How will you approach, and reach your dreams?
We all dream, to a greater or lesser extent, of a different or better life.
The challenge is that these dreams can be as amorphous, ephemeral and variable as clouds. Lacking substance, but nice to look at on sunny day. Darkly ominous when you are feeling defeated.
So, how do you give your dreams shape, provide substance for your aspirations, and gain real momentum to your potential (in both the sunshine and the rain)?
In a recent article, I outlined a paradigm for living and working called Complete. The purpose of Complete is to help you to experience more, and to live on a higher and deeper level. For some of you, getting more out of life will involve only some minor housekeeping and tweaking. Rebalancing your week and month to focus more on what’s important to you: hobbies, family, health, and so on. Small changes can make a big difference. The methodology for rebalancing life was outlined in my first book The Good Life Book.
Others of you feel that bigger and perhaps transformational changes are required to your work and life.
Perhaps you want to completely change careers, start a business or a material side-hustle, or a kind of working hobby that takes up much of your free time. Perhaps you’re in, or responding to, some sort of crisis (even an existential/emotional one) and are not exactly sure what you want!
If this sounds like your situation, then the approach I’ll describe in this article is for you! This is a long article and necessarily covers off some pre-requisite topics before diving into the approach. If you like, you can skip straight down to the heading “DREAMS” and see the diagram and overview first, then come back and read the rest at another time.
A principle of Complete is treating your combined work and life, you, as a circle (as per the Complete diagram). Growing means expanding the circle and you do that by expressing yourself (literally pushing out into the world) authentically, and in various ways. For most of us, work is the primary way that we express ourselves and define who we are. So if work is “wrong” or not filling this role we can feel stifled, stuck, unauthentic and so on.
A less obvious aspect of this “expression as a circle” idea is that what you reach for externally in terms of your dreams and potential, is necessarily a function of who you are internally (your values, traits, talents and so on). While this might be true, it is often NOT the way we approach setting our goals. We often start with external things and situations. We believe that a promotion or new house or car will make us happy. That happiness is often fleeting, and can also be counterproductive because we become more stressed, and carry the disappointment of working for the wrong thing. So, we go for the next thing and get stuck in a cycle of chasing external things, rather that get the external things by starting internally.
There are other ways to express ourselves as well, such as through family, creativity, how and why we work and live (not only what), health, relationships, spirit(uality), image/brand and so on. So while this article is mainly about tackling the work/vocation dimension, you should know that what we’re really aiming to do is to transform your whole package of you and how you express yourself. In this way we’re aiming for the work you do and the experiences you have from this point forward to make you more of a complete and multi-dimensional person (rather than one who has sacrificed your life for your dreams).
In this article I will talk about D.R.E.A.M.S., a structured and iterative approach to moving towards whatever it is that you desire to do.
I created this approach to embody the idea that you can treat reaching your aspiration as a special type of project, and a project that you need to be able to put down and pick up again since you also have to deal with real life as you’re working towards the future.
Secondly, I developed D.R.E.A.M.S. since I couldn’t find a single page approach diagram for such a special project, one that worked for different types of aspirations and went beyond simple goal setting.
Often, and this particularly applies to those of us who are already successful on paper, there is a strong inertia and gravitational pull (e.g. salary, identity, commitments, Ego, something to lose) that prevents us from doing what we really want to do, or even finding out what that is! We need the extra structure and push to get us going.
D.R.E.A.M.S. is an acronym for Destination, Right Now, Explore, Articulate, Momentum and Sustain. I will explain these shortly. In the diagram of Complete below, D.R.E.A.M.S. is the yellow hexagon/cog just inside the outer blue circle:
This is implied visually, but it is the progress and journey associated with doing the work to achieve your aspiration(s) that expands your circle towards your eventual potential.
Now you know what the letters stand for, I will call the approach DREAMS from now on to be easier on the eye, and to distinguish the approach from dreams, the wispy cumuli.
DREAMS and Potential
To paraphrase Michael Phelps, DREAMS is the iterative process of planning and reaching for your dreams that moves you closer to your potential, and eventually to the state/process of living your potential.
I want to say this again, for me potential always starts internally rather than externally. Potential grows out of your values, talents and what makes you you, rather than some generic preset list of checkboxes (i.e. a certain salary, title, zip code).
Thus we must “own” this fact and commit to do, if we are to achieve our potential, the sometimes fiddly and uncomfortable work of being vulnerable and honest and building self knowledge.
Understanding yourself through reflection gets you on the right track, and you must then learn even more about yourself by exploring your dreams in the real world. You might think that you understand yourself, but without even deeper knowledge, you’ll risk picking or staying on the wrong track. I’ve talked about the contextual factors that drive what we believe to be “our” goals, on LinkedIn:
For me, coming from a working class background and born on a small island (the Isle of Man, then moving to Australia), my parent’s aspirations for me growing up we things like getting an office job (my Dad never had one, and Mum only later) and starting a family. They believed that I had the potential to do great things, but not what those things were.
This working class/immigrant situation can result in a focus on upward mobility i.e. your potential and “success” being a function of moving up from a class, income and lifestyle perspective. Fast forwarding, I did get a professional job, a Master’s degree and travelled around the world. Box checked right? I reached my potential, no?
Except that I hadn’t.
I want to pause here, because this is not really just me. This, I’d warrant, is all of us. Reflect on your own situation. What was your idea of success and potential growing up? How did it measure up as you began to reach it?
Circa 2012 onwards, I felt that I needed a new and different challenge that involved unleashing this creativity that was bubbling away, and played more directly to my values, talents and interests. Well, that’s how I’d explain it now. At the time things were a lot more confusing. I wanted to do something different, but felt I should be grateful for what I did have, and didn’t want to lose that. Without an approach or a coach to work things out with, there were a lot of conflicting idea and emotions. That might well be where you are now?
I had a sense that I wasn’t bringing my full self to work. I thought different and approached things differently than others, but that had several advantages in the particular niche of international supply chain transformation that I was in. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel fully authentic at work. I couldn’t really be myself, I was constantly try to fit in with what I thought was expected of a new leader. I tried to discuss my thoughts with a big boss, and the conversation didn’t go well at all. Your situation may vary but a heads up, work probably isn’t a safe space to discuss your doubts about whether you are on the right track or not!
Harking back to my MBA days (I knew it would come in useful for something) work is what Mischel calls a “strong situation”. People act as function of the attributes of a situation and how they perceive the situation. In short, work makes us act in a certain way, differently from how we’d naturally act in other situations. I’ve talked to many junior lawyers who talk about “faking it, til you make it”, the overwhelming need to adopt a certain expected persona all the time.
One upshot is that it’s hard to know what others are thinking and feeling at work, you can easily think that it is something wrong with you.
But, given my new choice of career direction, I’ve sometimes been surprised at how many of my former hard-driving colleagues and clients have reached out to say that they too want to change!
There used to be a career culture of having to constantly demonstrate that you were committed to your employer, and that they “owned” you, while at the same time as I’ve just said “suffering in silence”. Despite my cautionary tale above, I think recent years have forced employers to recognize that “employees are people too” and even that “leaders are people too”. Unless culture and ways of working change, people can and will leave!
