What If?

what-ifBy David N. Hafter

In last month’s column I challenged parents to demonstrate to their kids, and to themselves, a commitment to a creative process. Why? Because there are certain skill sets a person needs to become good at almost anything: Patience, persistence, self-forgiveness, delay of gratification, realistic expectations. Without any one of these abilities a person is more likely than not to quit before accomplishing his or her goals.

We parents want our kids to be prepared to deal with the kinds of challenges we know are ahead of them. To handle them well, they will need the confidence born of experience, from trying hard things and then hanging in there through tough times and frustrations until they reach their goals.  Because talking doesn’t match doing, we teach by example by taking on our own challenges – in this case, I suggested tasking on creative projects – and then seeing them through. The process is good for us and when we inevitably struggle some along the way to reaching our own goals, how much better the lesson to our kids? Every time we overcome an obstacle, we improve, and our kids take notice, even when they don’t share our particular interest.

Fair enough, you say, but it’s easier said than done – to which I reply, yes, that’s right. When we take on the challenge of learning a new skill, from art to music, gardening to writing and anything in between, we are taking a risk. Will we accomplish our goal or give up part way there? And remember, our kids are watching. They probably won’t care much if you give up along the way, but neither will they be inspired to take up their own challenges. They instinctively know how hard it is to take on a challenge, even one self-imposed, and really see it through. You don’t want to demonstrate that quitting is normal and acceptable, do you?

So, you decide to learn to paint, or take guitar lessons, or rebuild an old classic car. You set a goal to run a 10K before the end of the year or to change your eating habits to be healthier and lose weight. But on the way to achieving whatever goal you set, you wrestle with a simple but powerful little question, one that scuttles the creative process more than any other.

What if?

Like other forms of power, the question of ‘What if? comes with no moral values. Consider the power in a can of gasoline. You can use it to mow a lawn, drive a loved one to the hospital or blow up a building. The gas doesn’t care. We give meaning to power by how we choose to use it. When it vexes us, ‘What if’ questions give rise to and feed our fears. Focusing on What if? questions injects doubt into our creative process and turns excitement into fear – opposite sides of the same coin.

That said, however, ‘What if?’ questions are not always bad; in fact, they can be life-savers. If only more people asked ‘What if?’ before attempting something foolish or dangerous much subsequent heartache would be avoided. And ‘What if?’ is the perfect question to ask when gearing up for a difficult task or planning an adventure. It leads to thoughtful preparation. It can’t guarantee good results, but it makes for much better odds for success. The fun of Batman’s utility belt was that he always seemed to have thought ahead for any eventuality. Need super glue? Right here. Shark repellant? No problem…

Asking ‘What if?’ opens up doors to exciting possibilities. In science, it challenges the current limits of our knowledge, inspires theories and drives the experiments that can turn a theory into a fact or even a newly found law of nature. Asking “What if?’ inspires us to dream. Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were and ask, why not?” So, ‘What if’ questions can be great but too often, they are not; just the opposite: They are the doorways to our fears.

What if I fail? What if I’m no good? What if people don’t like what I do or say? What if I don’t make the team or pass the audition? What if they make fun of me or think I’m stupid? What if I get embarrassed or feel shame? One reason I like the singing or dancing competitions of television is that they show young people taking chances. Some contestants come back year after year with a positive attitude and improved skills. Others bitterly complain and give up after the first rejection. Moonwalker Jim Irwin was accepted as an astronaut on his fourth application and then earned a rare and coveted seat on an Apollo mission.

We can ‘what if’ ourselves into paralysis, and often do. This does not have to be a made-for-TV, dramatic moment either. We don’t even need to say the words ‘What if’ out loud for them to cut us off at the knees. We only have to think, “Nah, it’s probably not worth the trouble,” or “I don’t care that much about it anyway.” Look underneath those blasé statements and the ‘What if’ questions will be there, silently lurking and sucking the wind from our sails.

Creative projects don’t have to be expensive and don’t have to require large amounts of time. After all, what’s the hurry? They just require some good, steady discipline, some patience, some self-forgiveness for not being good at it (yet) and maybe, a sense of humor and perspective. If you take up the guitar with the attitude that only playing like Eric Clapton will ‘count’, then you have pretty much guaranteed yourself frustration and failure right out of the gate. It’s great to be inspired by Clapton; learn what you can from his technique and style, but you will be much happier listening to Miles Davis who once advised, “Sometimes it takes a long time to learn to play like yourself.”

David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will


    Thanks for another  great article. This one was especially timely for me as I just read an article on the use of words as an adjunct to treatment with medication in my field, medicine. We have known for a very long time how the use of belief that a given treatment will work actually increases the probability of its success. What has not been explored to the same degree is the power of the negative comment in increasing fear of side effects or treatment failure. This is a great reminder of the dual role of “what if” as it may play out in the life of a child as well as how it may affect my ability to help my patients attain their health related goals . Thanks again for the perspective which I will keep in mind today.

  2. Bill

    Hell yeah David!  That’s what I’m talking about.   Positive.  Inspiring.  Something that goes to the heart of human experience and prompts us to grow in new and “what if” ways.  Loved it!

    David Greenwald, this is a nice (and different) addition to the Vanguard.  Way to get these new voices in here.

  3. Miwok

    Vewy Nice, I wonder why some people who serve the community do so at the expense of their family life. This may explain why. Maybe your next article can explain why people make the priorities they do.

  4. Frankly

    What if I chase rainbows?

    Here is the way I look at it.  As long as I am happy doing it and I don’t expect or demand material results other than my happiness including recognition of my accomplishments… then please make it so.

    Personally I would change this “what if” plea to one of personal visioning and goal setting.

    There was a study that masters spend about 10,000 hours on the thing they master.   The problem with “what if” not grounded in an understanding of the true extent of the commitment required, or lacking a robust enough analysis of readiness and capability… a person can waste a lot of time (chasing rainbows).

    There is a balancing act with people… especially kids.  Keeping them motivated and positive while also being honest in assessment.

    But for kids I would always side with encouraging them to go for it.

    I think it is different as adults.   But if it makes a person happy inside, then go for it.

    If we look at the creative types that have accomplished great things… many, if not most, of them were driven internally to chase their “what ifs”.

    Reading Bill Bryson’s book 1927.   A great read.  He covers the time around the Lindbergh flight across the Atlantic.  There had been dozens of failed attempts prior to his epic and heroic success.  Many of those that failed were driven by a desire for accolades.  But not Charles Lingbergh…  He said:

    “I was astonished at the effect my successful landing in France had on the nations of the world. To me, it was like a match lighting a bonfire.”

    Clearly he set out with a personal goal and an internal motivation based on “what if”.

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