I wandered through a courtyard across the street from my apartment. On my left was the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse. On my right was the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center. Sometimes, when I walked nearby at night, I heard the inmates playing basketball.
I had a failing business, no job, and was over six figures in debt. Did they put people in jail for not paying debt?
I always tried to push those thoughts away. Sometimes I succeeded, but other times I didn’t. That night, I scanned the courtyard for the perfect concrete bench. Like Indiana Jones finding the right hole for the staff and medallion to light up the location of the Ark, I needed a bench where I could easily see something in the distance ahead, entrenched in the ground like a massive monolith.
The Spire. My dream apartment.
Blue and yellow lights neatly arranged like an airport runway on The Spire’s 40+ floors flickered in the night air. Maybe, someday, I could live in the top floor apartment?
I sat on the concrete slab of a bench and stared up, looking at it. Maybe that apartment was still available? Maybe I could leap to my feet and launch myself there, straight from the cold, concrete slab.
A security guard walked by. “Yeah I’m going to check on that broken branch now,” she said into her walkie-talkie.
A minute later, she walked up to me. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m just looking at that apartment building. I’d like to move in there someday.”
“Oh okay! We’d seen you sitting here a couple nights in a row and were just wondering.”
“Oh, sorry about that,” I said.
“Oh no, it’s fine, we just wanted to know.”
She moved on and, a minute later, so did I. I never came back; I felt too embarrassed.
I’d just moved into an apartment on Speer Blvd called The Marquis At The Parkway and I figured I was putting down roots. I’d just turned 24. I was the co-owner of a nutritional supplement company that was profitable…similar to the way a kid who’s just mowed the lawn and made $5 is “profitable.”
A couple of years later I’d move out of the apartment, crying, and awaiting a judge’s decision on my bankruptcy filing.
But that future, whether written in the stars or not, was invisible to me.
Every couple of days, I looked through The Spire’s website. One of the top floor units had southwest views, so you could see both the city and the mountains. I clicked through the website’s gallery, admired the layout, and imagined myself on the balcony, or looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows. How romantic would the sunset be? How cute and quiet would the city look from above?
In my apartment, I sometimes pushed my wheeled office chair to the middle of the room. I sat in it, deepened my breathing, and visualized how I wanted my future to be.
I drooled over The Spire’s gallery photos, blowing them up in my mind, imagining myself there, happy, rich, fulfilled, relaxed, giddy, carefree. Blissful. Everything I wanted.
It wasn’t my first rodeo of imagining something I wanted.
At the time, I was immersed in a guru’s coaching. He taught that, if you want to achieve something, first remember a success from the past to get your feelings of success frothing, then vividly picture what you want to achieve, like your imagination is your own theater. After all, the idea went, athletes perform better when they do this… and we’re always imagining anyway… so detailed, vivid, emotional visualizations like this could only help your motivation and attract the object of your visualization to you. Right?
As the months went by, I felt more anxious about The Spire. Maybe someone had moved in? I wanted to be the first tenant.
“Ask for a tour to check it out,” my friend Jim said.
“Nah I’m not going to do that.” I didn’t want to waste the leasing officer’s time. Later, I’d wish I listened to him.
But things didn’t go as planned. Instead of rocketing up to The Spire on growing company profits, my business partners forced me out of the company, although I didn’t put up a fight. The guru kicked me out of his coaching group (it was a tumultuous — but enlightening — few months — I tell the story in my book, 1st chapter available free here).
In 2011, I sat in a bank on Broadway Street in Denver.
Three cubicles cuddled together against windows that reached thirty feet high. It made me wonder if I were worthy to be there — and wonder what the hell the bank did with people’s money.
I sat in one of those cubicles to open a personal and business account. As an employee tapped on his keyboard in between glances at my driver’s license, a manager stopped by to shake my hand. He welcomed me to the bank… shook my hand… wished me luck on my business… shook my hand. I wondered whether to feel warm and fuzzy or manipulated or a stew of manipulation via genuine warmth and fuzziness.
I had a screwed-up history with banks — for me, they were the financial equivalent of long-distant, frosty relationships.
I opened my first account in Massachusetts. The bank lobby had a blue fish tank embedded in the wall, gigantic from my perspective as a child. Sleek fish darted hither and thither.
After I dropped out of college and moved to Florida, I kept using the Massachusetts bank because I was sleepwalking through life and too lazy to switch. When I had checks to deposit, I signed them, put them in an envelope, wrote a note with my account number, and mailed it to the branch.
They probably wondered about the bozo that kept sending them checks with scribbled notes but the checks were always deposited.
When I bought a car in Florida, I called the branch to ask how much money I had — that was before I set up online banking.
Finally, I opened a Bank of America account. They had a branch across the street from my Florida condo. Then I moved to Boulder and, within a few weeks, drove over an hour to the only Bank of America location I found on Google Maps. Something looked off about it. I walked in. A few employees chatted with each other, leaning over furniture.
