Ryan Irelan

is building Mijingo and doing limited consulting.

Previsualizing Happiness

My childhood next door neighbor taught a martial arts class in his converted basement. He was a black belt in Vadha, a himalayan martial arts form. One of the things we did in the class, besides learning a series of moves to help us take out a bad guy on the street, was breaking wood with our bare hands. We broke a one-inch thick pine board in half (along the grain, of course).

Breaking boards was never about strength. It was about knowing the technique: a good wind up, hitting the right spot, and following through. In order to get good at that technique and repeat it, board after broken board, my instructor told us to visualize breaking the board first and then make the attempt. That was my first introduction to previsualization; think through the steps of breaking the board, see yourself break it, and then do it.

See the Swish

I played on my middle school’s basketball team (warming the bench for two years) and had a great coach who taught more than just basketball fundamentals. From him I learned the phrase “perfect practice makes perfect” that I still cite to this day, 25 years later. He also taught me to previsualize when making free throws. See the shot go in first and it will.

Free throws, which are uncontested shots awarded after a foul, are only 15 feet from the basket and should be an easy way to make points. The only way to get good at free throws is to practice–perfect practice–good technique: square to the basket, bend your knees and follow through. And the only way to get this right every time is to first visualize yourself taking and making the shot. See it all the way through until the ball goes in the basket. Then take your shot.

Proper Exposure

In college I had a short stint as a photography major (although I don’t think I ever officially declared). This was before digital photography was common–or even affordable–so my education was based on “wet photography” methods. We started with black and white photography. When you start with black and white you have to learn the Zone System.

The Zone System, co-created by photography giant Ansel Adams, is an involved system of producing perfectly exposed and printed black and white photos. It requires knowing your tools well (camera, film, enlarger, paper, chemicals) and accurately measuring light during exposure. In the Zone System you decide what your final image will look like before you even open the shutter to expose the film, i.e. you previsiualize it. Previsualization forces the photographer to carefully measure light–in the shadows and highlights–and see the scene in black and white before the photo is made. Previsualization is the idea behind the Zone System.


I recently reread Jeff Atwood’s Buying Happiness article. In it Jeff theorizes that money can buy happiness but the details of how you spend it matter. “Buying Happiness” has a lot of good information that goes against the grain in how a typical person approaches money, spending and happiness. One thing stuck out for me under item number 6 (“Think about what you’re not thinking about”) in Jeff’s list:

We tend to gloss over details when considering future purchases, but research shows that our happiness (or unhappiness) largely lies in exactly those tiny details we aren’t thinking about. Before making a major purchase, consider the mechanics and logistics of owning this thing, and where your actual time will be spent once you own it. Try to imagine a typical day in your life, in some detail, hour by hour: how will it be affected by this purchase?


I do this quite frequently when I’m considering changing anything in my life (whether major, like starting a family or changing a job or minor like buying a new car or rearranging a room).

I may really want that new car but I might not think through what it’ll mean to own it. How will the payments impact my monthly budget? Is it practical for me day-to-day? Can it fit my family comfortably? What’s the insurance premium? Will I actually drive it enough to make the expense worth it? Is it comfortable enough for someone my height on long trips?

I almost bought a new car 2 years ago but held off after previsualizing a month or two of owning it. I realized the car would make me unhappy in a few ways, so I called my salesman and canceled the deal. Looking back, it ended up being the right choice. That car would have not been right for me and I’m happier without it.

If we walk through–or previsualize–living with a decision for even only a month a lot of things become obvious to us and many times it’ll change our decision and increase our happiness.

Just like breaking a piece of wood in half, swishing a free throw, or creating the perfectly exposed photograph, you have a better chance at a successful or happy outcome if you see yourself doing it first.

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