What if vs. what now?

What if?” is literally the world’s most powerful creative question. Here’s why — and how it compares to the dreaded alternative, “What now??”

f questions are the fuel of the creative process, then asking “What if?” is like a shot of nitrous oxide (NoS) to the high-performance engine of your brain.

It removes the shackles from your thinking and enables you to consider new possibilities and opportunities.

Asking “What if?” is like a form of mental alchemy — it helps to create new possibilities where none existed before.

It opens up new vistas for us to explore.

It imagines worlds that don’t yet exist.

It gives us a rich canvas on which to imagine possible future scenarios.

It works because the brain is a goal-seeking mechanism. It works by association. Give it a new challenge and it immediately gets to work trying to solve it.

That makes it especially valuable for whacking your brain out of its habitual paths of thinking so it can view the challenge you’ve placed before it from new perspectives.

“What if?” is the basis of most strategic planning exercises:

  1. Imagine a future scenario in which something has changed — for better or worse.
  2. Brainstorm or discuss how you or your organization could begin preparing now in case the conditions you imagine come to pass.

Why “What if?” matters now

Asking “What if?” questions is more important than ever today. Why? Because we’re facing an unprecedented amount of uncertainty in almost every area of our lives. Most people view change and uncertainty as negatives. When acted upon with a creative mindset, however, they can also be a source of incredible opportunities.

Personal “What if?” questions you could ask include:

  • What if I learned a new skill? What would it enable me to do?
  • What if my profession was suddenly rendered irrelevant by a new development in technology (such as AI)?
  • What if I became a superhero? What would my superpower be and how would I use it to help others?
  • What if I looked at this challenge like Steve Jobs (or another famous, brilliant person) would? How would he solve it?

As a creative thinking tool, “What if?” has few peers. But here’s a side benefit of asking yourself this all-important question:

If you’ve been exploring the future using it, you’ll be better prepared if the scenario you richly imagined ever comes to pass. Why? Because you’ll be able to recognize the early warning signs of it!

What now?

Where “What if?” is proactive, empowering and is a perfect kick-start to your imagination, ”What now?” is reactive. It’s the question you’re forced to ask when something unexpected happens:

  • “I just get laid off from my job. What now?”
  • “We just entered into another COVID lockdown. What now?”

When you are in a reactive mode, your possible solutions tend to be limited. You’re in a challenging situation. Often, you need to make a decision or act fairly quickly.

No one wants to feel that powerless!

By rehearsing the future now using “What if?” questions, you can hopefully avoid or significantly diminish the number of “What now?” questions you’re forced to ask later.

Why not use this powerful creative question to expand your thinking and prepare you for future opportunities?

This article is excerpted from the CATALYST newsletter. It provides shortcuts to better thinking and bigger results for entrepreneurs and creators in a concise biweekly digest.

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Chuck Frey

Chuck Frey

Thought leader in mind mapping, visual thinking and creativity for 15+ years. Relentless explorer, learner and dot-collector. I help you elevate your thinking.