Or, content cannot exist without a context. Mmm, I see you frown and wonder what I am going on about now. Let me explain.
Why motivational gurus confuse me
Motivational gurus often pose the question “What would you do if money or other limitations were not a factor?” Similar questions suggest you imagine yourself to have superpowers, or would be god like. The goal of the questions is to “free” yourself in your thinking. But there is a problem.
You see, these questions do not help me. On the contrary, they actually make it more difficult for me to think about ultimate goals. They do not provide the required stimulation that will lead me to great insights about my life and how it should evolve.
My emotional agoraphobia
Now, it’s entirely possible I suffer from some kind of emotional agoraphobia. Whenever I am confronted with too much choice, I want some limitations. Too much choice effectively makes me uncomfortable. To illustrate, I don’t like to many options in a dessert menu. It makes it very difficult to choose, because yes, I like the Dame Blanche, but I know I should be eating sensibly. Then again, is apple cake with a scoop of icecream and adequately sensible choice? After all, apple cake consists of apple, a fruit. Anyway, you see the problems. This is why I now have a list in my head of desserts I will eat, in order of priority. If my first choice is not on there, I will default to my second choice, and so forth.
While that may seem very funny to you, I’m quite sure I’m not the only one exhibiting this reaction. Not with respect to the dessert, not with respect to the question of what triggers deep inner discovery. The reason is simple. Just like I cannot eat every dessert on the menu, and I shouldn’t, the lack of limitations, the lack of a limitative context to consider my future hampers my long term view, my 30.000, 40.000 and 50.000 foot GTD considerations. It negatively influences the quality of the outcome of that soul searching.
The question answers a problem I do not have
Now, I understand the reason for using that type of a trigger. The question is supposed to free people from essentially irrelevant yet to them apparently insurmountable limitations and constraints in their thinking about what they aim to achieve. But fundamentally, it really makes no sense to ask this type of question. Some of the limitations we are being confronted with in our life are imaginary, but some of them can be very real. They are hard constraints and are essential to the types of choices we make and ambitions we can have. But they do more. They provide us with a context which allows us to focus on what is essential.
We need that context to create in, whether it is a piece of prose, a statue or a vision on our future. I can inverse this: if we have no context, it becomes much more difficult to create relevant content.
This is, in my perception, especially true for productivity related thinking exercises. Let me illustrate:
Visioning beyond the Ferrari and the swimming pool
Imagine the first question is “Imagine you had unlimited means … what would you do?” Pfff, what a wide set of choices are available to you now. The sky is the limit. Problem is that tomorrow, you are not going to turn into a bird. Hence, you need to develop a set of goals to achieve with these unlimited funds. Most people I talked about are very quick to identify a number of tangible things they would want to get. There is the Ferrari. And of course the second Ferrari. Then there is the new house, the swimming pool. And let us not forget the money that would be given to charity, sometimes anonimous, sometimes not. But those are very obvious choices. These are not really relevant answers to life goals, now are they?
At 43, if I answer that question, I would have become a marine biologist or a marine mammal expert, working with dolphins. That just will not happen.
Just add a little context
Now, let’s provide just a little context to this question, and see whether it makes a difference. “Imagine you are a writer with unlimited means … what would you do?” Still, not an easy question, but it is more limited, hence the answers are likely to be more real. The context provides you with a number of footholds that allow you to develop a better story for yourself. You could start thinking about taking a faraway trip to get inspiration, and of course the purchase of a few Macbooks with all the required software to make your writing life so much better. But fundamentally, it will allow you to project forward within a certain context – being a writer – and fill that with meaningful content. You could decide to really invest in writing that book, or decide to go and live in South East Asia, apparently a really good choice if you write science fiction for a living. Still, there would be a significant risk that you would get distracted from your core values, which ideally, if you are a writer, would revolve around or at least include writing.
So let’s take it one step further still. Imagine you are a writer with 5.000 USD. What would you do? 5.000 USD is a reachable context, one you can achieve with some work and some saving within a relatively short time frame. Now your story, because of the more detailed and especially more realistic content, becomes even easier to tell yourself. Unlimited means is conceptually very difficult to grap and pretty much not achievable. With 5.000 USD you can make realistic choices.
Whereas asking yourself very open questions without context can provide you with some interesting results, the most relevant answers are to questions with adequate context. An achievable context can be planned towards, and the ideas you develop based on that context are more realistic and more achievable than those you think about when you think about winning the lottery. I think there are two critical considerations you need to take in mind when undertaking such a green field thinking exercise:
You need to know where you are before you can decide where you are going.
An achievable context can become a goal in and of itself, something you can strive for.
The achievable context then becomes the stepping stone to achieving your realistic vision … from which you can dream other, achievable dreams … and become a serial dreamer.