Skip to main content

What the heck's a vision board?

By Martha Beck, O, The Oprah Magazine
Mentally picturing, releasing and jumping into action -- all are steps from vision board to success.
Mentally picturing, releasing and jumping into action -- all are steps from vision board to success.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A vision board's purpose is to depict (and lead you to) your desired future
  • Don't go for the typical big money, big style, empty meaning stuff
  • Search for unusual images that trigger physical reactions in you
  • Place the board in back of mind, but do keep moving and doing

(OPRAH.com) -- Sitting my desk is a photo box containing many images I've torn from magazines. I plan to glue them all to one large piece of butcher paper.

The resulting collage will be a vision board; its purpose, to depict (and lead me to) my desired future.

This whole process makes me roll my eyes -- as I was trained to do over the course of my very rationalist education -- but damn if it doesn't work.

Sometimes.

I've made several vision boards that bombed out, and some that were so successful that the hairs on the nape of my neck prickled for months. Years ago I glued up a headline that said MAKING AFRICA WELL. I thought it was a joke -- oh, sure, like I could do that -- never expecting that a few years later I'd be invited to speak in Africa and while there meet folks who are healing African ecosystems. Suddenly, I found myself volunteering to work with them.

Oprah.com: Quiz on what kind of volunteer are you?

I've discovered there's a trick to making a vision board that brings forth such improbable coincidences. It starts with avoiding common pitfalls that result in faulty, inoperative models. Many people hear the basic instructions -- "Find pictures of things you want in your life and stick 'em where you can see 'em" -- and create virtually identical collages: a wad of cash, a handsome husband, a gorgeous body, a luxury car, a tropical beach.

Snore. These images constitute our culture's idea of the good life. Even a rich, happily married beauty queen with a Porsche in the driveway and a house on the ocean will crank out this same damn vision board. This has no juice at all. To really work, a vision board has to come not from your culture but from your primordial, nonsocial self -- the genetically unique animal/angel that contains your innate preferences.

When you start assembling pictures that appeal to this deep self, you unleash one of the most powerful forces on our planet: human imagination. Virtually everything humans use, do, or make exists because someone thought it up. Sparking your incredibly powerful creative faculty is the reason you make a vision board. The board itself doesn't impact reality; what changes your life is the process of creating the images -- combinations of objects and events that will stick in your subconscious mind and steer your choices toward making the vision real.

Oprah.com: How to tap into right-brain thinking

Vision Board 101

I've known for some time that staring at objects while holding pictures in my head makes reality oddly responsive. I was persuaded of this by two events so striking and improbable that I'll describe them to you in some detail. Both occurred while I was illustrating a children's book, which was never published because: (1) My animal/angel didn't really want to create it; (2) I got tired after doing about 25 percent of the illustrations; and (3) the book basically sucked.

Oprah.com: Open yourself up to your life's purpose

Anyway, one illustration I did finish depicted a startled elephant. I wanted to paint it from a child's perspective, with the pachyderm rearing back, lifting one front leg, raising its trunk, and opening its eyes and mouth in surprise. I had no photographs that showed this scenario, and it wasn't the easiest thing to imagine.

So I went to a circus, found an elephant who seemed to be parked in neutral, crouched down in front of him, and squinted, imagining what he'd look like with his leg lifted and his trunk raised. The elephant looked back at me...and adopted precisely the pose I was picturing. He remained in this awkward position for several minutes as I scribbled a sketch.

Just days later, I was working on another illustration involving parrots (this children's book was set in post-genocide Cambodia -- what fun for kids!). In the midst of my research, I learned to my surprise that there was a species of parrot indigenous to my own turf in Arizona.

I stared at these parrots in my bird book, wishing that one day I could see a living specimen. At that moment, I swear to God, I heard a scratchy thump, and three rare parrots landed on the window screen less than a yard from my face.

Oprah.com: Are you resilient? Take the quiz

That's when I began believing that animals respond to intense visual images held in the human imagination. So does my Mindflex, and perhaps even complex phenomena like one's love life or career. I also noticed that the mental state that produced the elephant and parrot miracles was very different from the hankering I directed at my usual goals. And I've come to realize that you need to get into that mind-space if you want your vision board to work for you like a short-order cook hopped up on Red Bull. Here's how to do it....

