Create a Vision for Your Future

The bottom line is that if you're serious about creating a new future, then you better be engaged in the process of creating a vision of the future, because if you're not, then that just means you're more in love with your past than you are with your future.

—Dr. Joe Dispenza

When I was a professional athlete, my professional “vision” was never a question. We wanted to be the best team possible, we wanted to win, and we wanted to go all the way to achieve a victory in the Super Bowl. Every minute of every day was designed, scheduled, and executed for that purpose.

However, I was also learning more profound distinctions for vision, like how to visualize my success in a way that would actually make it happen. I could create the vision and break it down into smaller steps. If I could see it, really see it in my mind's eye, then I knew I had a better chance of actualizing it on the field. This skill was part of our training as players.

The Bills brought in a performance coach who introduced us to specific visualization exercises before my last season in the NFL. He spoke to our team about the power of visualization and how you only have so much time and energy to put in your football reps, but you can exercise those reps even further in your mind. Essentially, you can take extra reps through visualization exercises where you're not taxing your body anymore, and you can benefit from the mental practice of these exercises.

I'm a huge golfing fan, and one of my favorite players, Jack Nicklaus, said, “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in‐focus picture of it in my head.”

Many celebrities who rise to the top of their fields in sports, entertainment, and the arts all say essentially the same thing: visualization works. From Jim Carrey to Tiger Woods, from Oprah Winfrey to Einstein, to Steve Harvey to Muhammed Ali—the list goes on and on.

So how and why does it work? Ask a poet or a theologian, and you might get a different answer. I personally believe that there is some degree of divinity involved—that it may be like God answering a prayer. That's a matter of faith—and if that's not enough for some people, the science is overwhelming and persuasive.

Writer A. J. Adams wrote an excellent article for Psychology Today on the topic called “Seeing Is Believing: The Power of Visualization.” She writes specifically about how visualization works in the brain:

What an incredible thing. If you practice visualizing an action, you get almost the same benefits as if you are actually doing it. The performance coach we were working with that last football season really got my wheels going about all the different ways to use visualization to improve my game.

And that's one of the reasons I think it's essential that you adopt a greater perspective (like I discussed in Chapter 3) before you start to visualize. If your thoughts are too negative, they will tax your mind and body as if they had physically happened. Are you practicing failing and fear over and over again in your mind? Or are you practicing the best outcome?

Your thoughts become your actions, and your actions become your habits, and your habits create your future. So, you have to be incredibly careful with your thoughts. You can shift your whole reality just based on the thoughts that you're intentionally creating. Our brains are incredible gifts with power that we are only beginning to understand.

I thought about my position as the center and asked myself what was my most challenging time in a game and how could I make those times easier through visualization? I took it so far to imagine myself in different NFL stadiums. I had to get super specific. It wasn't just how I was playing—it was where. So if I were going to play in Jacksonville for the next game, I would imagine the stadium in Jacksonville. If I had never played in whatever stadium was coming up, I would look up a YouTube video to examine what the stadium looks and feels like.

I would even visualize the people I was going against, study film on them, and imagine countering their every move. As I said before, these guys are defensive geniuses who can sometimes trick you. They know you've studied them, so sometimes they appear to do one of their signature plays to confuse you when in reality, they are practicing an entirely different strategy. I would visualize how to beat them in that circumstance, too.

Specificity and repetition were essential when I practiced these visualizations. I would sit at the edge of my bed, take some deep breaths, and use my imagination to take me there and fill in anything and everything I could conceivably think of. I would visualize everything down to whether it was a night game or a day game and what the crowd would be like. And then I visualized myself getting the job done.

There are so many benefits to visualization. It is incredible how much more calm and in control you feel when you find yourself in situations you have already visualized in advance. You can make better and more effective decisions about what to do and not get caught like a deer in the headlights.

For a time, I felt like I had a handle on using vision and visualization and how to make it work for me. Everything felt like it made sense, and it was a matter of perfecting what I was already working toward. And then—then my football career was over.

I was faced with a new problem. How would I use vision if I didn't know where I was going, what I was doing, or what I wanted anymore?

That was the new challenge.

Seeing Past the Moment

What I didn't know was how to create a vision out of nothing when everything seemed blown apart. How do you create a big enough future for yourself when your present seems so small? And how do you make new frontiers in your mind when you are overwhelmed by the setbacks of the past?

There's nothing wrong with you if you feel overwhelmed or stuck in a moment and are unsure how to climb your way out. Much of this has to do with human biology and psychology. Once you know what's going on, you can climb your way out. I've seen people get trapped in their circumstances so often, unable to see their greater future. I've been there myself. If thoughts became reality, I was in danger of losing so much of the momentum that I had built.

