The secrets of visionary thinkers

Five steps to living in possibility

We tend to believe that famous innovators or other creative people have some inherent qualities we don’t have. But the truth is—they don’t. They simply have cracked the code on how to consistently live in a possibility instead of living in obstacles.

Visionary thinkers see possibilities. Always. Most of us mostly see obstacles, most of the time. We move through work and life by addressing whatever next obstacle falls into our path. We problem-solve the next issue on a project; we deal with the next customer complaint; and we address the next challenge with our kids.

But too rarely do we look up, survey the world and make a conscious choice to shape our world to be the way we want it to be.

Visionary thinkers make that daily choice—to imagine the possibility of a different world, to hold on to that vision and to refuse to let the obstacles limit their thinking. They live in possibility.

Visionary thinkers are open-minded, innovative and imaginative, willing to take risks, optimistic and collaborative, all skills related to creative thinking. They regularly imagine, consider and pursue new ideas and solutions.

The good news—all of these creative thinking skills are learnable. Anyone can become a more visionary thinker by learning to leverage the creative genius that’s already hidden inside.

One of the primary barriers to living in possibility is the negativity bias, a cognitive bias or mental shortcut that all humans share. It is the phenomenon that negative experiences have a greater impact—on our thoughts, feelings and behaviors—than positive experiences do.

That seems counter-intuitive, but there is a wealth of research that proves negative affects us more than positive. As a result, we are much more motivated to avoid negative than to seek positive.

Our brains have evolved to excel at identifying potential negatives so that we can avoid them. It is a survival mechanism, and it happens in the most primitive part of our brain—the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for detecting threats and triggering the fight or flight response. It is laser-focused and lightning-fast at identifying potential problems. This instant identification of negatives is what can trap us into living in obstacles.

Living in possibility requires refusing to let the negativity bias rule our thinking. There are a few steps that can make a significant impact, helping us to manage this pitfall and transform the way we think.

First, we must be able to spot when the negativity bias is at work. The easiest way to do that is by monitoring one simple phrase we say: “Yes, but….” On the surface, these words seem innocuous. And because we say them and hear them so frequently, they don’t seem to be a problem.

But this short phrase is a massive blockade to creative and visionary thinking. It dismisses any potential positives in an idea or concept before even identifying what those positives might be.

Instead, it focuses the energy and attention of both the speaker and the listeners on all of the possible negatives. This can easily overwhelm any idea and immediately kill it.

A young woman in glasses with a pen to her mouth deep in thought

Once you have determined the negativity bias is at work (someone said “yes, but…”), the next step is to make a conscious choice to change your thinking. The key is to first identify the potential positives in any idea before focusing on the negatives. This sounds easy. But it actually is quite hard. It is counter to a basic instinct, so it really does require a conscious choice to think this way, plus very real discipline to put it into practice regularly.

The next critical step is to refrain from saying the negatives out loud—at least not yet. The truth is, even if you’ve consciously chosen to identify the positives first, your brain will subconsciously identify the negatives anyway. It’s instinctive and instant.

So, even while you are enumerating positives, your brain will be busy identifying negatives, too. But the simple trick of not saying those negatives out loud will help dramatically. Force yourself to speak aloud and write down the positives first.

When working with others, ask them to do the same. Help them understand that letting our natural negativity bias dominate the conversation has the potential to immediately kill any idea. Let everyone know that, of course, there will be a time to solve the problems in the idea, but the first task is to identify the potential in the idea. If there aren’t enough potential positives, then it’s time to move to a new idea. But if the idea is visionary and can make a real difference, it’s imperative to hold off on the negativity bias momentarily and allow the brilliance of the idea to shine through.

Once the above steps have led you to a potentially winning idea, it is time to address the problems with the idea. To continue to remain in possibility, you must change the conversation; you cannot return to “yes, but…” language. Instead, articulate the challenges as a “how might we…?” question.

So, instead of saying “Yes, but it is too expensive,” instead say, “How might we do it more affordably?” This trick of flipping a problem statement into a problem-solving question is a neuroscience brain hack that will revolutionize your thinking and problem-solving.

This process of identifying positive potential first is the only way to find big ideas. Every successful innovation, in any industry or endeavor, is the result of someone or a team choosing to live in possibility in this way.

Visionary thinking requires making space for ideas that initially seem scary or difficult. It takes some real courage to push past our immediate “yes, but…” response and instead focus the conversation on “what if…?” If we do not hold ourselves accountable to look for the positives, we’ll never consider nor implement any truly new ideas. Visionary thinkers must master this skill and learn to live in possibility.

Susan Robertson empowers individuals, teams, and organizations to more nimbly adapt to change by transforming thinking from “why we can’t” to “how might we?” She is a creative thinking expert with over 20 years of experience speaking and coaching in Fortune 500 companies. As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard, she brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity. To learn more, visit