As a child, you were an adept and effortless daydreamer, immersing yourself in your imaginary experiences with the dedication and enthusiasm of a film director. The richness of your inner experiences could rival that of real life. The skills associated with making mental representations of imaginary experiences tends to fade with age, and if you deliberately cultivate them, they can help you make more mindful and deliberate decisions to change the course of your career.
In a piece for Aeon, the philosophy professor Armin W. Schultz ponders what evolutionary purposes our mental representations might serve. Inner movies, he writes, “allow the organism to reason about what the right thing to do is. Very often, organisms that rely on a system of reflexes to manage their interactions with the world have to cope with much redundancy. Many perceptions of the world call for the same behavioral response, and many behavioral responses to the world are variations on a theme.” If you can learn to think outside the restrictions of your unconscious reflexes, you can open new possibilities your reptilian brain didn’t know you had.
Here are a few ways to use these skills to your professional advantage.
Make a Mental Movie
“Let’s say you are offered a new job in a different city, and you need to figure out whether to accept it,” Arvin writes. “How are you going to do this? Most likely, you will think about what the job offer means to you: what will the new city be like? How fulfilling will the new job be? What about the pay and other benefits? How does all of this compare with where you live and work now? It’s not trivial, in the end, you’ll manage to make up your mind.”
Experience, in your mind, the details of a typical day on the job, how your life and mindset will shift because of it, and what your work and your achievements will mean to you, intellectually and emotionally.
Running elaborate mental simulations of possible future experiences – taking it three-dimensional – can give your gut more information to work with. Sometimes, you may end up “going with your gut” in the end, even after all the rumination. Which is still a good exercise to have gone through.
Try Different Models
There is much wisdom to be found in consciously adopting certain intellectual frameworks, and then shopping around until you find one that is particularly useful to you.
When working through a difficult decision, experiment with a range of possible scenarios, based on different variables. You can then make a more wholly informed decision, and prepare yourself for different realities that may present themselves.
Try different sensory modalities, as well. If you are not a visual thinker and you are more comfortable focusing on sounds and feelings, try hearing or feeling your way through a decision. You may get some fresh insight just from imagining the physical sensations walking through your new office space.
Don’t Mistake the Map for the Territory
Our mental representations never square precisely with reality. For difficult questions about your career, sometimes the most powerful answer is “I don’t know.” Then actively seek out “to know”.
When you work with mental representations, acknowledge that your thinking is biased by factors both conscious and unconscious. Do plenty of research and always keep your mind open to new information. Mental representations empower us to anticipate change, including change we never could have expected.
With the rise of AR and VR technologies, we may soon be able to work with simulations that are even more rich and useful. Be prepared to keep dreaming bigger and better.
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