Next, I think that you all realize this, but let me say it anyway. There are several (many) viable (and often quite different) career paths for any individual. We could discuss the many and random factors that go into choosing a career at school/college such as family history/preferences/contacts, salary expectations, and which fields are having a moment at the time, but I think that you get, and have experienced that for yourself.
We fall into a career, and that puts us on a track. That you’re on a certain track, doesn’t change the fact that there remain other tracks. You just have to find them and see if you can deal with the barriers to getting in, and any short-term lifestyle changes. We often overestimate the difficulty of changing, not because change is not difficult, but because we rarely get into the required level of detail on what will be involved, and make a commitment. Yes, thinking about change constantly and not doing anything about it also is difficult!
Recently, I’ve begun to think a lot about strengths and weaknesses. I’ve reflected on my own, and how those might have signaled the inevitable difficulty I might face in my earlier career as a programmer, the success in mid-career in supply chain, and how being a visual and aural person (rather than oral) might point me exactly to where I am now. That is, this article aside, to producing audio and visual content, and immersive experiences with a purpose.
Can you truly reach your potential if you are playing to your weaknesses the whole time?
You can’t right? Yet our careers often put us in a place where we’re doing exactly that.
I just want to make a distinction here that often (always?) strengths ARE ALSO weaknesses. If you’re a good technician that might initially make you a poor manager because you don’t assign/delegate well. Once you realize this you can change. I’ll give another plug to Marshall Goldsmith’s book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There on exactly that topic.
There are nuances here that in this case you’re really trying to get visibility on areas/behaviors that are stopping you from moving forward. Fixing this involves, for example, seeking and acting on 360 degree feedback.
The point I’m really trying to make here is to be honest with yourself about whether you are in the right career, or are you just getting by, surviving but not thriving. If you are in a place where you are majoring in your weaknesses, then even with a bit of disruption and lost time in moving, you will begin to accelerate and soon be further along than if you hadn’t changed.
It turns out that by eventually moving into supply chain transformation consulting (from corporate IT) I began to play to my strengths, and that was a rush for a while, since my career was stalling before then and it began to take off.
So, what would your potential be if you played fully to your strengths instead of trying to patch up your weaknesses? And not just for part of the time, but all the time?
I wanted to find out. Deep down, I knew that if I played to my strengths I had a shot at being great, not just a background bit player in life, and that that was important to me.
That might sound arrogant, but really we’re talking about ambition and drive and really a frustration that you feel that you’re “wasting” your time and life, and could and should be doing more, making more impact. It is your life at stake after all so allowing some emotion and feeling in is important!
Knowing what I know now, reaching one’s potential is this multidimensional, and deeply personal, thing. Not purely a saccharine self-help bumper sticker. This is the long long point I’m making here. I’m trying to get potential back on the table even if you’re in your 30s/40s/50s or whatever age. I’m trying to help you legitimize in your own mind that its ok to want more from yourself, and to find the right track, and reach for your potential.
The bigger your dreams are (or become) and as to move towards them the closer you come to self-actualization, and even to self-Realization (i.e. you start thinking in terms of purpose and even destiny, your aspirations and achievements take on a spiritual dimension, helping you transcend your Ego).
If this sounds like a stretch then think about how it might change you to achieve a tremendously difficult goal. What if you’d climbed in a figurative “Everest” in the field of your aspiration (or even the real Everest), how would that change the way you saw yourself and the world? A lot?
This idea of transcendence goes beyond “flow” in a moment. It is the feeling that you know that you are in exactly the right place and doing what you were put on this earth for. That’s a big ask, but if you’re not going big then why do anything, why try harder?
Now we’ve talked about the playing field for DREAMS, let’s answer the question of why a structured approach. Let me answer that with another question. Isn’t that what goal setting is for?
Well, not quite. Even SMART goals can be dumb sometimes!
Climbing the wrong ladder more quickly and to ever-higher rungs doesn’t stop it being the wrong ladder. Yet, the sense of movement might allow you convince yourself that things “aren’t that bad” and stop you from making the real change that you know need to make.
This is one of the shortfalls of using goal setting as your only tool for change. It is easy to let yourself off the hook, and not face the fear and pain of change. You set sensible goals, but don’t make real change.
There is also the case of not knowing where you want to go, or should go! In that case there is the need for several additional steps before getting into goal setting, which include gathering and analyzing different types of information, that is where DREAMS comes in.
Then there is the case of feeling that you are stuck, your confidence drops. So you never even get to goal setting in any sort of serious way, “what’s the point?”, you might ask.
There is rarely if ever a situation where you are truly stuck, rather you feel stuck. Thinking that you are stuck is disempowering, and thus I try not to use the word stuck too much, even though it is a common and acute feeling for many of us.
Feeling stuck is usually a state of mind! You get into a cycle of ruminating on your situation without being able bring new information in, or see things from a different perspective.
Sometimes the situation is as “simple” as requiring a change of mindset, and we’ll talk about mindset more squarely in the next article. Part of DREAMS is about helping you to see new possibilities for yourself, and then taking a small concrete step (or many) that change your situation and, importantly, also change the way you see yourself.
Sometimes feel stuck feels consciously bad, perhaps something has changed at work or you’ve changed, for example, and getting out of bed every morning is struggle.
A different type of feeling stuck is the “golden handcuffs” or “day release” kind of stuck. Things are good, at least superficially. You might feel that you should be grateful and that you are fortunate and have nothing to complain about. Yet you are not satisfied, and there may be an existential crisis brewing below the surface. As I’ve said, it is difficult to goal-set your way out of this situation without bringing new information and perspective on board. When things are current “good enough” but not great, you need to bring in a rocket, shooting towards a dream that is big and exciting otherwise, as I said before, why change?
If goal setting were the complete answer, everybody would have achieved their dreams already but that is not the case. We need to disrupt the line of thinking that goal setting is the only way or, for that matter, that some faux-Buddhist new age magical thinking is the answer. The magic really happens after you are able to take the first few steps towards your dreams.
To quote artist and activist Jess Garland “Change is ugly”. It is usually only after you start that from time to time beautiful moments happen, chance, serendipity and luck. I wouldn’t advise you to wait. You don’t have to rush in, but don’t do nothing. If you’re waiting for a sign this is it.
“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours” — Walden, Thoreau
I do expect (or at least hope) that a larger portion of you will at least go through the work in this article to explore your dreams. I get that the timing might not always feel right. But don’t say that you didn’t do anything because you didn’t know where to start! Start here.
If you don’t, you’ll lose valuable time and it can become increasingly harder to change tracks later on (but it is never too late).
You’ll regret that you didn’t start earlier. I really do say that from experience.
I often question why I keep choosing to write articles like this. It always takes more time and effort than I think it will, and really doesn’t feel like it is my strength (I’d rather make a video, music or experience), and sometimes seems that “nobody” pays attention.
Except I know that people out there are listening, and there is something deep down that drives me to do so. It is the vision (hopefully not a delusion) that there is one person out there right now that this will help. That person will avoid getting bogged down in my ill formed sentences and still be able to change themselves, and then will help others.
