Are you feeling restrained by the past and fearful of the future? Do you
doubt your resilience and your ability to make a difference?
If so, don’t despair.
Here’s a “what if” writing exercise based on futurist and game designer
Jane McGonigal’s “XYZ format” that will help you change the world, or at
least your little corner of it. It involves “counterfactual thinking.”
When you think counterfactually, as McGonigal explains in her July 2,
2016, Aspen Ideas Festival lecture, you unlock your brain to “predict” a
past that never was and to “remember” a future that hasn’t happened.
The idea is to reimagine your past by asking “what if” questions. (What if
I had taken that job? What if I had moved to Siberia and joined a nudist
colony?) According to McGonigal, doing this exercise activates your
imagination, intuition, and logic. It also increases your sense of
control, which makes you feel more confident about shaping the future and
understanding your place in it. It may even make you less afraid of it.
Other benefits to this “incredibly practical skill” include a decrease in
depression, a sense of liberation from the past, a “burst of creativity,”
and a heightened belief in the possibility of transformational change.
Sound too good to be true? Let’s give it a try with a writing exercise,
based on McGonigal’s “triangle of what if.”
Taking X as an activity or event in your life, Y as a person, and Z as a
place, reimagine your past counterfactually. For example, you might think
of a conflict at home or at work. Maybe a team member spoke against your
proposal on a conference call last week in a way that felt like a personal
In describing the event, the person, and the place, include as much vivid
detail as you can recall, asking what-if questions to alter the situation
to your liking. Feel free to make up details as long as they’re personal.
Invoking your “autobiographical memory” is important, McGonigal
emphasizes, because it unleashes your unique talents and insights as you
envision your desired outcome.
Now comes the most intriguing aspect of McGonigal’s concept of
counterfactual thinking for me. Over the years I’ve written a number of
columns on Rogerian persuasion, a non-oppositional, win-win approach to
argumentation I teach in my communication course for the University of
Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute. (Google “Stephen Wilbers
Rogerian.”) The underlying principle of Rogerian persuasion is empathy,
which involves understanding and affirming your opponent’s point of view
before countering or rebutting it.
McGonigal takes the concept of empathy one step further by differentiating
between “easy empathy,” based on common experience, and “hard empathy,”
based on understanding experiences and thoughts that differ from your own.
Hard empathy “isn’t necessarily something we feel,” McGonigal explains,
“but something we actually construct.”
So for part two of your writing exercise, reimagine your XYZ scenario from
your opponent’s point of view. What insights does this shift give you
about the possibilities for the future?
To listen to McGonigal’s Aspen Ideas lecture, google “MPR McGonigal.” And
just for the record, joining a nudist colony in Siberia was my idea, not