and helps me see how to do something, but by looking at my boldest accomplishments I know it isn’t enough. To follow through on the truly elevating goals and visions in my life, I need the important emotional quality that inspiration provides.
If I were to embrace the emotional side of the equation with this particular vision, I would ask myself what conditions need to be in place so that I cannot stand not accomplishing this goal or outcome? Currently I’m working on a related smaller goal of increasing my runs up to a 5K distance. To help me get out the door in the intense heat and humidity of the New Orleans summer afternoons, I have set a standard for myself where I can’t stand not being sore. If I don’t have some soreness in my body, then I know I need to be out exercising or training. The soreness reminds me that I’m making progress and is a tangible feeling I can experience on a regular basis.
For this particular student, his vision of success involved him driving around town proudly displaying his DU license plate. After our conversation, I knew that he would stop at no cost to make this a reality. This mental image embodied the very essence of success for him and kept him moving forward despite the obstacles life had thrown at him.
Next time you put a stake in the ground and set out to accomplish something truly remarkable in your life, don’t forget to feel yourself doing it. And while you’re at it, think of a particular image that personifies the joy of successful completion for you, whether it’s fitting into that particular pair of jeans, taking that trip you’ve always dreamed of, doing the meaningful work you’ve always wanted to do, and on. The more specific the image the better. This little bit of inspiration can powerfully fuel our performance and can even be the difference between wild success and failure.