In summary, to counter unnecessary delays, and to increase the overall chances of success in reaching your aspiration, and for all of the reasons mentioned above it is useful to put goal setting in the context of a broader approach or “wrapper”, which is DREAMS. A second model called M.E.A.N.S. is focused on performance (how to go faster), and which I’ll discuss in the next article.
You need both, but don’t wait. Start moving then work out how to go faster. Whatever work you will do as part of this article won’t be wasted. I’ve reviewed many types of professional and personal change approaches, and what I’m suggesting in this article adheres to good tried and tested principles. Even if you get a coach or try a different goal setting approach later, you can build on what you do now.
You might pick up the latest “hot” self-help book, and find that unfortunately they’ve skipped over some of the stages here. You’ll see the gaps in their approach, and know how to fix them, while retaining any new information.
Write your ideas down. Even if it is the “shitty first draft” that Anne Lamott described in Bird by Bird, you’ll return to hone it to become the masterpiece of your life.
D.R.E.A.M.S. is an acronym for a six stage iterative process, as shown in the diagram below (note that the 6 chevrons = 6 points of the yellow hexagon, in the Complete model):
In summary, the stages are:
- Destination — “where do you want to go?” Producing a short summary of your desired future state that is grounded in details of you
- Right Now — evaluating the gap between where you are now and future state
- Explore — refining the “problem” and close the gap, by taking actions to better understand the specifics of your aspiration
- Articulate — explaining the “whats” (e.g. goals, specifics) and “whys” of your journey in a way that motivates you, and that you can use to engage others
- Momentum — building small wins into significant actions and results, finding out what’s working and not, adjusting course where necessary
- Sustain — developing habits and routines that lock in the progress you’ve made
A heads up and a tip as you get started…
This approach might seem overwhelming, you’ll be thinking and writing and trying things out and iterating, particularly in the first four stages.
Don’t try to skip or race through those parts. The later stages build on the earlier ones. If you jump in to actions straight away it is too easy to censor yourself and not be as ambitious or honest as you could have been.
We spend quite a bit of time early on in getting the “problem” stated well, so that you can fully engage your creative problem solving skills (the ones you already have, and the ones that you’ll further develop through future materials I will share).
Jumping in before you have your head set right might mean that you give up as soon as there are inevitable obstacles or setbacks. Success will come as much from wanting to go forward as knowing that you can’t stay where you are now.
It is also true that no matter how good the approach, it might work out that now is not exactly the right time, something important might pop up that you have to deal with for a period. Taking care in working through the initial stages deliberately means that you can pick up your DREAM project quickly later on, and when you do new insights might appear as you read over the work you did before.
There are also several passive things that you can do to keep progressing, even if you are officially putting your DREAM project on hold. For example, you can rebalance your social media to mainly/only focus on the area of your aspiration. Or stay off it altogether, and use that time to “play” with your project!
Now let’s look at each stage in more detail.
“Where do you want to go?”
I love the sound of this question, it gives me a tingle of excited anticipation, but perhaps the question is outright scary to some of you? It would have been to me in the past. People rarely if ever ask this of us, and we rarely ask it of ourselves.
This question can be scary since we’re told not to dream. We sometimes have all of these very personal hopes and aspirations suppressed deep down. If your dream is big, then there are all the usual fears about whether you’ll be able to do it, whether you are good enough and so on. Change can be scary, but it can also be empowering, freeing! So, ask “Where do I want to go?” and try to write down an answer.
Ask the question even if you think that it is impossible, impractical, you are too old, too young, have kids, have no kids, and so on.
If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Asking is about information and communication. Trying to make important decisions about your life without all of the information on the table verges on foolhardy (particularly if you are really seeking to optimize the outcomes from your life).
One reason to put everything on the table is that your brain is a powerful creativity machine, everyone’s brain is.
Your brain is wired to solve problems; you just need to feed it the right problems.
Working in management consulting for two decades, a common technique with clients was always to talk about the future before getting bogged down in the present too much. I’d ask “what does good look like?” about a system, solution, transformation, and then start working out how to get there. Real progress doesn’t come from fixing all of the problems of today, but with building towards a better tomorrow.
I want you to start thinking about the types of potential destinations/places that you want to end up at after chasing your aspiration. Write them down.
If you don’t exactly know then that’s fine. We’ll work through exploring different ideas that hopefully lead you to a clearer idea of where you want to go. If you do think you know your destination you might still be “wrong”! We’ll go through a process of digging deeper into and exploring what you think that you want.
Dreams are information. Let’s get all the information out on the table and then begin to firm up your destination.
One idea that I’ve found useful in personal change is to gather evidence on yourself and to put that into a Dossier (another “D” in this first stage) about you. Calling it a dossier is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but actually makes practical sense.
A dossier is a file that you can throw information about a person (i.e. you) into, with the intention of building a picture of that person, and later analyzing that information to draw one or more conclusions.
So, what might we put in our dossier? Well, in this section I’m going to ask you to do some exercises.
First put that information you just wrote down about potential destinations into the file.
The purpose of the Destination stage is to help you collate a description of a positive future state. Except we do this in an indirect rather than a direct way.
Why indirect? If I ask you to describe your ideal vision of the future, what would you say?
More often than not the response sounds like a cross between retirement and a vacation! Or perhaps, it’s you being the CEO of the place you work at (even if your real dream is to start your own company).
This is the problem with a direct approach, we tend to think too narrowly (i.e. our future is more of the same, but with a different title), or to run away from things (like work, altogether). There isn’t enough to really sink your teeth into. We eventually need to find out what we want to run towards. That is a destination.
Let’s load up the dossier then from various sources, and in a way that stirs your heart rather than only your ego. You will start to build a more complete picture from that info, you might even surprise yourself with what you find.
The key is to actually write all this stuff down quickly on paper (don’t overthink it), and put it into a file. Call me old-fashioned but I like to think on paper. I’m a visual person and like to mindmap, and just try to get everything out rather than make it neat and tidy (that comes later or not at all).
To help populate your file, first I might ask you to do the three circles exercise (see link below for free chapters from The Good Life Book). Basically draw three intersecting circles and write a single word in each that represents a field or activity area you’re interested in. Next look at the overlap of all three circles and imagine a job or activity that encompasses the three. If your circles are all topics, then you can brainstorm some doing words that go with the circle. Are you teaching, filming, managing in your circles, for example. My circles are: creativity, leadership and lifestyle. In my business, I create content, offer learning/coaching and provide services across those three, with some of those being monetized, and others being less driven by financial returns. Outside my business, I’m still focused on creativity, and to an extent lifestyle but it is more about entertainment and moving people with music and stories. Do the circles, put them in your file.
Next, list out your childhood dreams on a separate piece of paper. Which places were you obsessed with? Which jobs seemed glamorous or appealing? What sort of books and movies did you like? I liked Cocktail and the original Wall Street. I wanted to be a pilot, a stockbroker or a lawyer. I have a memory from childhood of imagining I was on stage at the Oscars. Put it all down there, don’t try to analyze anything right now, just get it on paper.
