Indulge me for a moment with this brief exercise. Complete the following sentences:
The day we declared peace on earth...
The day they found a cure for cancer...
The day my money worries went away...
Stumped? Still trying to imagine that day? Try again -- finish each idea, or one of your own invention, and let your mind soar. (If at work, feign Deep, Official Work-Related Thought.)
The thing about the imagination -- the recesses of our unbridled subconscious -- is that it ventures into territory that we dare not tread in waking moments. Whether out of fear or the inability to challenge assumptions (that darn gravity has ruined many a dream), there are just some things that our minds won't allow us to entertain. Some break through this load-bearing thought wall and come up with things such as space travel, digital file-swapping and fat-free Twinkies. The rest of us thank our lucky stars that they dared think big, particularly when we're in the snack foods aisle.
Still, pretending that what could be actually is gives dreams a foothold and makes the impossible seem plausible. This simple mind game might even change your future for the better.
I got the idea for this exercise after hearing a song by singer/songwriter-savant Dan Bern where he describes the day, the week, the few months after AIDS is cured. "The day they found a cure for AIDS, everybody took one little pill and was OK." (The Motley Fool Rating System prevents me from describing the rest of Dan Bern's day, but trust me, he had a bang-up time.)
He dares to imagine the world as it could be, and lets us in on the trick by singing about it as if it is.
Thinking big somehow gets stunted in adulthood. It's as if our minds become too bogged down with the minutiae of reality to make room for flights of fancy. For many, the barrier to big dreams (and small ones) is money -- the lack of it, the complications around it, the uncertainty of future supplies of it. Waking up with no debt; retiring at age 48; having the kids' -- and grandkids' -- college savings in the bag seems so unimaginable that the dream is summarily dismissed as untenable.
Even workaday goals are scaled back for our rigid mind-sets. Diet gurus have long preached the merit of setting small, easily achievable goals and taking baby steps to reach them. But the failure of so many dieters over the long term tells me that there's something missing from this short-sighted strategy.
What's missing is grandiosity.
Mind over mind
It is true that the path to almost any dream is paved with small stepping-stones: Not spending $8 a day on lunch is the best way to amass more money to pay off bills. Staying in your smaller home for another five years to apply your raise to your retirement savings instead of a larger mortgage is the right short-term decision to achieve the longer-term goal. (We've cobbled together many nuggets on beating credit card debt, planning a carefree retirement, making the most of your biggest investment -- your home, getting your grown kids to finally move out of the house.)
For most, the end goal rarely wavers. It's the day-to-day sacrifices that trip us up -- it's easy to cheat on the small stuff. We say, "I'll run to the corner deli instead of making my lunch -- just this week." It's not a stretch to justify a larger home for your growing family. Soon the dream is distant and fuzzy.
How can a dramatic songwriting device help you better manage your finances? In moments of weakness, be like Dan Bern: Imagine the day that your credit cards are paid off; the day you realize you can retire next year -- 17 years early. In moments of weakness, think the unthinkable.
Instead of "I can't imagine a life debt-free because I don't earn enough money to pay off the credit cards... " imagine the very day you send the final payment to Visa. Let your mind wander... remember that day. The day you became debt-free you sat down with your sweetheart and talked about what to do with the $850 a month that was now yours -- not your lender's -- to keep. That's the day you sat at your desk and calculated how long it would take to save for a down payment on a house.
"The day I knew that my retirement was secure... " What would you do on that day? Would you look into quitting your desk job to start the organic farm you've always dreamed of running? Would you take a month of unpaid leave and plan a family getaway in a far-off land? Maybe that's the day that you started truly enjoying life's free joys because the money thing became a non-issue.
What was that day like?