This is a guest post from Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, You Move Me, and Wow 1 Day Painting.
Over the past 18 years, I've built my Vancouver-based junk removal firm, 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, into a $100 million multinational company called O2E Brands. For all of the hard work we have put in, none of our success would have been possible were it not for the Painted Picture, a simple visualization technique I created while sitting on a dock outside my parent's summer cottage one afternoon nearly two decades ago.
It was New Year's Eve of 1997, and I was depressed. 1-800-GOT-JUNK? was eight years old and had stalled after growing to $1 million in revenue. Nothing I did seemed to make a difference. I didn't have a college degree or a lot of money, and I wasn't sure if I was the right person to build the company. The future seemed murky.
My perspective changed when instead of worrying about what wasn't possible, I painted a picture in my head of what was. I closed my eyes and envisioned how I wanted 1-800-GOT-JUNK? to look, feel, and act by the end of 2002.
How I Visualized Differently
For the first time, I went into extreme detail. I turned this 'painted picture' into a one-page document, blew it up, and then framed it in our headquarters for everyone to see.
It contained not only tangible business achievements like the number of franchises we would have and the quality of our trucks, but also more sensory details, like how our employees would describe our company to their family members and what our customers would say they loved best about working with us.
In the five years that followed, roughly 96% of what I'd written down had come to fruition--even my wildest dream of appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
I've shared this simple technique with thousands of others; many who have gone on to build large companies. And we still use it religiously.
Recent academic research on vision, goal setting, accountability, and storytelling shows why the Painted Picture works.
What Science Says About Visualization
1. Visualize first. Then plan.
People typically think about goal setting in one of two ways:
According to more than 200 scientific studies on visualization, the best way to achieve real results is to utilize both types of visualization.
This tactic is known as mental contrasting. By following up your pie-in-the-sky Painted Picture with nuts-and-bolts strategic planning, you'll have both the inspiration and the gameplan necessary to reach your desired destination.
As you use mental contrasting, it's critical to do the visualization and strategic planning in different places as these two processes require completely different mindsets.
The Painted Picture is best done away from the office so it it's unencumbered by your current limitations, leaving the x's and o's of your business plan for your strategic planning process.
2. Having a vision is highly correlated with company growth.
Dozens of academic studies on what successful leaders have in common all point to vision as a core component. The evidence is clear: simply having a vision has a significant impact on the outcomes of employees and the organization.
In a study of 183 entrepreneurs (average revenue: $2.5 million), the average growth of companies with a vision was more than double than the companies without a vision.
3. Stories (told as visions of the future) change the way we think.
Another reason the Painted Picture works is that by visualizing abstract goals as pictures and videos, you're essentially turning your future into a story that will stick. Human beings are narrative creatures, and according to the research, great stories are not only easy for us to remember, but they also alter our beliefs, reduce our ability to detect inaccuracies, and evoke new emotions in us. Our brains are wired to pay attention to and remember them.
To understand this phenomenon, you don't need to look any further than your own personal experience desperately rooting for the protagonists in Jurassic World or for Elon Musk's vision to colonize Mars. In other words, telling the story of your future company through a Painted Picture is a great way to inspire your team.
4. Making the future detailed makes it easier for you and others to prioritize it and make sacrifices for it.
Most people have trouble sacrificing something in the present in return for something larger in the future. For example, in the famous "Marshmallow Test", children are offered one marshmallow right away or two marshmallows if they can wait for 15 minutes. About 70% take the marshmallow right away. Fascinatingly, the remaining 30% were much more likely to succeed in the future, including scoring 210 points higher on average on the SAT. (Forty years later, the findings still hold true).
What separates the two groups?
It turns out that the difference lies in the availability bias. This is the cognitive bias where we make decisions based on what our mind can immediately recall.
In this case, the availability bias is manifested in the pleasure of eating marshmallows immediately. Our brain recalls that pleasure far more easily, in comparison to the relatively weak promise of future reward.
The young people who were successful hacked their brain by distracting themselves from the concrete short-term reward of eating the marshmallow. Instead, they focused on the abstract longer-term reward.
The Painted Picture operates using the same principle. By bringing the future into focus, it makes it easier for people to buy into it and sacrifice for it on a day-to-day basis.
5. Sharing a vision publicly creates internal pressure to make it a reality.
For all of the benefits of visualization, the true benefits to your business come when you share it. This is how we share our Painted Picture with our loved ones, employees, franchise partners, and other stakeholders:
Public commitment, as documented by researcher Robert Cialdini, is an incredibly effective technique to get people to follow through with what they say. In one study where potential election voters were asked to publicly share if they were voting and why, next day voter turnout increased by 25%.
6. Revisiting it daily makes you like it more.
By revisiting the Painted Picture daily, I get more and more excited and committed to it.
This phenomenon is called the mere exposure effect: the more we see something completely new, the more we develop a preference and have good feelings about it. In one study on the mere exposure effect, simply repeatedly exposing people to fake Chinese characters for two seconds increased their liking towards those characters gradually.
No one has done a study on whether the mere exposure effect directly makes you more excited or committed to the vision, but that has been my personal experience and the mere exposure effect is one possible reason why.
How To Create A Painted Picture
Making your own Painted Picture is simple. The three steps are retreat, visualize, and ask.
First, grab a notebook and find a quiet space where you don't have any distractions from your daily life.
The next key is visualization. Transplant yourself five years into the future. See yourself looking around at your life and your business. Imagine that you're really in that place where the future HAS already happened. For example, if you have a five-year old child, imagine your child is now ten. Then, imagine yourself five years older.
Once you've transported yourself to that place, ask yourself some questions that will help you "crystal ball" the future. Here are some key questions to ask yourself:
There are few things more satisfying to me than receiving the Painted Pictures that other entrepreneurs have created for their own companies. In order to fully appreciate its power, I often think about the recent success of the man who operates our Toronto franchise, Paul Guy.
Though pretty much everyone (myself included) thought Paul was crazy when his Painted Picture declared that he would grow his relatively small franchise into a $10-million-a-year business, he has worked hard to remain committed to his goal. Today, he is just $1 million away from reaching it.
It just goes to show that if you are confident enough to state what you really want out of your business and devoted enough to pursue those goals through thick and thin, there's no telling what you can achieve.