After that, you could write a character story (the character is you). When we write fiction, movies and so on, there is a need to bring the characters to life. A way to do that is to think about each character’s motivations, desires, drives, hopes and dreams, weaknesses, and fatal flaws, for example. What if the character was you? How would you describe, at arms length/objectively, yourself in terms of the list above? What is a typical situation where you’d find your character? What is the central challenge that your character has to deal with? Write it down.
After that, look back over a chunk of time in your history. When were you happiest at work, and in life? Write down the people, places and times, what was going on. What were you doing and with who? What were your greatest disappointments and crushing setbacks? Write quickly and honestly. Get down as many as you can. Once it is written down, try to find some distinctions between what makes a career/life “high” and what makes (or is absent from) a low? Again, do this quickly if you can, otherwise put the exercise in your file and move on, you’ll come back to it later.
Get another blank page and write “What I really want” at the top. Next, list out the overarching aspiration and all the achievements you want from your work and life. The things that if you were on deaths door you’d be most proud of, or regret most not doing if you hadn’t completed or at least started them. There are different levels and types of regrets, and it’s often said that you regret what you didn’t do more than what you did do. What are you already regretting you didn’t do. Your hopes and dreams, write them down. Prioritize the list.
Label a separate sheet “Wishlist” and list out all the stuff you want most…cars, houses etc etc. Put it in the file. Creating a wishlist is a great way to get a hit of joy from thinking about the item, without having to spend the money/debt in getting it right away. Yes, Ego, look at that Sicilian yellow McLaren sports car, wouldn’t that be cool…now I’d better finish writing that article and developing that online creativity course.
Grab a page and write “Values” at the top. If someone were to describe you, how you operate, what traits you show, what would they say? Write it all down as fast as you can without overthinking. Put the page in your file. Mine? Teaching, creativity, curiosity/challenging the status quo, individuality. You can get feedback on this from others if you like too, but don’t let that hold you up from continuing. It’s funny, if you’re reading this on LinkedIn then there’s a fair chance you know me, and could probably do a good job of adding your own words to this list. The only caveat is that at work, your values don’t always come to the fore all the time, they should but they don’t, and after all I changed work because I wanted these things to be front and center.
Lastly, if you already have a specific goal or aspiration in mind write it down if you haven’t already. How will tackling this aspiration change your life? What happens if you don’t get started on and achieve the aspiration? What makes this aspiration uniquely yours in terms of reaching your potential? When someone asks you why you are tackling this what will you say. When you ask yourself the questions why then what, in personal terms to be read only by you, how would you answer yourself? Put it in the file.
All of the stuff in the file is information. Don’t jump straight into trying to solve the “case”. Let it stew for a while. One or two weeks.
After that time write a statement of what you want in the future, which is grounded in the details of you. That is, your overarching goal or aspiration must be tailored to the specifics of you, having “your fingerprints all over it”. Why you and why now specifically for the aspiration? If you were in a conference room of your colleagues, and your aspiration was randomly assigned to someone else, would it fit, like a newspaper horoscope? Get some emotional skin in the game. Make your aspiration personal and unique to you. Of course we all want things like health, wealth, family and friends. We want to grow and make a difference. But here we’re trying to get into specifics and even if you don’t nail it first time. Trying to write the specifics down will surface further insights about yourself.
The other watch out here is make sure you really do the exercises and not just automatically put an idea down because you’ve had it for a while. Do you really still want to start a business, or do you want to do a different type of job. Do you really want (or need) to write a book, or do you really want what you believe will come after you’ve written a book, for example?
In general its useful to try to be clear on what you believe a day in the life of your aspiration is really like… what out of that day really appeals to you. Write that down. Just as a vision statement in corporate strategy describes the “what” not the “how”, thinking more laterally about the type of principles and characteristics of your dream, rather than being wedded to only one way of achieving it will increase your chance of success.
Just to share a small example, one of the things I wanted from starting my own business was location independence, the ability to work from wherever, whenever, rather than punching the clock (given I have friends and family around the world). Ironically, in recent years, remote/flexible working has become the norm in many situations. Nevertheless that is still a principle of how I’m trying to build my business.
There were other reasons I wanted to start a business, and to be a solopreneur, I’m just trying to illustrate how what you are aiming for is more nuanced than “business vs. job”, for example, understand “why” you are examining the path of your aspiration and what you’re expecting will happen when you follow it.
At the end of this first stage, you might come up with a specific job, for example “I want to be a movie director”. Or you might have a general area “I want to do something in the music industry to do with writing”. As I’ve said above, try to avoid just writing “I want to start a business” without also stating what you really mean and expect from that.
A destination at this initial stage is not final and set in stone. You will come back and iterate it as you complete the next stages of DREAMS. You might find out that you don’t want what you thought you want, and want something else instead. The outputs of this stage are just where you want to explore first. Where you’ll end up is anyone’s guess since it is impossible to predict the outcomes of something you haven’t done before. But start.
2. Right Now
The Right Now stage is about assessing or auditing where you are currently at this point in time i.e. the starting point of your journey, and getting a sense of the gap between where you are today and where you want to be in future. Right Now is a stake in the ground, one that will change by this afternoon, next week, in a few months time. If you evaluate Right Now at different points in time you will see the little bits of progress and continuous improvement that you have made.
A common approach to personal and professional change (and to performance improvement generally) is the so-called “gap closure” approach. That is, you first work out where you want to be (i.e. Destination stage), then you analyze where you are today (this stage) with respect to that goal. The difference between where you are today and where you want to be is the gap. Next, you identify options and actions to close the gap.
Probably the best known gap closure approach for personal change is GROW (co)developed by Sir John Whitmore (who was a racing driver earlier in his career as it happens).
Grow stands for, Goals, Reality, Options/Obstacles, Way forward (what you will do).
If you’ve worked with an executive coach, then more likely than not you’ll have encountered GROW in one form or another. One reason coaching works is that the coach helps ensure that the coachee is has clear responsibility for doing what they know they need to do, and the GROW as a model facilitates that. The coach doesn’t do solutioning on your problems though, they help you work that out yourself. Later, in a future article I will talk more about solutioning, and how to find creative solutions to problems of all kinds.
Before discovering GROW, I’d already developed my own gap-closure method for coaching called the “ABC” model, based on my years as a performance improvement consultant.
I’m a visual person, and used to working in front of flip charts and white boards, so ABC was created with that in mind. In the model, “A” is where you are now i.e. Point A; “B” is where you want to go, Point B. And “C” represents the Course or path from A to B, and also the Choices you can/must take. “D” represents what you must Do, i.e. the detailed steps or tasks. You can draw this out visually on a page (or whiteboard), and have a conversation around it (even if that is only rehearsing your journey story with yourself). As an exercise you could try to ABC or at least “A” and “B” right now, and identify the gap between the two.
Both GROW and ABC help to set up the problem for which there can be many different solutions. “I’m here and I need to get there”. How do I do it? Plane, train, automobile?
The reason I’ve developed DREAMS to work hand in hand or as a wrapper to these other gap-closure approaches is my own personal reflections on some of the shortfalls of personal growth and its tools and techniques.
For example, goal setting is so ingrained into our society. It is practical, and it works …for some use cases. But jumping straight into goal setting when you haven’t first thought about where you wan to go is problematic as I said earlier.
