While camping, I finished Randall Munroe’s book What if: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions? If you haven’t read it, you should. I’ve been and xkcd fan for years, and I love science-y, geeky things, plus humor so the book was great. I actually learned some things, too, like what’s really happening when objects enter the atmosphere.
When I was in an MFA program, eons and eons ago, I had another book called What if? It was a collection of prompts, meant to help writers get ideas for writing. It included things like “What if a woman left her family to pursue a music career?”
What if is also something people use to frame things in ways that are outside the box, to get people thinking about possibilities. So, you might be at a strategic planning meeting and be prompted by “What if we weren’t limited by finances?” or “What if we didn’t have disciplinary divisions?”
In all three of these scenarios, “What if?” is expansive, optimistic, a way to explore things in intellectually curious ways, a way to expand one’s horizons. And I’ve always thought of “What if” in this way. “What if I tried x? What’s the worst that could happen?” “What if I follow this path? Let’s see what happens?” But there’s a flip side to “What if” that I hear sometimes. You’ll come up with an idea and someone will say something like “What if this happens?” and they mean “What if this fails?” It’s the Worst-Case-Scenario What-ifs. And it’s good to have these checks on unbridled optimism, but sometimes they can simply be used to resist change. Underneath the What if might be fear, anger, or a personal issue. So you have to address them, but you can’t let them drag you down.
I have done this to myself sometimes, gone down the negative What if path, but I’m determined over the next year to avoid that and think about the good What ifs. What if I ignore the negative talk in my head? What might happen? Maybe we’ll get to see.