One of the wonderful aspects about human imagination is that it can see things not as they are now, but as they can be; it can foretell the future, based upon our beliefs and expectations, in an almost uncanny way; it can draw the colorful mental images that we hope someday to turn into reality. Imagination is the beginning of creation.
Dr. David McClelland of Harvard University demonstrated this through a series of "projective tests." In these tests, McClelland used photographs or drawings depicting basic scenes. For instance, in one photograph, a man was lying in bed with his eyes closed. His hand was raised and extended over an alarm clock on the table next to the bed. A window in the background was bright with the rays of early morning sunlight. McClelland asked his subjects to either describe the scene or tell a story about the person in the picture. To be sure that the responses were solely a function of motivational levels, the subjects for each test were people of the same sex, age, social background, and level of education.
This was McClelland's hypothesis: Since all motivation comes from internal images, the subjects in the study who demonstrated the highest and most active levels of imaginative power would become the most successful in achieving their personal goals. He called these people "highly motivated achievers."
His experiments confirmed his hypothesis. He found that highly motivated achievers told action-filled, goal-oriented stories about the scenes. People with a lower motivational level generally gave bland, passive descriptions of the images.
For example, after viewing the photo of the man in bed holding out his hand toward the clock, a highly motivated achiever might describe a man who has to wake up early and get back to work on an important project that kept him up late the night before. They would even describe details of the project.
On the other hand, McClelland's less motivated subjects tended toward a passive interpretation of the scene. Many described a sleeping man who is reaching to turn off the alarm because it's Saturday and he doesn't have to go to work.
Motivation and Imagination
McClelland was not content to accept the results of the first study at face value. He continued to ask himself the following question: What if individuals don't start off with a vivid imagination, but their professional position demands a vivid imagination? If, in fact, highly motivated achievers developed their imaginative abilities in response to their jobs, it would mean that their imaginative powers might not have played a role in motivating them to their level of extraordinary success. In other words, how could McClelland be certain that the vivid imagination of these individuals was a cause of success and not a result of it?
He solved the problem by devising a second study that took 14 years to complete. For four years, he gave his projective test to college students. After giving the last projective test, he compiled the results and divided the students into two groups. The first group comprised those who showed the same traits as the highly motivated achievers of his earlier study, and the second group included those who were of average motivation.
McClelland then waited 10 years before he could complete his study, giving the students time to establish careers. He knew that if those with the most vivid imaginations were the same ones who had advanced furthest up the corporate ladder, he would have proof that vivid imaginations played a key role in helping people advance the furthest in life. He would have proof that a vivid, action-oriented imagination was a cause, a prerequisite in maintaining a highly motivated state, not just a result of success.
Ultimately, McClelland's findings confirmed his expectations. The highly motivated achievers, those students who told the most vivid, action-oriented stories in the projective tests, had most often chosen entrepreneurial careers involving a large amount of personal responsibility, initiative, and personal risk. The other students gravitated to non-entrepreneurial fields that required much less personal initiative. From the 14-year study, McClelland concluded that highly motivated achievers find the strength of their motivation in the power of their imagination.
McClelland's research may seem complex, but there's one principle woven throughout all his studies: The more vivid and real the image that motivates you, the stronger the motivation. As we hold a picture in the hands of our imagination, the enormous power of our minds is set on achieving it. Soon, depending upon the difficulty and complexity of the image, it is ours, it is a reality, where before it was only a picture in our imagination.
Imagination, Desire, and Goals
When I was researching the history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge as a major illustration for the ideas of success and motivation, I became engrossed with the story of how the first bridge was built over Niagara Falls. You see, to build a bridge over a giant gorge, first you have to get a line over the canyon, from one side to the other. This is easier said than done at Niagara Falls.
The engineers couldn't cross the falls in a boat to take the line from one side to the other because the boat would go over the falls. And the airplane hadn't been invented yet. The distance was also way beyond the bow-and-arrow range, which had been a common method at the time of getting the first line across to build a bridge.
The designing engineer, Charles Ellet, pondered the question until he came up with a revolutionary idea. He decided that, while solving the problem, he would also have some fun and generate some publicity for the project. Ellet sponsored a kite-flying contest and offered five dollars to the first person who could fly a kite across the gorge and let it go low enough to the ground for someone to be able to grab the string. In 1849, five dollars was a prize similar to a small lottery today. The boy who won the price relished his accomplishment until his death, nearly 80 years later.
It all began with an idea and one thin kite string. The kite string was used to pull a cord across, then a line, then a rope. Next came an iron-wire cable and then steel cables, until a structure strong enough to build a suspension bridge was in place.
I'm struck by how that string is like a single thought. The more vivid and clear the thought, and the more you come back to it, the stronger it becomes—like the string to the rope to the cable. Each time you rethink it, dwell on it, or layer it with other thoughts, you are strengthening the structure on which to build your idea, like building a bridge over Niagara Falls. But unlike a kite, there is no string attached to how high and how far your goals may take you. They are limited only by the power of your imagination and the strength of your desire.
Don't Limit Yourself
Perhaps the greatest torture that could be devised would be for us to be forced, in our later years, to watch a continuously repeating movie of the lives we could have led had we dared to believe in and pursue the dreams and goals that were available and attainable in our lifetimes.
While we all say we don't have enough time to do justice to our goals and dreams, each of us has all the time there is. None of us really have a time-management problem. We really have a dream- and goal-focus problem. We spend too much energy worrying about the things we want to do but can't, instead of concentrating on doing the things we can do but don't. It is the regret for something we did or didn't do yesterday and the apprehension of what we can't do tomorrow that is the biggest energy drain on our lives.
A dream is your creative vision for your life in the future. It is what you would like your life to become. A goal is what, specifically, you intend to make happen. However, many individuals become spectators, resigned to experience success vicariously through others' accomplishments. They can see success for others, but they can't imagine it for themselves. Dreams and goals are previews of coming attractions in your life. You can be either the script writer, the star, and the producer of an Oscar-winning epic life or an extra in a "B" movie that someone else wrote and directed for you. Which is it to be?
Keep the focus on your actions
Make certain that your goals are not measured in comparison with others'. Avoid the tendency to measure your own progress by looking over the fence at greener pastures. There are many others who have started a little earlier than you, and you may become discouraged if you see them harvesting success when some of your seeds are barely in the ground. Comparison rarely benefits anyone. You'll always be able to find someone smarter, younger, older, wiser, richer, more clever, better looking, or working harder or more effectively than you are.
When you make comparisons in which you place yourself beneath others, you're in for a discouragement that will keep you procrastinating and perhaps even keep you from seriously pursuing your life goals. You can also find others who don't measure up to what you have become or are aspiring to be. Avoid the tendency to compare yourself with them as well. You will lower your goals and settle for average when you could have excellence. You may come to think that you deserve more success than others or that success lies ahead for you no matter what you do. Both are false assumptions.
Success isn't a pie with a limited number of pieces. The success of others has very little bearing on your own success. You and everyone you know can become successful without anyone suffering setbacks, harm, or downturns. Neither is your success measured by what others say or accomplish. Only you can truly define your success, and only you can measure it. Keep the focus on what you are doing.