This is particularly when we’re constantly admonished to make those goals SMART, since doing that kind left brain thinking before you’ve thought about the big picture can close down the whole creative aspect of solutioning (and thus what you can shoot for in life).
We spend too little time thinking about what we really want, and even less time really trying to identify the best solution before jumping into goal setting. The first solution you think of is often not the best. So goal setting fails (or is at best inefficient) because you haven’t really worked out what you want or the best way to get there, before changing focus towards the micro-management of tasks.
The following quote sheds some light on the problems of rushing in:
“[t]here is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” — H. L. Mencken (quote often attributed to others).
Just over 10 years ago I was passed over for a promotion, and took that setback as a prompt to finally start the business I’d been dreaming of. A boss indicated that if I stayed and worked on some development points I’d likely be promoted the following year. Would you stay or would you go?
A bird in the hand right? Unfortunately I stayed, and got promoted the next year, and then it took a further 5 years after that to finally leave and start the business. Neat, plausible and wrong.
It can be so so hard to wrap your head around doing something different from what you’ve already proved you have an aptitude for. It wasn’t all bad, there was a brief honeymoon period enjoying the new title and being part of a smaller group, achieving something that not everyone can do. Then I had a real honeymoon period, meeting my wife (same company, different country) at work.
So it kind of worked out, but this is exactly the exception that proves the rule. Once my brief ego boost wore off, the reality of higher expectations and pressure set in and I began to see that I’d made the wrong choice at work.
Full disclosure, at the time I didn’t follow my advice here and try to do further exploration of the best solutions to my way forward. I framed it as choice between leaving to start the business, or not doing that.
If you ever study decision making you’ll find that most people make decisions like this “Should I do X or not?” A lot of people decide like that but it’s not the best way. Better decision come from generating a small number of quality but different options.
The right question at the time might have been something like “what are the different possibilities for giving me a creative experience, that is flexible/location independent, and doesn’t feel heavily corporate”. There is definitely more than one option!
Another thing, unless you address fear, your goal setting might also be neat, plausible and wrong. And if you’ve got the wrong goals where does that leave you? Where will those goals lead you?
One place it can lead you is to start actually destroying your confidence, making it harder to change later on. People often try something once and give up. I’m trying to get you set up for success by making that thing you attempt the right thing (or as close as possible), and also helping setting the right expectations and approach around keeping going and trying different things until you get there.
The reason I’ve called the second stage of DREAMS “Right Now” instead of “Reality” as in the GROW model is that when applied to career change or starting a business, reality can be disempowering rather than empowering.
The problem I have with reality is that trying to do anything of worth in the world can appear largely impractical, unrealistic and sometimes downright stupid at the start!
Why start a band or a business, for example, when the odds off success are so low?
Be realistic they say! But what is reality? The past doesn’t equal the future. Reality is a data point, a right now, subjective, not a life sentence (even though we often treat it as such).
For example, statistically, most of us believe that we are not creative, when it turns out that everyone is creative. Everyone can become more creative, another fact. So what is reality?
Reality is subjective, and can objectively change quickly (you can learn a new skill in the morning that you can use in the afternoon).
Reality is a function of Mindset, your Experiences, your ability to mange focus and Activity, your Networks, and Skills, for example. All things that can be developed and changed, and this is the subject of M.E.A.N.S. (Mindset, Experience, Activity, Network, Skills) that I’ll talk about in the next article. I guess the point here is that you don’t really know everything that you’re capable of. And there are whole other fields and disciplines around creativity and performance that you can learn and will help you go higher and further than you ever imagined.
Being realistic can cause us to scale down or stop our dreams BEFORE we even try to work out a creative solution to reach them. Assessing reality with respect to your aspirations should (and does in DREAMS) come much later after you’ve generated possible solutions and then evaluated those.
At this stage what you’re trying to do is gather more information about your present situation. So while I say this stage of DREAMS is about performing an audit or assessment, what I’m really talking about is structured information gathering and analysis. No more and no less.
So what structured information could you gather?
Well, for a starter, you might not know what you don’t know as the expression goes! You might have to do some research to even understand the steps and stages of what your aspiration entails and the skills, traits and resources required. You can begin with some quick internet research, for example posted jobs and requirements, to get an initial idea. Also don’t be surprised that thousands or millions of people have probably done what you’re trying to do or are currently trying, and have documented that on the internet — so look! I’ve intentionally added the next stage Explore to go deeper and hands on in that process.
If you’re planning to start a business, you can research the steps involved. You might have a business idea (everyone does), but haven’t yet tested product-market fit (important). You can use tools such as the Business Model Canvas as a framework to identify where you are now vs. what you need and gaps etc. You can read about the traits often associated with entrepreneurs, and perhaps identify some matches and some gaps. Don’t ignore the gaps, they might not be a deal-breaker, but might remain blindspots unless you make a plan to address them or find help from someone who compliments your weaknesses.
You could use the five spokes/pillar from The Good Life Book (2017) i.e. Vocation, Health, People, Spirit and Self-Expression and score each from 1 (poor) to 5 (very good) to provide a holistic perspective on your current situation. I developed that tool to both diagnose the current situation and to design the future. It pays I think to get a realistic assessment of the balance of your current situation. Having big gaps will help make the case for change, but also don’t forget to check that you’re not creating new problems by chasing your aspiration.
What I’ve also said often and will say again is don’t forget that you can learn and grow! Just because you can’t film and edit video today, for example, doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to do it tomorrow, or meet/find someone that can do it for you. An established path to doing something as a career, if it applies to your aspiration, is to first do it for yourself, for friends, or for a non-profit to hone your skills, and build your portfolio/resume.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” — Steve Jobs
I share this already overshared quote one more time because there are what I call latent talents and predispositions in all of us. Jobs was drawn to take calligraphy and later said: “None of this had any hope of any practical application in my life. But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.”
My point is just to think laterally about your talents. My time in public radio in the early 90’s all of a sudden was very relevant in 2017 as I embarked on a podcast. Paraphrasing what Damon K Clark, the most recent podcast guest, said about his earlier time in the corporate world was that it helped him with organizational skills, and that was something of a superpower when returning to the creative world.
We tend to underestimate the applicability of skills and experiences and traits that we already do have.
Finally, don’t give up because you believe that the people doing what you want to do are special and born that way. If you study the life stories of successful people you’ll see that that is plainly not true. People have started, tried and failed and learned and had some luck and, yes, have worked hard. You can do that too!
The principle of Explore is to take small concrete steps in the area of your aspiration as a learning exercise, before you set detailed goals.
It has been drummed into us to plan everything to death before doing anything. “If you fail to plan, plan to fail” you’ve heard it. But I’ll counter that with “If you plan and keep planning then plan to fail”, a bit more of a mouthful but you get the gist. There is a time for detailed planning, but that time is not right now. Let yourself first explore and play with your aspiration and have fun.
Explore is about taking on board knowledge and experience of your aspiration, getting a taste. Once you understand the terrain better, then planning becomes an essential tool for scaling up. Building on a point from the previous section, after exploring you’ll now know what you know and don’t know, and can plan accordingly!
