© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
How many times have you heard people say something like, "I'd really like to travel more", "I've always dreamed of being a writer, actor, …", or "I'd like to learn to play an instrument, learn a language, paint, …, but I really don't have the time". Maybe you've heard yourself say it, or at least you've thought it.
In this essay, I'll explore what I perceive to be the four stages of turning a dream into reality and why many people don't have what it takes to go beyond the first one or two stages.
Interestingly, this essay is an instance of what it preaches. I've been thinking about this topic for a long while, and I've been talking about it and promoting it for a couple of years. Now, I've decided to follow my own advice and to write it down.
For the past two years, I've been mentoring high school seniors at a non-traditional school. Their ages have ranged from 18 to 22. One recurring event in which I participate is a Careers Day at which I talk about being self-employed. [A future essay will address that topic.] One of the things I ask students to take away from my presentation is the subject of this essay. By following my own suggestions, not only am I producing something that future students can access readily, and read and digest beyond our meeting, I also get to test and refine the process along the way.
Stage 1: Dreaming the Dream
While talk certainly is cheap, daydreaming is free! Daydreaming really has no boundaries except those of your imagination. And if you are lacking in imagination, you are likely to be lacking in stimulation. Of course, there is no way to know what others daydream about, but I suspect that even the most outwardly conservative people can and do have vivid imaginations. The safest thing about daydreaming is that you can't embarrass yourself.
One thing that keeps us dreaming about a particular topic is what I call the Romantic Factor. We see or hear of something that interests us and we fall in love with the idea of doing it ourselves. Note carefully that I said, "… fall in love with the idea", which is not the same as actually doing something. For example, more than a few teachers of writing have said that most people who claim to want to be published are more in love with the idea of being published than they are with actually being published.
Let me provide a tangible example of a high Romantic Factor, speaking a foreign language. Perhaps you've seen some movies, read books, or spoken to people about travel abroad to a country whose language you don't speak. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to go there and bargain in the local markets, order food and drink at an off-the-beaten-track restaurant, shop in a supermarket, and walk the backstreets and chat to the locals about everyday life? [My view is that it definitely is wonderful even though my foreign language skills are basic.]
Here's another case, which involves the perceived glamor of being self-employed. Wouldn't it be great to be your own boss? You could work whatever hours you liked, take long vacations, lease a luxury car for business purposes, travel on business in style, and rub shoulders with the movers and shakers.
Dreaming is fine, but only up to a point. I'm sure than more than a few of us have dreamed about winning the lottery. However, that turns out not to be a good thing on which to base one's financial planning. [I once had a tenant who got so far behind in his rent that I evicted him. He left almost all of his belongings behind (including $125 in loose change scattered around the apartment). As I was cleaning out his kitchen drawers, I found dozens and dozens of lottery tickets, which he'd apparently bought in the hopes of solving his financial problems. Not only did he not win the lottery, he'd spent a lot of money trying.]
Sooner or later, for all but your admitted fantasies [for suggestions, see Austin Powers' list of "10 things to do before I die"] you should try to figure out if the dream can be made real, and if so, how. And if it really isn't going to happen, you can put more effort into other endeavors. If you don't get beyond the dreaming stage, you won't make any progress at all towards your supposed goal. That is not to say that dreaming about seemingly unreachable goals is wasted time. A little fantasy can help relieve the drudgery of everyday life, and it can challenge you to strive for higher goals.
In my own case, for years I had two significant things on my dream list: learning to play a musical instrument, and improving one or more of my foreign languages or learning a new language. After years of dreaming about playing a number of instruments, composing, writing lyrics, and producing, several years ago I admitted to myself that it was never going to happen. As I saw it, the main obstacle was simple: I wanted to be better than just okay at any musical pursuit, but I didn't have the discipline or want to give up the time it would take to practice to get to the level I wanted. It seemed to me that with music I'd have to put in a lot of effort before I could reap much reward whereas with a foreign language, every hour I spent on it could be useful immediately. [I expect to get comments on this especially from musicians who might respond that one can play quite a bit on a guitar, for example, after learning just a few chords. If they argue well enough, maybe I'll be convinced to put some form of music-related activity back on my dream list!]
In summary then, daydreaming is free, it's easy, it's temporary, and it carries little or no risk. It also requires absolutely no commitment, and therein is its limitation.
Stage 2: Talking the Talk
When talking, you generally get to choose your audience, the two main types of which involve friends and strangers. In the first case, there is little risk. In many instances, you are "preaching to the choir"; you and your audience mostly agree on the issue at hand, and your words need not be polished or even thought through. Many of your lines are throwaway. On the other hand, with strangers there can be a lot of risk. First impressions can often be lasting impressions, and unpolished words or half-baked opinions can and will count against you especially if you have to get along with the same people in the future.
Regarding commitment to what you say, consider the case in which your words are being recorded and could be played back by anyone at any time in the future (such as when you are running for public office). In such circumstances, you very likely will take much more care with what you say and how you say it.
