How to Make a Vision Board: Find Your Life Ambition

"Vision Board" by Amy Palko

“Vision Board” by Amy Palko

Since childhood, I’ve had a vivid recurring dream in which I can move objects without touching them. When I awaken from the dream, I can’t believe it isn’t true. For hours I’ll glare at objects—starting with cars or furniture, gradually lowering my sights to scraps of Kleenex—incredulous that I can’t move stuff with my mind.

Except that now I can.

A friend just gave me a gizmo called Mindflex, a game that includes a magnificently dorky-looking headset, a console, and a little foam ball. The headset transmits your brain’s electrical activity to a fan in the console that blows the ball into the air. By thinking different thoughts, you control the fan, and thus the altitude of the ball.

The fact that this works delights but doesn’t surprise me. The discoveries of physicist Werner Heisenberg, not to mention my recurring dream, long ago convinced me that the mind influences physical matter. If Heisenberg’s work is unfamiliar, let me translate the theory into Californian: “Consciousness can shape reality.”

This oversimplification makes my brain wince…which moves the Mindflex ball, confirming for me that the New Age ideal of mental magic—the notion that thoughts can create reality—is kinda, sorta supported by evidence. My goal is to teach you how to use one aspect of that magic, something indubitably cheesy but surprisingly effective. I’m talking about a vision board.

All the Pretty Pictures

Next to the Mindflex on 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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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….

Step 3: Be Still and Still Moving.

Making a vision board is not a substitute for elbow grease. Magical co-creator 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.



I’ll keep blogging away about the methods the Team needs to save the world, but I also want to pepper this blog with my favorite profiles of, and stories about, some of our Teammates. For thousands of years, humans spent their evenings sitting around a fire, sharing experiences, ideas, and dreams (that’s why TV is such a hypnotically compelling attention-getter; because it’s a flickering light that tells stories). and So I want to tell a few campfire stories by the light of your computer.

I know dozens of Teammates now, from all over the world—some rich and famous, some obscure but amazing, all currently experiencing a sense of quickening.But the first person I want to mention is the one who convinced me the Team was real:My handy-dandy portable blond Zen master and Number One Son, Adam Beck.

I wrote a whole memoir about my experiences gestating and giving birth to Adam; he was prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome when I was a PhD candidate at Harvard, and the entire event was life-changing for me.I had so many mystical experiences that it blew my rationalist world-view to smithereens.But there are things I didn’t put in that book, because I didn’t understand them.Now, as Team Time approaches, pieces are falling into place in the particularly spine-tingling way that things tend to happen around Adam.

Before Adam’s birth, I began believing in miracles, and this led me to hope I could magically “fix” him so that he’d be born “normal” (of course, he’s a totally normal person with Down syndrome, but I couldn’t wrap my head around that for a while).When the miracle I wanted didn’t happen, I wondered what Adam’s reason for being actually was.I never believed that he was “here to teach others,” as many people told me.I sensed he had his own life mission, but what could that be?I used to ask him, as I put him through the newborn “early intervention” exercises we did for hours every day.No answers came during the day.

But at night, when I was dreaming, Adam answered.


Read more

Big Dreams: Setting & Achieving Wildly Improbably Goals

Woman ClimbingI was 13, doing my homework in front of my family’s broken-down television, when I felt strangely compelled to look up at the screen. It showed an athlete running around an indoor track. I heard myself say out loud, “That’s where I’m going to college.” A split second later the TV narrator’s voice came on: “Here at Harvard University’s athletic center…” My heart stopped. Not in my most fevered dreams had I ever considered applying to an Ivy League school. Such behavior would be unusual, if not downright bizarre, for a girl from my deeply conservative Utah town. Besides, going to Harvard required several thousand times more brains, talent, and money than I would ever have. On the other hand, I felt the truth of my own strange words in the marrow of my bones. Okay, I thought nervously, maybe going to Harvard isn’t utterly unthinkable. Maybe it’s just barely, barely possible. Right there, in front of the TV, I surrendered to the first of what I would one day call my Wildly Improbable Goals (WIGs, for short). 

