Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Imagination Barrier

For the longest time, I would hesitate before taking action -- any action.

Or so it seemed.

I mean, I didn't hesitate to turn on the TV or check my email or any other habitual action like that.  I didn't even hesitate that much before semi-routine but not-quite habitual actions, like taking out the trash.

It was only goal-directed actions that I hesitated before.  Like when I was about to start a new programming project, or take the next step in one that I'd already started.  Like when I was thinking about exercising, or thinking about cleaning up a bit around the house.

I noticed this yesterday while doing some programming.  I would think about the next test to be written, and get to a point of thinking, "Yes, I should do that next."

And then, nothing.

I would just sit there, quietly.  Thinking, "Yep, I should definitely do that."

Silence.

"Okay, this is getting silly now."

Nothing.

Finally, I just sort of seize control of my body and force my fingers to start typing something, anything.  And I get the test written.

Now, I'm making it sound like a big deal, but it's actually something I'm pretty used to.  Until I get into the "flow", it's always like that, or at least, it always has been for me.  And fortunately, I'm good enough at what I do that I'm still more productive than most, even after taking this little hesitation habit into consideration.

But it still bugged me. 

Because, in other areas of my life, I don't have that extra edge of skill (and determination to push through) that makes up for it.  When I flinch at exercise, I usually don't exercise.  When I flinch at cleaning or organizing, I usually don't clean or organize.  And when I flinch at my planning or writing, it doesn't get done, and the work piles up until I make an all-out-effort to do it at the last minute.

So today, I resolved to find out what the hell was up with this hesitation thing.

And what I discovered, surprised the heck out of me.

Because the cause of the hesitation wasn't anything like what I'd expected.

I thought that perhaps I was hesitating because there had been some historical consequence to taking action.  That maybe I'd boldly done something as a kid and gotten smacked for it, either by a sibling or schoolmate or parent.

But that wasn't it at all.

As it turns out, the real cause of the hesitation -- and a bunch of other things as well -- was a rather innocent-sounding belief I'd had since childhood:

"Imagination isn't real."

Now, it's important to understand that the words of a belief are not the same thing as the belief itself.  If you look at "imagination isn't real", it sounds on the surface like a perfectly sane belief, that no-one in their right mind would want to tamper with.

However, like nearly all beliefs, platitudes and self-help sayings, the words themselves are merely a summary of a more complex process or map embedded in your brain.

In this case, the foundation experience for my "imagination isn't real" belief was actually an experience of trying to make something real by believing in it.  Specifically, at a certain age I thought that what I read in fiction could be made real by acting it out, as long as you believed in it.

And after trying to build the "weather machine" described in a story, and finding that it did not, in fact, change the weather, I decided that you couldn't make things real by believing in them.  And I have a vague recollection of a grownup saying something about things in books being imaginary and not real.

These and other experiences formed my "evidence file" for the belief.  The words "imagination isn't real" were merely a label that goes on the outside of this file, for reference and retrieval purposes, like a link to a web page.  So saying "imagination isn't real" would call up the experience as a prototype for my behavior.  And so did any attempt to...

Make something I imagined...  real.

Realizing this hit me like a ton of bricks.  I could suddenly see the common thread between this one kind of hesitation, and a whole host of other issues I've tended to have in my life.  If things in books aren't real, and imagining and believing won't make them so, then it stands to reason why I've rarely, if ever, sustained a change I've made based on something in a book.

And why, the more I wanted the change, the less likely it would be to become real.

Because the "evidence file" for my belief was full of disappointment at not being able to make real, things I desperately wanted to make real.

And as I skimmed forward and backward through the movie of my life, I saw the part of my teen years where I tried to build lots of things out of books, and tried various handicrafts, and mostly failed at them, before taking up computers.

Because, as it happens...

Computers weren't really "real", either!

I could "make" things inside of them, and I viewed it as being like just a direct extension of my imagination.  I mean, computers don't actually do anything -- they just show pictures or make sounds.  How can you call that "real"?

It's no wonder I dropped the handicrafts and wound up a programmer.  No wonder that so many things I've tried didn't work, and other things did.  If it came out of a book or I imagined it, my mental model implicitly included failure and disappointment as the ultimate result of any attempt to make it real

And even if I succeeded part-way, or for a time, I always found a way to bring things back around to disappointment, creating a life-long cycle of ups and downs.

Even though I've successfully helped other people get out of cycles like these, it always bothered me that I never seemed to be as successful at helping myself, as I was at helping others.  But talking to someone and helping them sort out their brain, wasn't quite the same thing as...

Making something I want, real.

The irony, of course, is that this "imagination barrier" I created for myself, is itself an imaginary creation, made real.

And in the moment I really see that, the belief disappears in a puff of logic.  After all, if it's imaginary, it can't be real!

And a moment later, I know what belief I want to replace it with.

The belief, that for the rest of the day so far, has propelled me -- without hesitation -- into everything I choose to do.

The belief that if I can imagine it...

I can make it real.