For example, perhaps you want to be a film director. It would be so easy to give up on that dream at both the Destination and Right Now stages, since that aspiration might seem worlds away from where you are now.
Except that if you actually look into it a bit further, you’ll find that it’s possible to shoot a quality movie on a smartphone, and perhaps with the help of a few friends. You can meet those friends at the types of meetups that exist in major cities, in online forums, or at an inexpensive (e.g. $50) move basics course (and you can learn online). You can edit and publish the movie using inexpensive software (and get one of those friends to help you). You can use that small movie as a calling card. And, it will probably turn out that the shoot is a little chaotic. You’ll learn the need for certain types of planning as related to reality, rather than as an abstraction that takes the oxygen out of what you’re trying to do.
If you do make the movie, firstly you’ll be ahead of the many people that talk about things but don’t do them. In fact you are a movie director now, so you now have a different problem than “trying to be a movie director”. Your next problem is how to scale up the quality and impact of your next project, or how to get the financial or team for a bigger (independent) movie. Worry about whether you can make a career as a movie director after you’ve already become one by making smaller bets in your spare time!
Even if you never did anything else with moviemaking from that point you’d have a data point about that time you did a thing. That goes in your dossier! And you build an ability called creative confidence, self-efficacy, which is a generalized boost to your ability to tackle all sorts of future challenges at work and in life.
An activity I’ve run several times with my business is called Walk and See. We teach you some basic photographic techniques then let you loose in a group with your smartphone to see what interesting photos you shoot. The whole thing can be done in an hour or so. Sure people take some interesting shots. But they’ve also had a shared experience with people, met a few, and got the confidence of a new skill. All this translates to a new way to see the world for them, what I’m all about trying to facilitate.
Explore helps you build knowledge, contacts and confidence, before you even begin official goal setting.
If you do, continuing the example, want to go on make a bigger movie you’ll also better understand the process and the parts of making it happen (the knowledge, contacts and confidence I just talked about).
Also you might end up tweaking your goal, instead of further pursuing your initial goal of directing a movie you might decide to focus on writing, or helping others produce their ideas, for example, instead. Again, you can do these things in your spare time if you are motivated to. Anyone who has learned a language or done a degree while working at the same time knows that the impossible is possible!
If so, now you will be more focused on exactly what you want to do next, and have a better (stated, specific) set of problems to tackle, including a roadmap for additional skills and contacts that you’ll need to build. Exploring by its nature is about being open-minded, about trying things out then trying to assess or understand what just happened and what the implications are.
Exploring is easier than ever today. There are so many resources available and online. You can learn about the playing field and, at least, find out what the critical success factors are for your chosen aspiration. Often, formalized multi-year education is NOT one of those must-haves. I recall being wide-eyed when someone I’d just met told me that they were an audio engineer/producer for a living at a local reputable studio. I asked them which college they went to. The answer: “YouTube”.
Although I want to change the world, and want to have a successful business and creative career, and so on, there is also something deeply personal about also wanting to help you avoid the regrets of not starting sooner on your dreams, or not starting at all.
Even as I sit here in my office/makeshift studio in Dallas, the floor scattered with the debris of my kids’ latest “art” creations, I can see clearly a vision of a different time. This vision comes to me often when I’m trying to balance it all, and I think about the “before times”.
I’m in my London bachelor apartment in 2009. The light is streaming through the window (it’s never raining in this vision or some reason), onto the light hardwood floors. My bookcase is there, brown leather couch, plasma TV, and wooden IKEA kitchen table that I’m using as a desk. I already said it was a bachelor pad right?
I think back to that person, working hard and playing hard, letting the days slip away. My career had really hit its stride and for a moment I was satisfied.
Or so I thought.
I was superficially happy, a life full of deadlines and distractions, but not deeply satisfied. I could and should have been making bigger bets and moving the needle on the learning curve for the business, music production, any number of areas.
Hindsight might not be able to help me, but it can help you.
Hence why there is a Destination in DREAMS stage to get all of this on paper sooner and an Explore stage to turn it into reality at least in a small way. And there is M.E.A.N.S. to work on your mindset and other things.
It might be true that people simply get to things (chasing their dreams) when they do given their individual circumstances. That it is not possible to do it sooner. That might be true, but I still can’t easily accept it. It seems inefficient and risky to leave things to chance, or to the right time. Also I know that from coaching others, particularly entrepreneurs, that a small intervention can make a big difference. I’m experimenting with making that intervention in the form of text and video and experiences, but if you suspect you need a coach then find someone you trust and have some chemistry/fit with. I’d save up from my corporate job before launching my business. Looking back, getting some paid help at the time would have been a drop in the bucket of what was to come (particularly opportunity costs), and thus would have been a good investment.
To add to your dossier, and provide fuel for your exploration, write a list of things you enjoy doing as a “consumer” right now, and what would be involved in doing them as a “creator”. After growing up in Australia and then moving to London I was enjoying the easy access to many great European wines. Perhaps I could have blogged about that (ref: Gary Vee) if I’d thought about it at the time?
I could probably still do that now, even though I’m no longer in London and have other things on my plate. It’s on my list, and you might have seen that I’ve done several interviews about wine /beer/spirits, so trying to weave that in as much as possible and see what possibilities it creates.
I was also enjoying the access to music festivals. Could I promote a festival (I’d been a promoter in college), could I appear as a musician/act, or be involved writing or filming media? These are things to put in your file because you might find that by exploring things that could seem unconnected, you actually make connections and find an opportunity as a result that you didn’t see or expect going in. I guess the point is that you don’t have to be super strict in how and what you explore. Take the opportunity to allocate some time to following what you’ve been curious about.
Building on the three circles exercise that you did (if didn’t already, do it now!) use that work to provide ideas for exploration. Sometimes you might find an unusual overlap between the circles that represents a unique idea or angle.
At the least, I’ve found that talking about what’s most interesting to me often leads me to make a new contact, I learn something or get a referral, or have an interesting conversation.
Life feels good when you start to feel serendipity more often. It is for a different article but I’ve been amazed that places and people exist on so many different levels. When you change up the frequency that you are broadcasting on, and have different conversations all of these opportunities (or at least a few) appear right where you are, with people already in your network!
One of the things to ask after all of this exploring, depending on your aspiration, is whether this is a hobby or a job. There are probably more opportunities and mechanisms than ever to monetize what you’re interested in. Not that this might replace your existing income straight away but, again, this is something to play and experiment with.
Perhaps if you’re interested in movies and are a finance person, you could explore this by moving job to being a finance person in a company associated with the movie industry. Even though that is a job change I still count that as exploring or even a “quick win” since it doesn’t require you to transform what you do and who you are.
That is the sort of sensible suggestion that might be what you’re looking for to begin to explore your interests and passions. A caveat, Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way) cautions against giving up your dreams and becoming what she calls a “Shadow Artist”, surrounding yourself with art but not creating it. Sometimes you really do need to take that additional step and risk beyond where you are comfortable to get where you really want to go.
There is an intentional gray area between exploring and doing in DREAMS. I want you to explore and play rather than get stuck waiting for perfect action. At the same time, if you’ve already worked out what you want to do, then it’s time to bring some creativity to the party to help work out the best way to do that.