Decades later I have a couple of Harvard diplomas stuck in a closet, and a happy expectation that sometime soon another WIG is going to pop, unbidden, into my consciousness. I’ve watched this happen repeatedly, not only to me but to loved ones and clients. I suspect it may have happened to you, too. Perhaps it was just a flicker of thought that transported you for a moment, before you dismissed it as nonsense. Maybe it’s a dream that simply will not let go of you, no matter how often you tell yourself not to hope for anything so big, so unlikely. Or it may be an ambition you’ve already embraced, even though everyone else thinks you need serious medication. In any case, learning to invite and accept your own WIG can awaken you to a kind of ubiquitous, benevolent magic, a river of enchantment that perpetually flows toward your destiny.

Time travel 
I might as well admit what I believe about these minor prophecies I call WIGs. I suspect they’re not so much mental constructs as literal glimpses of the future. I stand behind Albert Einstein’s comment that “people like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Physics tells us that time can be stretched or compressed like Silly Putty, and I am just woo-woo enough to believe that we humans might sometimes sense truths that are ordinarily veiled by our assumptions or self-imposed rules.

Prescience—knowing about events that haven’t yet occurred—is not altogether foreign to behavioral science. In one study, experimenters showed test subjects a series of images, including both pleasant pictures and violent or otherwise emotional ones. The researchers were not surprised to find that the subjects’ blood pressure and heart rate increased in response to the upsetting images. They had not anticipated, however, that this reaction would occur seconds before the subjects saw the violent pictures—a result that has been replicated in other studies but never satisfactorily explained.

What occurs infinitesimally in laboratory experiments takes on huge dimensions in the lives of some extraordinary people. Joan of Arc had goals so wildly improbable that she was burned as a witch for achieving them. A young Winston Churchill once said to a friend, “I tell you I shall be in command of the defenses of London… In the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.” Do such people accomplish great things because they dreamed near impossible dreams, or were their dreams previews of what they were destined to achieve? I’m open to either explanation. To me, one seems as mysterious as the other. Whether our WIGs are the cause or effect of our actions, they have a peculiar power to lift us beyond what we thought to be our limitations.

Wild Kingdom 
At this point, I hope you’re wondering how you can set your own Wildly Improbable Goals. The problem is, you can’t. WIGs are to normal thoughts what Siberian tigers are to house cats, and your “right mind” doesn’t have the hunting skills to find them. Fortunately, your WIGs can find you. The knowledge of your destiny may stalk you for years, undetected except for occasional moments of longing or hope that glint like eyeshine in your darkest hours. Then when you least expect it, a WIG will leap out of nowhere and overwhelm you in one breathtaking burst. I’ve had the privilege of watching many clients recognize WIGs. It’s thrilling to see people who thought they were directionless realize they’re about to run for office or buy a house or publish a novel or have a baby. If these moments were broadcast on cable—the Wildly Improbable Discovery Channel—I’d watch it all day long.

Speaking of having babies, that process is somewhat similar to the procedure for inviting WIGs into your life. You can’t force a WIG to happen, but you can create conditions that will either prevent it or invite it. One precondition is absolutely necessary: You must befriend, protect, and nurture your own spirit. This means paying attention to your real needs, treating yourself not just fairly but kindly, and standing up for yourself even if that displeases people around you. Just as a run-down body may be unable to conceive a healthy new life, a run-down soul can’t support the healthy development of the life you were meant to have. 

Helping it Happen 
Once you’ve met the basic condition of self-care, there are several strategies you might use to lure your WIGs out of hiding. One is to take a pencil in your dominant hand (right for right- handers, left for lefties) and write down a few pointed questions, such as “What are you feeling?” “What do you need?” and “What do you want?” As soon as you’ve finished writing a question, switch the pencil to your other hand and write whatever words bubble up. You may be surprised. When your problem-solving mind is fully engaged, trying to master the task of writing with the “wrong” hand, hidden aspects of the self often surface. I’ve seen people encounter full-fledged WIGs in the shaky words written by their own nondominant hand. 

