Exercise – Your personal hell and heaven

(Takes about 20 minutes)

Stories can have a strong impact on us. Most of the time we are recipients of stories: through movies, books, and even daily conversations. Stories allow us to communicate complex issues quickly and create a shared understanding.

In this exercise we’re going to try to use this “tool” to structure our own view of ourselves and clarify our motivations. The story I want to use from this is the story of heaven and hell. Almost all religions have a clear idea of an ideal place that you get to by living an ideal life of some sort, and counter this with some kind of “place of suffering”. Humankind’s various metaphysical “ideal places” (heaven, nirvana, Valhalla etc) are each very different, but the overall dualistic structure is the same. The concept of heaven and hell can also be found in secular philosophy and ideology, in the idea of the ideal society or an ideal way to live. Hell may be the world in which we live today (for the pessimists) or where we may go if we make bad decisions. These are useful “stories”, because the ideals serve as a guide and also as a motivation to right action.

We’re going to try to create our very personal heaven-and-hell mythology.

The exercise

Spend 3 minutes making a list of weaknesses. Try to be as complete as possible. To get you started, here are some guiding questions, but you should add your own issues and be as specific as possible:

  • Are you sometimes resistant to change or new experiences?
  • Do you sometimes take unnecessary risks?
  • Do you spend too much time worrying about the future instead of living in the moment?
  • Are you often lazy or unproductive?
  • Are you often too withdrawn?
  • Do you sometimes fail to listen properly to people?
  • Do you sometimes avoid conflict?
  • Are you sometimes too selfish?
  • Are you too easily upset?
  • Are you insensitive?

Having created your list, now imagine that you indulged in your weaknesses to an extreme. What would be the worst possible consequences? Where would you end up in the long run?

Now, spend 3 minutes making a list of strengths, again here are some questions as prompts, but try to elaborate and be specific:

  • Are you curious?
  • Are you thoughtful?
  • Do you follow through on plans?
  • Do you live in the moment?
  • Are you sociable?
  • Are you creative?
  • Are you considerate?
  • Do you stand up for yourself?
  • Are you sensitive?
  • Are you resilient?

As before, try imagine the extreme: If you conquered your weaknesses and used your strengths to the full, what kind of person would you be? What could you achieve? If everything went your way and you were successful in all your plans, where would you be in 5-10 years? What kind of person would the “super-you” be, and what could they achieve?

Postmortem

This can be quite a personal exercise as it taps into some of our deepest fears and our greatest hopes in order to establish clarity on what direction we should take in our lives, and why we should take it. If it was emotional, you might want to take a break and come back to it later.

If you find that your writing revolved around a particular theme (work, relationships, …) you may want to try to broaden it to other areas of your life. Also, think about what other narrative “frames” might it be interesting to apply to your life beyond the “heaven and hell” concept? A hero quest, or a death-and-rebirth story maybe?

Beyond words

This exercise tries to introduce a strong motivational element to it. That is to say, we imagine just how bad and just how good things could be to motivate ourselves in the right direction. You can use this principle in small day-to-day issues. For example, what if, faced with a personal bad habit, you took a moment to visualize just how bad things could get if indulged it to an extreme. Or, faced with a difficult project, you spent time visualizing what success would look like.

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