Step 1: Please your animal

There are two basic procedures involved in creating an effective vision board. First, instead of cogitating about familiar images, scout for the unfamiliar. Your mind can't do this. Your animal/angel self can. Just page through a magazine (and walk through the world) noticing things that trigger physical reactions: a heart thump, a double take, a gasp.

The only responses involved should resemble these:

"Ooooh!"

"Aaaahhhhh."

"Whoa!"

"!!!!"

"????"

These "thoughts" register in your stomach, your heart, your lungs -- anywhere but your head. You can't produce them in response to cultural clichés or abstract ideas. Nor can you always know why your body reacts to an image. Wondering, then finding out, is one of the most delicious things about assembling a vision board.

For example, as I rummage through my current collection of images, my body is utterly unmoved by photos of mansions or designer clothing. What interests it are pictures of an abstract sculpture, a dried leaf, and (overwhelmingly) a map on which the migratory route of the springbok antelope is shown in red. !!!! Go figure.

Though it makes no logical sense, I know from experience that gluing these pictures on one big page will begin catalyzing something beyond my mind's capacity to calculate or conceptualize. If you're not already accumulating images that rock your socks, stay alert. Whenever you find them, filch them.

Oprah.com: Can a magic list help you find love?

Step 2: Let go mentally and emotionally.

Most folks master Step 1 easily, gathering new and interesting images by the bushel. It's like making the Mindflex ball go up: You stare at the ball and picture it rising. Powered by the output of electricity from your brain, the fan starts to blow, et voilà! Up goes the ball. You do this with focused, intense thinking -- something you're almost always engaged in.

Step 2 of making a vision board requires something trickier: not thinking. This is the counterintuitive process that makes the Mindflex ball descend. To do it you must relax completely and let your mind go blank. You don't concentrate on the result you want -- i.e., the ball going down. In fact, you concentrate on not concentrating. Slowly the fan decreases speed and the ball begins to drop.

This is exactly what you should do once you've created a vision board. Stop thinking about it. Lose it. Recycle it. The biggest mistake aspiring reality creators make (aside from that predictable cash/tropical island collage) is continuing to push something they've already set in motion. You've felt the repellent energy of salespeople desperate to hook you -- it makes you sprint away so fast, you cause sonic booms. Don't use that results-oriented energy.

Oprah.com: Create your Dream Board today!

Anecdotes about vision board success always include statements like "Then I forgot all about it until the very moment, years later, when I found myself standing on the Champs-Elysées, holding that exact plaid umbrella!" The key phrase is "forgot all about it." The purpose of the vision board is to focus your attention -- briefly. After that, the less mental strain you feel, the sooner good things will happen. That initial intense focus helps us create "search images," and by relaxing, we increase our chances of noticing the things we seek. Then it's time for the trickiest step of all....

Oprah.com: Become the person you're meant to be

Step 3: Be still and still moving

Making a vision board is not a substitute for elbow grease. Magical cocreator or not, you still have to do stuff. For example, I want to be better at social media -- you know, all that Faceplace Twootle Googler stuff. So I put a headline on my vision board: SOCIAL MEDIA GENIUS. I tried reading blog posts and signing up for all sorts of new online accounts, but I was making zero progress.

Two weeks later, I was working on my laptop in a bookstore when a man with a kind face asked me if I liked my computer. He turned out to be a social media specialist and an extremely nice guy, and I hired him to be my social media genius. He's brilliant, he's motivating, and he's kicking my ass, teaching me how to accomplish my goals. I wanted the Force to give me fish; instead, it sent an expert fisherman to teach me.

This is the zone of reality creation: regularly picturing delights that don't yet exist, emotionally detaching from them, and jumping into action when it's time to help the miracles occur. I'm barely learning this, to be (in T.S. Eliot's words) "still and still moving." But in the moments I get it right, every step I take seems to be matched by a universal mystery, which obligingly, incredibly, creates what I can't.

So that's my 411 on vision boards, but please, don't believe me. Try it yourself. Do it as a lark, a hobby, a physics experiment (though calling it that may cause Werner Heisenberg to spin in his grave like an Olympic ice dancer). While you're oohing and aahing, cutting and gluing, I'll be wearing my fabulous headset, making the Mindflex ball follow my mental orders like my tiny foam bitch. If you happen to know I'm dreaming, please don't wake me.

Oprah.com: Try it yourself! Create your own Dream Board here

Subscribe to O, The Oprah Magazine for up to 75% off the newsstand price. That's like getting 18 issues FREE. Subscribe now!

TM & © 2011 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.