Leaders I coach understand the importance of identifying a solid career goal to give themselves focus and direction. But the idea of developing an Impossible Future can often be overwhelming. This article outlines the concept and value of an Impossible Future and gives you eight steps for designing your own. Once you learn how to create one for yourself, you can easily apply the same principles to your organization.
What is an Impossible Future?
Robert Hargrove, in his book Masterful Coaching (pp.xiv-xvii), defines Impossible Future as an “extraordinary result…or transformational goal”. It moves you beyond goals based on a Predictable Future of incremental change and continuous improvement to reinventing yourself to achieve more than you thought possible. Designing your Impossible Future is about personal transformation. It requires imagination and an act of faith.
Here are some examples of what a Predictable Future (PF) career goal might look like:
• Finish university and become an engineer;
• Get a promotion within two years, or get promoted two levels within five years;
• Get a new job within one year, or become comfortable in my new job within six months.
Predictable Future goals are based on extending the present situation logically into the future if all goes well. They focus on the short to medium term and involve overcoming obstacles while learning and strengthening professional competencies. The goals are clear and measurable. Attaining a PF will give you satisfaction and build confidence.
An Impossible Future (IF) goal looks more like this:
• Meet the needs of serious woodworkers and gardeners as one of the leading mail-order and retail suppliers of woodworking tools, gardening tools and cabinet hardware (Leonard Lee, Lee Valley Tools);
• Better Leaders. Better World (Leadership coach Robert Hargrove);
• A computer on every desk and in every home (Bill Gates).
With an IF, you go beyond the limits of your personal achievements and focus on how you might make a larger contribution to your community and even the world. It seeks to answer questions of why are you doing this and what positive difference can you make to others. An IF is emotionally compelling and self-energizing. It inspires you to challenge yourself and go beyond your own expectations. It speaks to your deepest desire to accomplish something of value and give your life meaning.
At this point, I can hear you say, “But I’m not a Bill Gates or a multinational company! This is not something that applies to me”. My answer is that every life has value and meaning and every person of whatever skill level and experience has the ability to imagine a more positive and powerful future for themselves if they try. You owe it to yourself to be the best you can possibly be.
An Emerging New Paradigm
Changing the way we set personal and professional goals is based on a new paradigm called social constructionism. It is described in the book, Appreciative Coaching: a Positive Process for Change (p.23), by Sara L. Orem, Jacqueline Binkert and Ann L. Clancy:
“Instead of seeing an objective, predictable and controllable universe, scientists in the 21st century see a vastly different world based on the findings of quantum physics and the new sciences of chaos theory, self-organizing systems and complexity theory… Integral to social constructionism is the notion of individuals as active, independent and spontaneous beings who, consciously or not, form images of the future toward which they then grow.”
Dr. David Cooperrider, Fairmount Minerals Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University and founder of the Appreciative Inquiry approach, says that to a far greater extent than is normally acknowledged, we humans create our own realities through symbolic and mental processes. Every goal has conscious and unconscious limits built-in by the person designing it. Many of these limits come from our own fears and negative thinking rather than anything that could really hold us back. So “dreaming big” can be a way to push past those self-imposed limits.
Designing an Impossible Future is not wishful thinking. It is a new way to set goals that reflects recent scientific findings about human strength and resilience. It is founded on the idea that your reality is yours to create. You can construct a small, safe, predictable future or something more meaningful and challenging. Your Impossible Future will most likely have a longer time frame, and one Impossible Future can lead to another.
8 Steps to Designing Your Impossible Future
1. Start by taking stock of your current reality, but with a twist.
Instead of focusing on what is wrong or missing, look for the best of what is now. Identify your current strengths. Reflect on your career high points, positive experiences and accomplishments. Find similarities, themes and lessons across your positive experiences. What is working well for you? What do you want to keep? Describe in detail your positive core.
2. Become an explorer into your future.
With your positive attributes and strengths in mind, imagine your ideal future in broad strokes. Generate images of possibilities. What would someone who respects and loves you want for your future? How would you express your highest and best self? If there were no obstacles, what could you accomplish that could make a positive difference for you and your community?
3. Paint a detailed picture.
Now add plenty of detail to your future. Define it as clearly as if you were standing in your Impossible Future now. Use present tense language. What does it look like exactly? Where are you? Who is there? What are they saying about you? What are you doing? How are you feeling? Make it real in your mind. Remember, you are forming the image of your future toward which you are going to grow.
4. Pay attention to the language you use.
Scientists today recognize that how we use language creates our social reality. Optimistic, possibility-generating language drives people to take action in a positive direction far more than negative, critical, cautionary approaches.
5. Declare your future to others.
It is important to give voice and intention to your future. You need to tell people where you want to go and what difference you want to make. Making your goals public will increase your commitment. As well, if people know where you are going, they just might help you.
6. Look for aspects of your Impossible Future that you are already living.
If you have a clear vision of where you want to go, your brain will unconsciously look for opportunities to move toward that vision. Doors will open that you did not see before. It is likely that you have already started on the path toward your future. It will give you confidence if you are able to notice what progress you are making now.
7. Develop a broad action plan but leave room for experimentation.
Turn your Impossible Future into a plan with stepping stones, but look for opportunities to experiment. The focus is to expand your capabilities and learn new things. This will mean looking at your beliefs and assumptions, getting help from others to see your blind spots, and trying new ways of tackling obstacles.
8. Stay flexible, persevere and celebrate.
Impossible Futures, like Rome, are not built in a day. Keep faith when the going gets tough and celebrate successes both large and small. This will help calm your doubting self and your inner critic.
Impossible Futures create momentum and excitement and can be life changing. The biggest hurdles you face are your own doubts and fears. You need to exercise your imagination muscle so that you can design your best possible future and then believe in yourself enough to act boldly in the present to achieve it.