When bad things happen to you, your body and mind go through a natural physiological fight or flight (or freeze) response. The response is an instinctive reaction meant to protect us and has helped our ancestors evade predators or survive in life‐and‐death situations since ancient times.

I've learned much from the writing of Dr. Joe Dispenza, an author, researcher, lecturer, and corporate consultant who works with people to “make measurable changes in their lives.” Much of his research is in the fields of neuroscience and neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to grow and adapt its neural networks. Studies have shown that neural networks are strengthened by practice, and new practices can form new neural networks.

Dr. Dispenza says that this human instinct often gets in the way of seeing a greater vision. When we reach our pivot point, that moment where we're not sure how we're going to go on, or if we are uncertain about how we will survive, that's when we are the most vulnerable to sabotaging our futures. Dispenza says in his blog “Getting Clear on Your Vision”:

As Dr. Dispenza says, “When we're in survival mode, nature has taught us that it's not a time to create—it's time to run, fight, or hide. Why dream of anything bigger if we can't get past our current self? This leads to stagnation and resignation.”

There is a way out when you feel like this. You have to speak (or write) a new perspective or a new vision into existence. It has to come from you—new hopes and dreams based on your desire and imagination. Writing, learning, speaking, and imagining are the essential ingredients to see a different future for yourself.

Your future is bigger than your past! If you're not actively creating a future, you may not like where your future takes you.

Contemplate and Write Down Your Thoughts and Feelings

It's not pie‐in‐the‐sky thinking to create a new future for yourself. However, it does require some work to get a positive perspective first and do serious self‐reflection or contemplation. Meditation, journaling, quiet time, exercise, spending time in nature, and prayer are all great methods to get more in touch with yourself and visualize a future for yourself based on a more positive perspective.

Uncertain times are an excellent reminder to get back to yourself and spend more quiet time, which is valuable for learning a lot about yourself and maybe even receiving higher wisdom. In the morning, after I finish my inspirational reading, I practice a time of silence that's a combination of prayer and visioning my day going well, and who I want to be that day, with some affirmations. I'll say to myself, “You are positive. You are making an impact. God has a plan, and you can trust his plans for your life.”

I've also experimented with many different types of meditation. I think all of them are valuable, and I think time in prayer or silence is also helpful.

You don't know how much you're missing out on your inner wisdom or God speaking to you when you don't have moments of true silence in your life. I think that is a particular problem in modern life, the way we live wirelessly with all these devices. It used to be people could get little doses of quiet time wherever they were: waiting in line, waiting for the bus, in between activities at home.

You need to leave room for silence—it's really just making room for yourself. And you then can make room for visualization.

I came across a great article from Scientific American in 2013 titled “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime” by Ferris Jabr. It argues that there is scientific proof that little moments of quiet are necessary for the brain to thrive. Jabr writes:

Jabr also writes that “epiphanies may seem to come out of nowhere, but they are often the product of unconscious mental activity during downtime.” It's a great point. You're just not going to get the same flashes of insight if you spend every free moment you have surfing the net, scrolling, or watching YouTube videos.

One of the little epiphanies I got from my personal reflection was that I was surrounded by people who would uplift me. My family and close friends have all been incredibly supportive. They gave me a positive perspective early on. And let's be honest, I was very lucky I had this healthy, happy family. And I was lucky I was still healthy and moving around. I wasn't lying paralyzed with loss of respiratory function, which was the reality I was looking at with damage at the spinal cord where my injury occurred.

I needed to do a lot of contemplation and perspective on my end so that I didn't just wake up every day and say, “Man, this stinks. I can't play football anymore.” I took a page from Ed Mylett—things didn't happen to me; they happened for me. Now I get to do all of these things, and to keep it going there is a lot of perspective work that I still do personally to this day. Journaling and quiet prayer or a devotional at the beginning of the day is part of my morning routine.

Just like physical training or learning an instrument, reflection and contemplation work best if you practice them every day. Over time, you'll recognize things in your life you'd like to change and what things serve you that you should keep. As you steep in your wishes, feelings, complaints, and dreams, you'll start to see a bigger picture of where you want to go. From here, you can start building your vision of a more fantastic future.

Conquering Obstacles in the Way of Envisioning Your Ideal Self

So how do you see your ideal self or a greater vision for your life? Do you feel a bit of discomfort or mixed feelings when trying to picture it? If you do, that is entirely normal. Multiple feelings and thoughts come up for people through this process.

1: Perfectionism

Sometimes I think people are afraid to make a wrong move or do something that doesn't work out. Here's the thing—you can always change your mind. If you feel like you must be sure about every move before you make it, you will never make any moves at all. You can't do that on the football field, and you certainly can't do that in life, either. I feel it's important to get a sense of momentum. Perfectionism about your life can just be a form of procrastination.

2: Fear of Failure

Fear of failure is hazardous and insidious because it also can prevent you from doing anything at all. For some people, the fear of failing has more power over them than actually failing. In football and sports in general, we love to win and hate to lose.

