Are you feeling restrained by the past and fearful of the future? Do you doubt your resilience?

If so, don't despair.

Here's a "what if" writing exercise based on futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal's "XYZ format" that will help you change the world, or at least your little corner of it. It involves "counterfactual thinking."

When you think counterfactually, as McGonigal explains in her July 2 Aspen Ideas Festival lecture, you unlock your brain to "predict" a past that never was and to "remember" a future that hasn't happened.

The idea is to re-imagine your past by asking "what if" questions. According to McGonigal, doing this exercise activates your imagination, intuition and logic. It also increases your sense of control, which makes you feel more confident about shaping the future and understanding your place in it. It may even make you less afraid of it.

Other benefits to this "incredibly practical skill" include a decrease in depression, a sense of liberation from the past, a "burst of creativity" and a heightened belief in the possibility of transformational change.

Sound too good to be true? Let's give it a try with a writing exercise, based on McGonigal's "triangle of what if."

Taking X as an activity or event in your life, Y as a person and Z as a place, re-imagine your past counterfactually. For example, you might think of a conflict at home or at work. Maybe a team member spoke against your proposal on a conference call last week in a way that felt like a personal attack.

In describing the event, the person and the place, include as much vivid detail as you can recall, asking what-if questions to alter the situation to your liking. Feel free to make up details as long as it's personal. Invoking your "autobiographical memory" is important, McGonigal emphasizes, because it unleashes your unique talents and insights as you envision your desired outcome.

Now comes the most intriguing aspect of McGonigal's concept of counterfactual thinking for me. Over the years, I've written a number of columns on Rogerian persuasion, a non-oppositional, win-win approach to argumentation I teach in my communication course for the University of Minnesota's Technological Leadership Institute. The underlying principle of Rogerian persuasion is empathy, which involves understanding and affirming your opponent's point of view before countering or rebutting it.

McGonigal takes the concept of empathy one step further by differentiating between "easy empathy," based on common experience, and "hard empathy," based on understanding experiences and thoughts that differ from your own. Hard empathy "isn't necessarily something we feel," McGonigal explains, "but something we actually construct."

So for part two of your writing exercise, re-imagine your XYZ scenario from your opponent's point of view. What insights does this shift give you about the possibilities for the future?

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is