Consider this; a weary product manager is sitting at her desk, daydreaming. Frustrated. She really wanted to be a musician. Back in the day, she’d written some songs and have been praised by family and friends for her musical talent. They’d even went as far as telling her that she’s wasting away, sitting in an office all day. As the days pass, and with an ever intensifying, outrageous fantasy that isn’t acted upon, she’s developing feelings of resentment. Towards herself, her job, and the very people who praised her talent. She’s stagnant. This isn’t the life she wanted to lead.
Fantasies are long-tail ideas. Both fantasies and ideas are thought mechanics that serve the purpose of leading an individual from an undesirable present to an ideal future. But there’s a difference. Fantasies are overarching and grandiose, and ideas are, for the most part, earthly and actionable. In that sense, a fantasy might be compared to the grand vision from which actionable ideas are derived.
Let’s go back to our product manager. One day she decides that she’s had it with just sitting and dreaming all day. She has an idea. She’ll record the one song she’s written a long time ago professionally. Using the money she saved up from her boring job, she’d produce a music video and promote it on social media. And so, she musters every bit of industriousness she can, and does that.
And, what do you know? She succeeds. The song does relatively well on social media, and, for a little bit, she’s enjoying the attention she’s receiving. Her friends are soon asking, “so what’s next?” She’s never thought about that. She’s back to daydreaming in front of a screen glaring with flowcharts. A couple of months pass. She feels stagnant again. It feels like she should be further advancing her musical career. But something’s changed. She just doesn’t want to. Why? Because, when she really thinks about it, recording was a drag, she doesn’t really feel like writing any new songs, performing on stage is for narcissists and a career in music is for babies who don’t want to grow up.
What happened? While the last two statements might seem extreme, they’re really a mechanism to help our dearest product manager cope with the fact that she’s debunked her own fantasy. She’s not willing to pay the price for living the life of a musician, and it doesn’t interest her as much as she thought it did. But that’s actually good. Freed of a fantasy that constricted her means to find meaning, she’ll be able to find and adjust meaning every day, providing she’d learned her lesson.
A fantasy is a prison of meaning. It’s huge and unapproachable, all-encompassing and finite. The idea that meaning is something to be sought after is good. Life is suffering (let’s go into that some other time), and the constant construction of meaning is essential for effective survival. The notion that meaning’s nature is finite, however, is faulty.
The seed of true meaning resides in creative exploration. Exploration resides in the unknown. Explored unknowns are no longer unknowns thereby not exploration worthy, they no longer hold meaning, from an exploration perspective. Making it so the essence of meaning is dynamic. The unknown or unexplored is also scary. Fantasy is, in a sense, a cognitive exploration of the unknown, with none of the risk. It requires much less bravery. And so, for a dynamic meaning to retain its presence, some bravery is required, constantly.
When the product manager pursued her musical venture, she was excited and hopeful. She was brave. It was meaningful to her, at the time. And that’s what she wanted to feel, really. That things are happening. That she’s going somewhere. Once she’d realized that, freed of her initial constricting fantasy, and armed with the realization that the pursuance of ideas is a satisfying end in itself, she had decided to start paying more attention to her ideas instead.
Back at her job, an idea arises. The product she manages is good, but it’s cluttered with robust features, and a restructuring of its UI could help communicate its core offering more effectively. This will not only drive user engagement but will make it easier to present and sell to prospective customers. She’s excited again. She’s putting together a presentation, conjures up some bravery and presents it to her boss. He likes it and puts her in charge of implementing her proposed changes. What do you know, she thinks, maybe her job isn’t so bad after all!
The funny thing is, she’s had these ideas before. But she never paid them much attention. Her fantasy of a successful musical career and resentment towards her current position clouded her vision and restrained her from doing anything about them. Armed with the awareness of the meaning derived from exploring immediate ideas, she’s vowed to start looking at the opportunities in front of her, and is ready to take on a future vast and unknown, constantly meaningful.
Ideas are everything. An idea holds the promise of a new future. An idea can also fail. Failure in execution, or an unsatisfactory outcome, although unpleasant, is equally beneficial. The unsuccessful endeavor or failed venture will teach our product manager dearest what she’s not interested in, and what she has to change, in order to successfully pursue her next idea.
There’s nothing wrong with a pleasant fantasy before bed. A glimpse into another lifetime. Being somebody else, for a few minutes. Exploring a relentless fantasy in real life as a reaffirmation effort may prove beneficial as well. But if you’re putting all your eggs in one predominant fantasy basket, I’d make the case against fantasy.