An entrepreneur who used to talk to a photo of Virgin’s CEO on her iPhone explains that, no, she wasn’t crazy; she was getting real business help.
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When I tell people that Richard Branson played a key role in developing my business, they bombard me with questions: How did you meet him? What is he like in real life? Did you visit his private Caribbean island? You can imagine how bamboozled these same people are when I tell them that, to this day, I have never spoken to the “real” Richard Branson.
In fact, the huge influence he had on my business, and on my life in general, derived from a screensaver photo of him on my cellphone, which I consulted in times of need.
Now, before you question whether I am a victim of the stress entrepreneurship took on my mental health — which, jokes aside, is a real, largely unaddressed problem for professionals today — let me assure you: There was a method to my madness.
Specifically, whenever I was confronted by a challenge that at face value I couldn’t tackle myself, I’d turn to a therepeutic method called visualization: I’d ask “Richard” for guidance. In doing so, I forced myself to think strategically about the root of my problem, and find ways to surpass the roadblock, using the resources available to me.
Here are four steps you too can use to harness the power of visualization in order to self-mentor:
1. Understand the value of visualization.
Back when I developed my “relationship” with Branson, I had a lot on my plate. I was recovering from a long bout of Lyme disease, had launched an events startup in New York and was trying to move back into the therapy profession.
I had many doubts, concerns and questions but felt that I didn’t have anyone to help me formulate my ideas and offer a guiding hand. Lacking the contacts to find a real mentor, I instead chose a person who was, and is, inspiring in all the right ways. Enter Richard Branson. Or at least a photo of him.
The self-mentoring I then embarked on uses a “hypnotherapy style” framework emphasizing inducing deep relaxation followed by visualization as outlined by Shakti Gawain in her book Creative Visualization. There is a concept in hypnotherapy that emphasizes using visualizations to find a “resource memory.” This is usually a memory from a time when you were able to feel the desired result — that is, confidence. By linking that old memory to a current experience, you can act the same way you did in the memory.
So, while to the rest of the world I was simply speaking to a photo of Richard Branson on my cellphone screen, I was really using him to remind me of past times when I was able to succeed. I would then recall the emotions around that time and act accordingly. I would try to act the way I would if I actually had received advice from Richard: grateful, inquisitive, excited.
In my visualization, Richard would say to me, “Remember when you did this?” or “Remember when you accomplished that?” His photograph was a tool to remind me of the previous problems I had overcome, and the previous situations when I had faced similar challenges and come out the other side.
The method is about tricking your mind into thinking that what you are in need of is already there. And for this, Branson’s face was a prompt to take action.
2. Choose the right mentor for you.
One of the benefits of self-mentoring is that you can choose literally anyone under the sun to help you, without even asking permission first.
However, it’s important to choose the right mentor for you at that stage in your journey. This means someone with the right experience and character traits to solve the real problems you’re struggling with at that moment. Back then, I was listening to a lot of amazing Gary Vaynerchuk podcasts, whose message is to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and push and hustle until you make it. While useful, however, these skills were not what I needed at the time.
What I did need was more practical day-to-day advice, such as where to look for a new office, how to organize my payroll, how to find more clients and how to make ends meet under financial pressure. As such, I looked for a mentor who embodied the characteristics I felt I most lacked: perseverance and the ability to make something out of nothing.
A great example of this blew up Buzzfeed back in 2016, when a young man in financial trouble revealed that he kept in his wallet a photo of Terry Crews — the actor who played notoriously frugal father figure Julius on Everyone Hates Chris — to help him make better spending decisions. Every time he went to pay for something, the photo would jolt him back to his mission, and make him think twice about the expenditure. He later found out that Crews had the same image printed on his wallet, too!
So, the photo move is adaptable to pretty much any problem you have. Want to be more confident as a female entrepreneur? Choose a strong female figure from the movies you idolized as a kid. Want to give up smoking? How about a photo of your mother, who hates cigarette smoke?
3. Use your mentor to formulate your ideas and think outside the box.
In my case, Richard wasn’t there to help me save cash or stop smoking — he was there to help me take a step back and think more tactically about the options I had available.
“Visualization helps people get clearer about aims and objectives,” Stephen Kraus, author of Psychological Foundations of Success. has been quoted as saying. “People with clear non-conflicting goals accomplish more and are healthier.”
Therapists ask open ended questions to encourage users to talk about their problems, to gain a little clarity on the root of their problems. In the same way, I found that being forced to condense my — many — problems into concise questions and well-thought-out answers forced me to break seemingly colossal problems into bite-sized pieces.
This allowed me to target small, actionable tasks one at a time and really look at the options I had available to me, through my network of contacts, family, friends, etc.
Questions like, “Richard, How can I find an affordable office space in Manhattan, when I have limited resources?” made me stop, take a breath and look into the deepest, darkest regions of my contacts lists. I’d think, Hey, I could call that guy from the meetup … I know Carrie has an extra office. I could ask to share a space …, etc.
If I got stumped, and Richard couldn’t come up with an answer, I’d realize I was dealing with something outside of my capabilities. Be it hiring an assistant or bringing on a professional accountant, recruiter or lawyer who could solve the problem at hand, I was forced to take the steps needed to rectify the situation.
The idea is, you’re more resourceful than you think — and if you try to answer open-ended questions as if they were being posed to you, you will be surprised at the answers you come up with.
4. Offer support and relief.
Having Richard available to me 24 hours a day offered great emotional support, too. When I felt fazed, exhausted or frustrated, I would ask myself, “Would Richard behave in this way?” More often than not, the smiling photo showed that the answer was “no,” making me recognize my behavior and take a step back before I spiraled out of control.
Richard also offered me a dose of comic relief. As a serious businesswoman, I probably looked — and felt– a bit silly chatting away to a photo on my iPhone; certainly, I drew some strange looks on the subway. But the act of taking out my phone, saying “hi” to Richard and speaking to him as if he were a real call served its purpose, giving me a reason to smile when times were tough. My monlogues with my phone were a great conversation starter, too.
Eventually, as my business — and my needs — grew, I decided to bring my professional relationship with Richard to an end and look for the support of real live mentors here in New York, who had the contacts and experience I needed to push my company to the next level.
That said, my experience with Richard Branson was so valuable that when my husband and I attended a live book signing and Q&A session, and I had the chance to address my mentor face to face, I kept quiet. I felt that I had asked “Richard” so many questions over the years that I already had all the answers I needed.
However, the one thing I do regret is not standing up and thanking him, in person, for his help. So, thanks, Richard; and FYI, I’m always available for an invite to Necker Island.