“Can I deposit a check here?” I asked. Or maybe I asked, “Is this a banking branch?” Either way, they said no. It might have been a branch only for mortgage loans or something. I started joking that they should rename it to Bank Of Some Of America.
Did I open an account with a different bank in Boulder? No. I figured I wanted to get my business more profitable before messing with banks. Lurking beneath that, I didn’t feel comfortable with aligned, convenient, stable finances. Something had to always be frustrating me, something had to always be bleeding.
Then I moved to Denver and, by that time, had matured enough to organize my finances. Hence my visit to the cubicle and receiving four rounds of handshakes as the account specialist typed away. I gazed through the building’s front windows. Bits of the Denver skyline peeked back at me as I turned my head to the right.
Then I saw it.
The very top of The Spire, elegantly resting in the blue sky. The exact apartment I lusted after, barely visible beyond the closer buildings, seemed to wink at me through the window. If I shifted in my chair, it disappeared. I positioned myself so it looked at me as I finished opening my accounts. A good omen. Right?
Maybe. Over a year earlier, I had co-founded a business with two partners. Around the time I started staring at The Spire, the partners cut me out and kept my share of the profits.
A year later, I went bankrupt, moved to Aurora, and got a job spinning signs on street corners.
On the rare occasions I drove into Denver, I looked at the building I wanted to live in. Every time I saw it, the apartment complex stood gleaming against a blue sky — or, rarely, was loomed over by storm clouds.
For the next two years, I did less and less visualizing. Sure, I thought about what I wanted, which inspired my imagination. But I abandoned the vaunted “sit down and picture what you want with feeling” practice.
In 2014, I landed a dream job, moved to Baltimore, and turned my financial life around. In 2016, I moved back to Denver — back to The Marquis At The Parkway.
Something funny happened. Even without my dedicated visualization practice, I achieved everything I would have visualized, if I’d felt like doing so.
In December of 2018, I moved into the top floor of a brand-spanking-new apartment building. Well, not quite brand-new. It’d been open a year. But still… corner unit, facing the city and the mountains. Better than The Spire.
How’d it happen?
Did my visualizing, emotional frothing, obedience to the guru’s teachings, trigger my dreams to come true?
Years earlier, I’d debated him about visualization.
“I get the best results by just taking action — not by spending all this time and effort visualizing,” I said.
“Before you take an action, do you see it in your mind?”
“Then you are visualizing,” he said.
Point taken. Some sort of visualizing had a place. But sitting on my duff and vividly imagining a fantasy future, coaxing my senses into boiling pleasure, and basking in the experience as if I were attending the world’s most wonderful theater in my mind, hadn’t been working.
It was mental masturbation.
Hey, at least online porn is free. This guru charged me thousands of dollars for his visualization coaching — the priciest masturbation assistance I’ve ever come across.
After my bankruptcy, I changed the way I visualized. No more mentally galloping off to fantasyland, no more guiding my senses to feeling just how wonderful it would be to get what I wanted. No more trying to make myself cry with joy and gratitude.
It was like how I used to crave making more money but ignored the basics of setting up a proper banking foundation. I had focused on the dream but not the gritty reality. So, instead of getting my banking straightened out, I visualized…the self-help equivalent of mentally constructing my castle but neglecting any concern about whether or not it’s built on quicksand. My success was possible only after I learned to embrace the gunk the fantasy requires, the gunk that makes the fantasy real.
Instead of taking a mental joyride when I engaged my imagination, I immersed myself in the gritty reality.
“What would it really be like to live in a top floor apartment with those floor-to-ceiling windows?”
“Well, the sun would be harsh as hell. It’d probably drive me crazy unless I closed the window shades just right.”
“What would it be like living in the middle of downtown in that high rise?”
“I’d still hear all the traffic. The honks, the sirens, the construction. Heck, it’d get annoying after the initial high of moving in wore off.”
“What about that big, beautiful balcony and that bigger, more beautiful view?”
“I’m terrified of heights.”
Ah, now we were getting somewhere. I was practicing something closer to what the science shows about visualizing outcomes you want. Research* shows the more you positively fantasize, the less successful you are in achieving that fantasy.
Just like how, after masturbation, the last thing you’re motivated for is sex.
I’m not saying that tweaking my visualization granted me my dreams. Amping up the realism of my fantasies didn’t beam me into that apartment, Star Trek-style.
I also had to, you know, get my life together.
I dedicated myself to the disciplines that create desired outcomes. The boring, ordinary ones. Like getting my banking straightened out. Like spending less time visualizing and more time working on my career. I no longer clung to a specific, fantasized outcome as if it were the sole life-preserver floating in a roiling ocean that threatened to swallow me. I no longer dreamed and demanded a fantasy come true. I let the whole “fantasy coming true” thing take care of itself while I worked…and it did.
- Oettingen, G., & Reininger, K. M. (2016). The power of prospection: mental contrasting and behavior change. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 10(11), 591–604. https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12271