What are the different ways that people do what you want to do. As I’ve said, a lot of this is already documented on the internet. Can you explore some of these options, take some small concrete actions? You can speak to people who are transitioning to and/or doing what you want to do. Most people are happy to help if they sense that you are serious and are willing to listen. By following DREAMS you are doing the pre-work that will help you to get help from others, and that assistance will help build your momentum also, increasing your chances of success.
The articulate stage is about writing down the “whats” and “whys” of your aspiration in a form that motivates you, and helps to engage others.
After exploring in the last stage, you’ll have a better idea of what you want, what that means to you, and where you are now.
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed the time exploring, and have become hooked by your aspiration emotionally as well as mentally.
Perhaps you even want to stretch out the Explore stage a bit longer. Perhaps you’ve started attending a meetup, for example, and have met some people that are interested in the same things, and you’re actually learning and doing some of the stuff you dreamed of. Just because you’ve attended one writers meetup, for example, doesn’t mean that you have to dive into writing the next big novel straight away. Attend for a few months, build more capability, contacts and confidence.
It’s great to be doing stuff, but you also have to be aware of “dabbling” at the edges of the thing, casually playing with it (there’s a time and place for that in earlier stages), when you should be playing for points. Sometimes moving up happens naturally, you dabble with something then get sucked in and the next steps and stages are clear and you do them. At other times you need to take a checkpoint to get more structure around what’s next.
If you take Tim Ferriss’ advice about podcasting then you’ll make at least 6 episodes before you truly evaluate it. Don’t just make one or you wont have gotten the full experience. Six is about enough to say that you’ve done a body of work (the legendary and influential comedy show Faulty Towers had a first series of six episodes, and only one more series of 6 was ever made). After six I’d say, for example, that you need to really start thinking about building an audience for the podcast rather than just mindlessly repeating what you’ve been doing (particularly if your audience isn’t growing significantly) or not do it at all. You will need to analyze, get feedback, improve.
There is no hard and fast rule here apart from the obvious ones. If you want to get good at something then you will likely need to invest the time in deliberate practice.
If you want this thing to be your job then you need to also “turn pro” as Steven Pressfield says. For one, that means doing the thing even when you don’t feel like it or are not inspired. Generally, turning pro, to me, mean increasing the quality and impact of what you’re doing and getting it out there.
In the Explore stage you might have already begun to generate and explore different options or paths to what you plan to do. If you haven’t done this already, then by the end of this stage you’ll need to have researched and picked an option or path to begin to work on.
Fear can creep in again at this stage. Perhaps you’ve expanded your comfort zone a bit (e.g. by attending a meetup), but now need to properly put yourself out there, and you might not even be aware that fear is causing you to hold back, or even to sabotage yourself.
To help all of this you’re going to “get your story straight” on what you’re doing and why.
A story to put in your change dossier can be based on the following template:
“I want to do X because
If I don’t do X then the following will happen…
The reason I’m suited to this aspiration is
- why me? Strengths, weaknesses
- why now?
What I’ve learned by exploring this aspiration is:
The biggest gaps moving from where I am now to X are:
My general approach to X is:
Description of path you’ll take to X
Goal 1, 2, 3
The current unknowns are…
The biggest risks and obstacles to achieving X on the chosen path are…
The help I need therefore is:
Help Area 1
Help Area 2
Help Area 3
The next concrete actions I have are:
Concrete Action 1
Concrete Action 2
Concrete Action 3”
In The Good Life Book I talked about the above as being like the definition of a project (i.e. a project charter), and that you should manage the path to your aspiration as a project. This is still good advice, but also don’t let the project management approach scare you off or stifle action. You can use the headings above as a template to get you going.
But don’t just go through the motions of filling out a form. To begin with, make sure that whatever you write is evocative to you i.e. that is makes you see and feel something. Is what you’re writing about your destiny, or just words on a page? There is a strange conundrum that I’ll talk more about in the next article that despite being passionate about an aspiration, and having the logical and emotional reasons to do it lined up you are still not motivated!
I’ve only recently worked out that what has driven me for most of my life is proving myself to others. I suspect that many of you are the same (and if you don’t believe me check out Laura Empson’s book Leading Professionals where she talks about insecure overachievers). I’m driven when I’m in the trenches, trying to reach an impossible goal or deadline, which is great in a management consulting career (at least from a getting work done perspective).
Then, through a painful journey of various challenges in life, I decided that I’d define success for myself. I wrote The Good Life Book (where I talk about this more) and made the leap to start a business.
That’s all great except I’ve had to find the new levers to pull to drive myself across the different types of activities I do: writing, music and so on.
It turns out that while playing and exploring are useful, since they let you get started without letting fear getting the better of you, the stakes being low creates the problem that true drive might be low as well!
You give yourself an exit, don’t burn the boats. You have to have the moment where “you don’t care what others think” when you put yourself out there in something new. But if what others think has played a part in driving you to date, where does that leave you!?
Anyway, I think that you get the point, and the solution is one I’ve begun to make progress on, and will continue to explore on the podcast, and it will be something we’ll learn about together going forward.
So, write your story, and then come back to revise it after you’ve done the work in the next article.
Another reason to write a story, as some of you might have already anticipated, is so that you have the means to engage others: supporters, collaborators, an accountability group, backers and so on. This story will be in different formats, an elevator pitch, a conversation and so on. For example, I like to think that I’ve been able to get some great guests on the podcast because part of the purpose of the podcast is to make the world a better place in a sense, by educating, inspiring and entertaining people. That purpose is not just something I say, it’s part of who I am.
I’ve often found it productive having conversations with others around one or more 1-pager documents or pictures about what I’m doing and why. I also really appreciate it when others use a thoughtful 1-pager to engage my help. So, you’ll write down your story but part of that might be a picture!
Lastly, you might also find that your story doesn’t quite hang together! Perhaps you need to do a bit more reflection and questioning on why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why you have approached things a certain way.
Just to be clear, as you exit this stage it is expected that you’ll have an overall plan of where you’re going next (at least in the short term), you’ll have picked a chosen path after evaluating several options, and you’ll have set some initial goals.
It might turn out that when you get into action that the particular approach to your goal wasn’t the best, and no doubt you’ll need to tweak that approach and your goals. You will need to review your actions and change course as necessary, but you’ll start the next stage with at least an initial plan.
The principle of the Momentum stage is to gain increasing forward motion towards your aspiration. In general this means getting some small “wins” at the start, which slowly turn into larger chunks and tranches of work.
You might have set goals during Articulate, but still are not getting started. Let’s assume that you’re driven and yet there is a tendency to procrastinate!
One of the many learnings I got from guests on the podcast, was around the prevalence of to-do lists for (creative) people who are not just thinking about stuff, but actually doing it. Shipping product. And doing it again and again.
Looking into lists a bit more, I began to understand a couple of distinctions about how creatively productive people make lists.
Firstly the lists contain a really diverse list of abstract “magical” and concrete “mundane” items that apply not only to this project, but other future projects and ideas (see also Leonardo Da Vinci’s to do list).
