Choose Profitable Hallucinations

The word “hallucination” doesn’t usually conjure up positive associations. But when I first started out in the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), I learned that most of what we call “reality” is our hallucination…i.e. our projection, or interpretation imposed on what we experience. In other words we perceive “x”, and then we add our subjective take on it to transform it into “my x. We therefore customize what we experience to our chosen perceptions. And by choosing how we package our perceptions, we also to a large extent, select our responses and responsiveness.

Some research indicates that if you do a predictive competition between optimists and pessimists, you find an interesting anomaly. Pessimists are right more often than optimists — Murphy assures that things go wrong more reliably than they go right. Entropy, natural decay is built into the fabric of life, evolution requires energy. But fascinatingly, despite that, optimists tend to be more successful.

Why? They hallucinate better! In other words, even setbacks become “milestones” or “learnings”. There is the famous anecdote about the almost one thousand “failures” by Thomas Edison en route to inventing the incandescent light bulb. He is reported to have replied when asked if he was discouraged, “What failure? I discovered one more way not to invent the light bulb! That’s progress!” Well, it’s certainly a far more effective hallucination or “frame” to adopt given the iterative and uncertain reality of so much progress and innovation.

George Bernard Shaw, the great playwright, pointed out that reasonable people adapt their dreams to reality, whereas unreasonable people seek to get reality to adapt to their dreams. All progress he therefore concluded, depends on unreasonable people. In other words, those who hallucinate more audaciously and then are willing to act as audaciously to manifest what they imagine.

Companies no less than individuals have to decide what frames to use. You can look at the debris of destroyed companies during this extended financial suicide we’ve experienced in global financial markets and decide to retreat behind corporate bunkers, slashing all discretionary expenses, freezing all benefits, and going to the corporate equivalent of war footing. Or we can decide to clean up our act in wasteful areas yes, but also to prioritize key innovations, to deepen customer insight and loyalty, to improve our talent bench strength, to amplify engagement to get our teams to fight for productive gains, to reward more judiciously but to do so meaningfully where merited, and to see how we can emerge more competitive rather than bereft of vision or capability or future-creating potential. This isn’t a matter of “truth”, but of the frame we place on crisis, the hallucination we opt for.

Unreasonable people tell their countrymen in the midst of an historic economic meltdown, all we have to fear is fear itself. Unreasonable people look at the tide of Nazi victories and tell their embattled island, “we shall never surrender”. Unreasonable people looking at Russian space technology superiority throw a gauntlet down to put a man on the moon safely in a decade. Unreasonable people stand up at a time one hundred years after a Civil War failed to effectively remove segregation and unforgettably emote, “I have a dream!” Unreasonable people take their learnings in a calligraphy class and create wide-scale innovations in computer fonts (as Steve Jobs did). Unreasonable people believe micro-enterprise is a viable option for the once destitute as a mode of both dignity and pragmatic empowerment (as Nobel-prize winner Muhammed Yunus did through his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh).

So let’s choose profitable hallucinations for our clients, for our companies, for our lives. No matter what we face, we need to face the obstacles with the eyes of possibility. Why? Why not? Possibility is the fossil fuel for entrepreneurship, imagination, drive, creativity.

Chris Gardner, whose story we became familiar with through his best-selling book and Will Smith’s portrayal of him in a laudable movie, was homeless for a time while being a single dad, before transforming his circumstances, building a company, significant personal wealth, and a rich life. His new book sums up the best possible hallucination, start from where you are. But start as you mean to go on…committed to finding your next step towards reasonable or even unreasonable progress. And treat everything as “feedback” and “learning” along the way. You may not be right (whatever that means), but you will certainly succeed far more often.

At every juncture, ask,  “What is the most profitable, productive hallucination I can choose?”

And then lead, live, collaborate and innovate to make that hallucination REAL!