I discovered as a child that the user interface for reprogramming my own brain is my imagination. For example, if I want to reprogram myself to be in a happy mood, I imagine succeeding at a difficult challenge, or flying under my own power, or perhaps being able to levitate objects with my mind. If I want to perform better at a specific task, such as tennis, I imagine the perfect strokes before going on court. If I want to fall asleep, I imagine myself in pleasant situations that are unrelated to whatever is going on with my real life.
My most useful mental trick involves imagining myself to be far more capable than I am. I do this to reduce the risk that I turn down an opportunity just because I am clearly unqualified. So far, this has worked well for me. I pursued a career in cartooning despite having no artistic talent. When a publisher asked me to write a book, I quickly agreed, despite having no relevant writing experience. When a business group asked me to give a humorous paid speech to their members, I said yes, despite having no meaningful experience at that sort of thing. If you spend a lot of time imagining you can run twenty miles, it makes the idea of running only ten miles seem entirely feasible.
As my career with Dilbert took off, reporters asked me if I ever imagined I would reach this level of success. The question embarrasses me because the truth is that I imagined a far greater level of success. That’s my process. I imagine big.
I’ve never admitted this before, but my favorite imaginary scenario involves being elected President of the United States. I choose that job as the target of my imagination because I am spectacularly unqualified to hold public office. If I can successfully imagine being a great president, I won’t have trouble imagining I can succeed at lesser tasks.
Some of you reading this blog would probably be good at the job of being president if given the chance. So for you, imagining success as a national leader might not be much of a stretch. But I am blessed with absolutely none of the qualities necessary for leadership. That’s exactly why I choose to imagine it.
Let me give you an idea of how unqualified I am to be president. First, I’m not good at remembering names. Or faces. Or countries. My staff meetings would be a whole lot of “Maybe we should bomb what’s-his-face’s country. You know, the one that grows the coconuts. Or maybe they manufacture tractors. I remember that their leader had a funny hat. Make it happen.”
I’m not charismatic. If I were to stop at diners as part of my campaign, people would ask me for coffee. It would be one bad photo op after another.
I can’t ask people to sacrifice their personal interests for the greater good. It feels evil.
I couldn’t force myself to spend time doing useless tasks such as visiting victims of natural disasters or working on a peace plan for the Middle East. I would argue that napping would be a better use of my time. And I would make matters worse by showing research to back my point.
I wouldn’t be able to get through an entire press conference without saying “Blow me.”
I would declare war on Pakistan because I like truth in labeling.
Obviously I couldn’t last a full term in office, much less get elected. But that doesn’t stop me from imagining that someday the American flag will have my face where the stars used to be.
Imagine big. You might surprise yourself.