If you have an idea about which you want constructive feedback, then choose your audience accordingly. For example, ask questions of others who are in the business of interest or might otherwise be qualified to comment. Speaking only with those who agree with you is unlikely to allow you to develop your idea fully. Also, start out with just one other person, and as your idea gathers support and you gain confidence, increase your audience. Be sure to acknowledge others' contributions and note that conceding points can enhance your credibility. The more flexible you are the easier and quicker you'll be able to move your idea along. Be ready to modify your idea as you get constructive feedback, and don't insist that your exact original idea be retained at all costs.
In summary, talking takes at least a little bit of effort, it can be easy or hard, it's as permanent as the listeners' memory, and it can carry little-to-lots of risk. It requires at least some short-term commitment, but you can do it with a different audience each time. And talking about a topic can help you determine whether you are serious about it.
Oh, by the way, when talking never miss a good opportunity to shut up! [Author makes note to follow this advice!]
Stage 3: Writing it Down
Of those ideas that make it through Stage 2, the vast majority doesn't make it through Stage 3. This stage pretty much weeds out the pretenders because it requires much more discipline than most people have. (Yes, dear reader, you may well fall in that category.)
It is most important to understand that what you write down in this stage is intended initially for an audience of one, you! The idea here is first to write down enough information to allow you to decide whether the idea really is viable and makes sense, and if so, then to write down sufficient detail on how to implement it. (These two activities might be iterative.) If you can't specify in writing what it is you intend to do and how you intend to do it, how can you reasonably expect to be able to implement completely and efficiently anything other than the simplest task?
While Stages 1 and 2 involve transient actions, Stage 3 is all about permanence, and this is your chance to eliminate the Romantic Factor I mentioned earlier. When we dream or talk about an idea we often dwell primarily—if not only—on the positive aspects. People are very good at putting from their minds the downsides of things. The challenge in this stage is to write down all your thoughts, both positive and negative. That way, when you next start to think about the topic in question, you have the cumulative knowledge you've written as a starting point. There is absolutely no point in omitting anything from the written log that might be relevant. If you find yourself doing that, you are being dishonest with yourself and you very likely will be headed for unpleasant surprises if not failure.
Let's revisit the perceived glamor of being self-employed mentioned in Stage 2. You could work whatever hours you liked and take long vacations: Ok, so who will cover for you when you are not on the job? Will you have a business partner? Will you have a key employee who you can trust to make decisions in your absence? If you have a key employee then you have employees, which implies a whole other set of issues with respect to payroll, benefits, and such. Who will sign the paychecks in your absence?
Ok, so you don't have a partner or any employees, then what happens if you get sick for an extended period? Who covers for you on projects that you are contractually committed to deliver by a certain date?
To write-off expenses such as a luxury car or traveling in style, first you have to make enough money to cover those expenses. And as far as rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers, how will you get introduced to that crowd and how will you sustain your membership?
It has been my experience that newly self-employed people who have not done their homework seriously underestimate the cost of doing business. (Such things include the need for and subsequent cost of business licenses and retirement/health taxes, insurance, and benefits). They simply are way too focused on the Romantic Factor and almost certainly haven't completed Stage 3.
Note that it is okay to share your written work with others, and indeed, there are advantages to doing so. Just chose your reviewers wisely and ask for, and be ready to receive, constructive criticism. For big decisions, you definitely should share your written plan with others, and in some cases, you'll have to if you want their support. Better to identify any flaws during a walkthrough than to find them during actual implementation. The good news is that the process of writing it down quite often exposes any weaknesses it contains.
In summary then, if dreaming is raw and talking is half-baked, writing down an idea gives it a chance to get it baked enough that it can actually be achieved. Because of the effort needed to complete this stage, those ideas that make it through have a high probability of success.
It is important to recognize that, together, Stages 2 and 3 might need to be repeated as you get more and/or better information.
Stage 4: Walking the Walk
Assuming that you now have a viable plan for success, there still can remain some serious obstacles. For example, implementation might require spending a non-trivial amount of money. Do you have it? If not, can you get it at a reasonable interest rate? Can you bring yourself to write out that large check? Implementation might require the support of a friend, parent, or partner. Now that you are "down to the wire" are they really on-board with the plan?
While a theoretical plan might look good, are all your assumptions realistic? Although you may be a great technical person for the task at hand, are you willing and able to handle the supporting administration needed to make it successful long term? That becomes especially relevant if you consider hiring employees.
Consider a phased approach if possible; that is, see if there is a way to "test the waters" before committing to the whole project. Note, however, that a danger of this is that you will under-commit to the test implementation such that it doesn't have what it needs to succeed. [In my own case, I went into business for myself, I bought a house, and my first child was born, all in the same couple of months. I certainly had some incentive to succeed.]
It is worth noting the following saying from US President Calvin "Silent Cal" Coolidge: "Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent; Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb; Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
It is possible that by the end of Stage 3, you have convinced yourself not to go down a certain path, and that's okay! It is far better to be going or not going in a particular direction by design rather than by accident. [In the words of "The Quiet Beatle" (George Harrison): "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."]
Now, go forth and turn one or more of your dreams into reality by "writing it down!"
[Thanks much to Shawn for his careful review.]