The year was 1979 when Harvard researcher Ellen Langer led a ground breaking psychological experiment that has impacts on our personal and professional lives today. She took a group of men in their late 70s and early 80s to a monastery in a small town about 75 miles from Boston for week long retreat – and transported them back in time.
Suddenly, it was 1959.
The interior of the monastery was a snapshot of the late 50s era, with complete décor, magazines, television shows, radio programs and countless other details that reflected 1959, not 1979. The elderly men were given I.D.s with images of themselves from 20 years earlier, and Langer gave clear instructions: Don't reminisce, but live as if it were 1959. And they did. For a week they discussed the need for bomb shelters, analyzed Castro's advance on Havana and cheered as the Colts beat the Giants in the 1959 NFL championship game. These men, the subjects of her experiment, were about to prove a point that has powerful implications for all entrepreneurs.
Seven days later, Langer and her team were shocked to find the men's physical health had dramatically improved. Their eyesight was better. They had less arthritis, made improvements in height, weight, posture and memory – and to impartial observers of "before" and "after" photos, they looked years younger.
Society had defined these gentlemen as old, frail, sickly and dependent - but when they opened their minds and visualized themselves as younger and healthier, that visualization became a physical reality. Entrepreneurs and professionals across all industries need to do the same: Have a vision and believe in it so passionately that it materializes. So many forces can creep up, attempting to redefine your visions – potential investors, skeptical friends, restless employees, doubtful media, to name a few. And perhaps the most vociferous is the voice of doubt that whispers in your ear at the most unexpected hour.
"So if you want to find true ingenuity and genius, you have to block these voices and concentrate on the voice coming from within," Steve Jobs said to thousands of Stanford grads at their 2005 commencement. Jobs lived that sentiment, envisioning what Apple was going to be at a time when it was nothing, and watching that vision solidify into a company that redefined the tech world.
Visualization is a concept the Russians have utilized in churning out more than a dozen of the world's top-ranked tennis players from a run-down training academy in Moscow known as the Spartak Tennis Club. At this aging facility with just one indoor court, the young students do imitatsiya – repetitions of a drill where they focus on swing techniques. No balls. Just movements. Picturing perfect form and slicing into an imaginary little green sphere over and over and over again. They don't even compete for their first three years of their Spartak education.
And yet, this mental training method has molded athletes such as the No. 2 women's singles player in the world, Maria Sherapova, and retired star Anna Kournikova. To put the success of this learning-through-visualization technique in perspective, the Spartak Tennis Club alone produced more women's top-20 players between 2004 and 2007 than the entire United States, according to The New York Times.
I see the importance of visualizing greatness around me, and it pays off. We have several Sherapovas and Kournikovas who are running companies that our investment firm, Lightbank, is involved with – two of them, though lacking any skills on the tennis court, are Justyn Howard and Aaron Rankin.
While most people were consumed in 2009 with their new ability to tweet about Kim Kardashian's latest shoes, Justyn and Aaron saw a business opportunity with the birth of Twitter and other social media outlets. They predicted people would comment across Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and other sites instead of picking up a phone and waiting on hold for customer service – leaving companies ill-equipped to respond to real-time customer feedback outside traditional phone and email channels. They envisioned a world where companies would need workflow, engagement and social CRM tools to handle the increasing volumes of virtual customer comments.
While there was no evidence then that businesses would embrace social media, Howard and Rankin built an entire platform based on their vision and instincts. They launched Sprout Social in 2010, offering a system to integrate social media commentary with a company's broader customer service operations right before all their predictions came true.
But Justyn and Aaron did not stop visualizing greatness: They foresaw businesses needing a more collaborative environment as the space started to rapidly evolve, and the Sprout team began rebuilding their entire platform within just one month of releasing the first version. While doing so was a big risk at such an early stage, it was part of the team's greater vision - and turned out to be a critical move in the company's growth. Sprout Social recently topped 10,000 clients, adding companies like Yammer, Yahoo!, Nokia, McDonald's and Hyatt to their client list.
"We feel really good about the bar we set for ourselves as far as how we solve the problems and just doing what we thought was best for the customer, even if they didn't think it was best for them at the time," said Justyn, Sprout Social's CEO.
Immersing yourself in a more positive perception has psychological and physiological benefits that we are only just starting to understand. Most great entrepreneurial success stories like that of Sprout Social begin with significant struggle and round-the-clock hard work of a small team visualizing greatness. Justyn and Aaron are living in the same spirit as the 70- and 80-year-old men who magically found youth decades ago in a New England monastery – reminding us all to visualize greatness in our own lives, too. It sets the tone for your entire organization, and that wave sets off positive ripples that wash over your customers, prospects and partners. Whether the objective is finding the fountain of youth, breeding championship tennis players or building the next great disruptive technology, the art of visualization is at the foundation of success.