Visionary thinking: Discover extraordinary possibilities

As a financial advisor, you can learn the nitty gritty of every financial product in the book and memorize a plethora of scripts about referrals, and you will likely do well in your career. Yet, will you create a career that’s the best fit for you and achieve your most audacious goals? You might not. Instead, you may end up watching the innovators in your profession achieve what you wish you could.

We tend to believe that innovators or other “creative” people have some inherent quality that the rest of us don’t have. The truth is they don’t. They’ve simply cracked the code on how to consistently live in positive possibilities instead of existing among negative obstacles. 

Identifying positive potential first is the only way to find big ideas. Visionaries see the wonderous possibilities where most of us see “practical” obstacles. We mostly move through work and life by addressing whatever obstacle falls into our path. We problem-solve the next issue, yet rarely do we survey our world and make a conscious choice to shape it the way we want it to be. 

Visionary thinkers make that daily choice to imagine the possibility of a different world. They are open-minded, innovative, imaginative, willing to take risks, optimistic and collaborative, which are all skills related to creative thinking. They regularly pursue new ideas and solutions. And the good news is that all of these creative thinking skills are learnable!

What’s stopping you?

One of the primary barriers to living in possibility is the negativity bias, a cognitive bias or mental shortcut, that all humans share. It’s the phenomenon that negative experiences have a greater impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviors than positive experiences do. That seems counterintuitive, but there’s a wealth of research that proves the negative affects us more than the positive. As a result, we are much more motivated to avoid what’s negative than to seek what’s positive. 

Our brains have evolved to excel at identifying potential negatives so we can avoid them. It’s a primitive survival mechanism, and this instant identification of negatives is what can trap us into living in obstacle.

Living in possibility requires refusing to let the negativity bias rule our thinking. There are a few steps that can make a significant impact, helping us to avoid this pitfall.

Transforming how we think

1. Pinpoint the problem. First, we must be able to spot when the negativity bias is at work. The easiest way to do that is by monitoring one simple phrase we say: “Yes, but …”.  On the surface, these words seem innocuous. And because we say them and hear them so frequently, they don’t seem like a problem. 

This short phrase, however, is a massive blockade to creative and visionary thinking. It dismisses any potential positives in an idea or concept before even identifying what those positives might be. Instead, it focuses the energy and attention of both the speaker and the listeners on all the possible negatives. This can easily overwhelm any idea and immediately kill it.

2. Manage your mind. Once you’ve determined the negativity bias is at work (someone said “Yes, but …”), the next step is to make a conscious choice to change your thinking. The key is to first identify the potential positives in any idea before focusing on the negatives. 

This sounds easy, although it’s quite hard. It’s counter to a basic instinct, so it requires a conscious choice to think this way, plus real discipline to put it into practice regularly.  

3. Nix the negatives. The next critical step is to refrain from saying the negatives out loud — at least not yet. Even while you’re enumerating positives, your brain will be busy identifying negatives too. The simple trick of not saying those negatives out loud will help dramatically. Force yourself to speak out loud and write down the positives first.

4. Teach those at work. When working with others, ask them to do the same. Help them understand that letting our natural negativity bias dominate the conversation has the potential to immediately kill any Let everyone know that, of course, there will be a time to solve the problems in the idea, but the first task is to identify the potential in the idea. If there aren’t enough potential positives, then it’s time to move to a new idea.

If the idea is visionary and can make a real difference, it’s imperative to hold off on the negativity bias momentarily and allow the brilliance of the idea to shine through.

5. Transform the troublesome term. Once the above steps have led you to a potentially winning idea, it’s time to address the problems with the idea. To continue to remain in possibility, you must change the conversation; you cannot return to “Yes, but …” language.

Instead, articulate the challenges as a “How might we …?” question. So, rather than saying “Yes, but it’s too expensive,” instead say, “How might we do it more affordably?” This trick of flipping a problem statement into a problem-solving question is a neuroscience brain hack that will revolutionize your thinking and problem-solving.

Every successful innovation, in any industry or endeavor, is the result of someone, or a team, choosing to live in possibility in this way. 

Visionary thinking requires making space for ideas that, at first, seem scary or difficult. It takes some real courage to push past our immediate “Yes, but …” response and instead focus the conversation on “What if …?” If we don’t hold ourselves accountable to look for the positives, we’ll never consider nor implement any truly new ideas. Visionary thinkers must master this skill and learn to live in possibility. 

Susan Robertson is a creative thinking expert with more than 20 years of experience speaking and coaching in Fortune 500 companies. As an instructor of applied creativity at Harvard, she brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity. To learn more, visit   

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