Throughout the first half of my career, fear of failure took a lot of the joy out of playing football for me. I was constantly worried about getting hurt again or not playing at a level that justified my first‐round draft pick status. Once I got over the fear of failing and simply let it loose each Sunday, the game was so much more enjoyable to play, and I actually played a lot better.

Often, our fear of failure comes from worrying about what others will say or think about us falling short. Block out that noise and simply commit to your daily process of discipline and commitment, and then you can live with the results however they fall. Nothing of value in life comes without challenge or risk. Embrace the challenge and when you do fail, learn from it and get better from it!

3: Dwelling on the Immediate Past

Then there's the issue of something I call negative momentum, when you might make a mistake and then let your thoughts dwell on that mistake, screwing up the present. This gives your immediate past more power than your future.

I'll give you an example. Coming from college to the NFL, I experienced a little bit of culture shock. In college, I was used to being among the best. There were some games where I played against somebody who would never beat me one time an entire game, and I was just a better player. But when I got to the NFL, those guys were the best of the best. I wasn't used to being outplayed. Early in my career, I would get so hot on the sidelines and so upset if I ever got beat. I'd often throw my helmet when I got to the sideline—which is embarrassing.

I remember something Geoff Hangartner, our center when I was playing guard next to him my rookie year, said to me that had a big impact on my career. He said, “You know, Eric, those guys get paid, too. They're going to beat you sometimes, and it's okay, but you can't let one bad play compound into more bad plays.”

4: Impostor Syndrome

Another thing that comes up a lot, even for me, is impostor syndrome. That's when you feel you are unqualified or unworthy of a particular title, accomplishment, or gift. For example, I might say to myself, “Who am I to write a book? I've never done that before.” This is uncomfortable for me to admit because I'm a natural extrovert—I love affecting people. I love leading. But there was this underlying imposter syndrome that haunted me for the longest time. It was my executive coach, Mac, who encouraged me to write a book and wanted me to start doing more speaking. I had to conquer a lot of my doubts about myself and just move forward. I learned later that this is a common problem, part of the human condition.

Keep in mind that having imposter syndrome is often a good thing. That means that you're stretching yourself outside your comfort zone. Embrace those feelings and understand that all the greats in your industry often felt those same feelings when they got started initially.

There are several antidotes to impostor syndrome. One is reminding yourself how much you have accomplished so far. Affirmations that reinforce your attitude and perception of your ability are also helpful. Talk to your friends or mentors—we often view ourselves more negatively than anyone else. Your friends can give you a countering perspective. And also, remember it's okay not to know what you're doing 100% of the time.

5: Fear of Accountability or Responsibility

Once people start to envision big futures for themselves, they have the hard work of holding themselves accountable for it. Maybe they feel like they have bitten off more than they can chew, and perhaps the prospect of working so hard to achieve the vision seems intimidating and full of responsibilities they may not want. It's a big job to fulfill your potential, and it takes a lot of courage to see it and go for it. It also means changing a lot of comfortable habits.

Let's face it, big visions or dreams require hard work. There's no mistake about that. However, the rewards of hard work are almost always worth it. Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, had an interesting take on the idea of hard work and obstacles on the way to success. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live, so he decided to use the time he had left to inspire others, starting with a lecture that went viral called “The Last Lecture.”

Pausch said, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They're there to stop the other people.” Given my life experience, what he said resonated with me. How badly had I wanted to be a professional football player when I started? Bad enough to work harder at my craft than I could have imagined I could work.

I'm just passionate about being disciplined in life, and I know that will bear fruit, guaranteed. No matter what is going on in your life, if you have and exercise personal discipline, you'll prepare yourself for those big opportunities that you envision for yourself. When they come, you will be happy with the person you see in the mirror. Self‐confidence comes from keeping the promises you make to yourself. It also comes from discipline—honoring the commitment to keep promises to yourself.

Key Takeaways

Here are some of the key takeaways we have so far:

  • Your future is bigger than your past.
  • Visualization is scientifically proven to improve your performance.
  • Your mind gets nearly the same benefit from mentally practicing as from physical practicing.
  • The more specific your vision is, the more effective it will be in helping you achieve it.
  • You carry the most critical role in creating your future, not random circumstances.
  • In moments of transition, it can be challenging to see past the bad circumstances.
  • Quiet contemplation can help you get in touch with a bigger future, beyond the moment.
  • Visualization is effective for small‐scale and larger‐scale visions.
  • Your vision can always change—you don't have to have clarity about everything
  • Many conquerable obstacles can come up when creating a greater vision for yourself:
    • Perfectionism
    • Fear of failure
    • Dwelling on the immediate past
    • Impostor syndrome
    • Fear of accountability or responsibility
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