If you think more visually than verbally, you may want to try another exercise: time travel. Take a few quiet minutes, relax in a comfortable place, close your eyes, and imagine that the date has changed. It’s the same day of the same month, but the year is 2005, 2012, or 2020. Figure out how old you are in the year you’ve chosen. How old is your best friend? Your children? Your spouse? Let yourself inhabit this time. Now with your eyes still closed, simply describe your circumstances. Where are you? What are you wearing? What is the weather like? Now describe your life. What is most important to you on this date? What projects occupy you? Who hangs out with you? Try to simply observe rather than make things up. If no images appear, don’t worry. Your WIGs are still hiding, but you’ve called them and they are listening. They may show up after you’ve finished the exercise, when you’re brushing your teeth or making your bed. 

A third WIG-baiting exercise also involves time travel, but for this one you don’t project yourself into the future. Instead your future self comes back to visit you. Imagine meeting a wise, happy person who just happens to be your best self ten years from now. Ask this person for advice. If you’re facing a problem, ask your mentor how she got through it ten years back. Ask her what mistakes you’re making and how you might correct them. As with the previous exercise, you may initially get no answer. Nevertheless, your true self, that wise being who exists outside of time, has registered the questions. The answers will come.

When it Hits 
Being struck by a WIG is nothing like setting an ordinary goal. First of all, you’ll notice that it is not something you thought up; it seems to come from somewhere beyond thought. Second, you’ll feel an almost physical jolt of yearning, as though your heart is straining toward its destiny. Third, you’ll have the vertiginous sensation of your mind boggling. If you haven’t experienced this before, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed, the way I felt at 13, watching that runner circle the Harvard track. You won’t even be able to imagine the mess of work and luck necessary to make it happen. The very idea will seem impossible…almost. That “almost” will tickle the edges of your consciousness, tempting you to believe that somehow, someway, your dream may fall just inside the realm of probability. How can you be sure? You can’t. Fortunately, your first step is simple: Write down your WIG. In detail. Immediately, before you regain your sanity and lose your nerve. 

Experts say that simply writing down goals greatly increases your chance of actually achieving them. Perhaps it’s because the act of writing primes your brain to scan the environment, looking for opportunities that will take you toward your objectives. Many choices you make en route to realizing your WIG will be so inconspicuous that you won’t even notice them, but over time they’ll add up to huge changes in direction.

Once you’ve written your WIG, the real work begins. I’ve had many clients who, impressed by the strange electricity of their WIGs, assume that this intense feeling alone will magically create the desired reward. Yeah, right. I think the reason WIGs have so much mojo is that we need a huge reservoir of desire to keep us slogging through the hard work needed to realize them. Almost invariably, the effort necessary to achieve a WIG is not less than we expect but more. That said, the process of working toward a WIG does seem to land us in extraordinary territory. Creativity coach Julia Cameron comments that her clients reap the fruit of their labors only if they are willing to go out and “shake the trees,” but weirdly, the fruit that falls almost never comes from the tree the person is shaking.

This has been my experience as well. By the time I was 15, I’d developed a shortlist of WIGs that included three rather childish goals: I wanted to learn to ski, own a ten-speed bicycle, and visit Europe. Once programmed, my brain began noticing job opportunities and sporting-goods sales, and I slowly earned enough money to buy a bike and some used ski equipment. I was also working on selling enough French-club perfume to win a trip to Europe. I’d sold three whole ounces and had only a couple of gallons to go, when a Yugoslavian friend sent my family two round-trip tickets to Europe that he was too busy to use. Days later I was standing on European soil, dizzy with jet lag and euphoria.

That pattern—the recognition of a WIG, followed by enormous amounts of work, followed by a miracle—has happened to me so many times that it’s almost stopped surprising me. I see it strike my clients as well, when they prepare a safe space for their true selves, ask a few questions, and accept the answers. You already know your own WIGs, though you may not yet realize it. The part of you that is unhampered by illusion—the illusion of time, the illusion of powerlessness, the illusion of impossibility—is waiting for you to slow down and open up so that it can speak to your consciousness. In some unguarded moment, you will hear its wildly improbable words and know that they are guiding you home. 

Wildly Improbable Goals – WIGs – are a foundational concept for my life coach training program. First introduced in my book “Finding Your Own North Star”, all of my coaches are trained to help you set – and achieve – your own WIGs.