The value of fantasy

By Tom:

I take the first coffee of the day up to my attic room, and settle into the chair that perfectly fits my body. For a moment, I gaze through the picture window at the woods in the distance, beyond the meadows and green hills. I open the laptop, set down my coffee, and start to write. 

After two hours of steady work, immersed in the world I’ve created, I get up, and go for a walk. I follow my favourite path through the fields, up into the woods, and then beyond, down to the shore. Along the way, I steep in nature. The sun flickering through the canopy, the waves rolling in over the beach, the skylarks singing exuberantly overhead. Flushed with exercise and inspiration, I return home to lunch.

Early afternoon, back in the attic, editing for quality and sense. Chores come next. Chores never go away even if you actively ignore them. Finally, it’s learning time. Sofa, book; learn.

The evening is for family. 

Later, when the children are in bed, my wife is caught up in her own imagined worlds, and the house is quiet, I sneak back up to the attic and put in another couple of hours of creation. I’ve learned that the midnight hours are particularly congenial to my muse, and my imagination feels supercharged. Sleep beckons eventually, and it is the sleep of the righteous and blessed. 

The next day is much the same. 

And it’s always bluebell season

Fantasy is, in my humble opinion, underrated. Experts and mentors often caution against fixating on your future dreams, presumably to help protect against the disappointment of unrealistic expectations. This can be wise advice if you are more interested in fame than in the process of writing, but some people are openly hostile to “escapism” itself, as though it is juvenile and frivolous. On this point, I agree with Tolkien:

What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape? Jailers. 

So, I cordially disagree with the idea that fantasizing about our future lives is foolish. In fact, I’d even go further and say that fantasizing about our ideal day is a very useful and very powerful tool for making progress.

Obviously, there’s the nice feels associated with wish fulfilment. Life is often a bit stingy with good feelings, so getting them where you can seems a reasonable plan to me. But beyond this trivial gain, fantasizing about your ideal day – or rather visualizing your ideal day – can be a very valuable thing.

First, it tells you important things about yourself. Everyone will have a different first thought about what their ideal day would be like. For some (like me) it is an introvert’s paradise of solitude, peace, and familiarity. For others it will be fame, fortune, recognition for their talent, prestige in the eyes of the world. Perhaps a movie premiere of an adaptation of their latest bestseller. For others still, it will be writing on a distant tropical beach, freed from the rat race, and able to travel and experience the world, so that they can then parcel up their experiences in wise words.

New blog post: top tens ways that my life is epic

Try it. Take a moment to visualize a perfect day in your ideal life. For stressed people, it may be “sitting around watching films in my dressing gown” or “lazing around on a beach, sipping margaritas”, but go beyond this immediate, first urge. Those kind of passive days will become tiresome eventually. If you had perfect freedom, and had recovered from old stresses and anxiety, what would you choose to do?

The reason this kind of exercise is powerful, is that it clarifies your self-identity. We are all a complex mix of drives, desires and fears, but there are some key traits that we all share to varying degrees. The big five are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Psychologists differ on the details of course, but the central point is that the combination of these traits determines our temperament, what sort of environment we can thrive in, and what sort of lifestyle is likely to give us fulfilment. We can work to refine our inherent traits, but trying to live an extravert life as an introvert is likely to cause fatigue and distress. Living at odds with our temperaments is stressful. Going against the psychological grain is hard work.

In the modern world, absurd as it might seem, many of us are out of touch with our own personalities. We get so conditioned into what we should be like, what we should value, how we should behave, that we lose track of what we genuinely do like and value. Really thinking about what your perfect day would be like – really taking the time to imagine lots of different possibilities, and being honest with yourself about how appealing they are – can be amazingly revealing.

The second big reason why visualization of an ideal is powerful and useful is that it gives you a clear destination to aim for. Looking back at my narrative above, I’m struck by how attainable a goal it is. It’s a bit of a shock (and a little bit frightening, revealingly) to realize that a day like that doesn’t require professional power, millions of pounds, or remarkable good fortune. Sure, I’m not going to be able to get a sprawling house within strolling distance of St Ives or Sandbanks, but it is perfectly credible to devise a plan that can take me from where I am now, to that idealized place. There will be complications, of course, and my family will have their own dreams and ambitions that would need to be melded into a compromise, but the realization that my ideal day is perfectly attainable is pretty exhilarating.

A truism in life is that people without direction don’t know where they are going, or if they are getting closer to where they should be. With no target, you don’t know what to aim for. This is the value of fantasizing about what might be. The more you do it, the more you can refine your dreams and focus on the key things that really matter to you. Once you’ve done that, then you know what you want, and can plan how to get it. It may still seem unrealistic, but you’re in a much better starting place if you know where you want to be, and sketch out a road-map of how to get there. Really determined people then lay out a step by step plan to seize their dreams, and single-mindedly pursue it.

So the twofold benefits of daydreaming: 1) If you do it honestly, you understand yourself better. 2) If you understand yourself better, you can plan how to get to where you want to be.

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