If you were interested in making a movie as a project in future, on your list might be “research the stages of movie production” or “find out what’s involved with making a movie, and who I know”. That task might sit next to something about scheduling a meeting.
You capture the future need as it occurs you so that you don’t lose track of it. In parallel, I know that creative people (definitely myself included) habitually record their ideas in notebooks and/or phones. As performance artist Erica Felicella says “just because you have an idea now, doesn’t mean you’ll have it later”, about the need for note taking. The point is, record the idea without trying to solve it right now.
Secondly, effective people seemed to have a real micro-approach to getting stuff done. For example, instead of saying “do laundry”, which might seem overwhelming, the task might become, “get Kid 1’s clothes and move them next to the washer”. Instead of saying “spend 1 hour working on song”, the task might become “create a new project and import the audio files”. We all know that we should break goals into manageable chunks, what I think that we don’t fully appreciate is how much of a productivity boost comes from micro-chunking (is that called chipping, globbing, linting?) tasks.
People used to say spend just 5 minutes a day on something, better advice in the DREAMS arena might be to spend 20 seconds on something. Do a tiny bit of the next concrete task.
Creative people often find it useful to work on several projects at the same time. One reason is that creative ideas take time to marinate. Another is that your mind works asynchronously and across various problems, and you’ll find previously unseen connections between different projects. I like to have multiple projects to prevent getting bored. Also I double-procrastinate on things. I work on a second project while I’m procrastinating on the first! Having a to-do list that mixes ideas and concrete tasks can be effective in supporting this way of working. You procrastinate by researching something you need to know, rather than getting up from your desk or scanning social media.
Although we’ll talk about routines and habits more in the next article, there is an obvious link between having effective habits and building momentum.
When writing, a good habit for me is to “sit at kitchen table with coffee and notepad after dropping kids at school”, and before opening up my computer.
Just as Austin Kleon has what he calls an “analog desk” and a “digital desk”, what I’ll call “thinking desk” and “working desk” (although thinking is working, oops), the point is that there are two locations, one where you can brainstorm and mindmap with pens and paper, and another where you translate those ideas into digital form. Being stuck at your computer without a concrete idea of what you’re doing is a recipe for, again, going down a social media black hole.
In addition to habits, finding some sort of external accountability interlock or drumbeat helps. If you haven’t already, try to find a meetup in the area of your aspiration. This might take a few tries to find the right group. I remember going to various entrepreneur/startup meetups and mainly finding people off the stage that had full time jobs and yet seemed to think they knew everything about running a startup business! Many seemed obsessed by financing and IPOs/exits. They weren’t interested in building a business that helped a customer, as I was. Nevertheless, depending on what your aspiration area is you might be able to find someone, at a meetup or elsewhere, who you can buddy up with to help each other move forward.
More successful for me was a writers meetup. The weekly group got me in the habit of creative writing and presentation every week (circa 2014), and in the past months I’ve reconnected with one of the guys from the group and we’ve arranged a weekly Zoom (he’s now living in Houston) and we take ½ hour to talk through the various things we’re working on, and life.
Although I’d consider him a friend, much of the time we spend interacting on Zoom is more like a listener / coach, and a bit similar to the situation when you go to a course and have to find a buddy to do the exercises with.
We consciously take time to talk and listen. I find the time between sessions goes like this (snaps fingers), and often I’m embarrassed and it can feel uncomfortable that I’ve made so little progress over the past week. Being deep into the Ascending Growth (non-fiction) book when we started our Zoom sessions, it was good to talk about the joy of writing fiction and poetry rather than non-fiction. And I was actually making progress, much more than I would have been without the weekly prompt. This example might seem mundane, but find someone you can discuss your dreams with, and what you are doing about reaching them. That person often isn’t your partner, or colleague. They have their own hopes and fears and lenses, which might affect their ability to help you objectively.
Of course, finding a formal coaching relationship might work well in your situation too, if you can find the right match.
There are billions of people that aren’t achieving their goals, and that is not due to lack of a plan. Don’t overthink stuff, send that email, plan to attend that meetup, open that file. Make a habit out of it.
Another message here is that you’ll have to quickly get over your perfectionism.
It can prevent you doing anything, it can actually prevent you from learning and getting better. It can prevent you from starting. I talked with an acquaintance (another parent at my kids school) recently and she revealed that she had an idea for a boutique chocolate business.
She will never start the business.
I hope I’m wrong about that.
But I feel that I’ve been around long enough to have seen the same person (different sexes, different looks and ages) a thousand times.
There are a couple of telltale signs that someone is caught up in a self-reinforcing cycle of perfect inaction (rather than imperfect action).
The first is that instead of talking about a next concrete action, e.g. booking a stall at a local farmers market, the person talks in general terms about branding or the amazing celebrity partnerships they’ll make (or the important people they know). In this person’s case it was making this really slick promotional video, and even writing a jingle for the video, just that it would take much more time and resources than they currently had, so that was an excuse for not doing something now.
It is that one magical thing that will make everything just work. Hmmm. It reminds me of the titular character in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, the old man always waiting on his “papers”.
Second trait, when you offer help the person doesn’t want help or suggestions, they are defensive but without being specific on what the next steps are. Everyone is different, but most of the “bootstrapping” successful people I know, women and men, will snatch your hand off for free help and advice, even if they might listen to the advice, and only selectively apply it. I used to feel hurt or at least put off when people didn’t seem to want help now I realize that the person has a barrier up, a defensiveness.
People, and I’ve met many like this, put their dream on a pedestal. It becomes this kind of perfect and reassuring safety blanket. The don’t want to actually pop the balloon of taking action and find their perfect dream is at the other side of struggle and work, or that it won’t work…….or that you have to deal with and provide value (and a tangible product) for real life customers that want to pay you money.
Don’t be that person.
In fairness some of this defensiveness is as a result of holding on to their dream so tightly for so long. I often recommend to budding entrepreneurs that have already started in some way to read The E-Myth by Michael Gerber. Your business is not you, give it some freedom and see it with new clarity. Like a child you have to let it go and give it some space so it can grow. And get help!
Along with goals, you’ll also likely want to set up some performance metrics that you’ll use to track and improve you performance and progress.
For me, I was encouraged by the number of new song ideas I’d had, for example, but then I began to see that the number of finished songs as a percentage of the total was dropping. I found that I had a problem endemic with creative people who like to start projects but don’t always finish them before moving on to the next idea.
Yet if you want to publish music, engage an audience and get better you must finish the tracks first, in this example. You could also argue that there are different set of skills and disciplines for finishing vs. starting, arrangement skills vs. composition skills. You need to learn and use all the skills.
This is another facet of Turning Pro that I talked about earlier, it is about consistently being able to get the finished product out the door.
The Sustain stage is about firming up the habits and routines that will allow you to maintain progress as you move to “life as usual”. Perhaps a heath scare, for example, triggered you to embark on a fitness routine, and you maintained a strict regimen and made phenomenal progress in a short period. Then the rest of life intervenes and you loosen the reigns and some or all of the progress you made slips back.
Perhaps you are struggling with consistency.
Perhaps you started writing a book, and somewhere in the first draft you gave up because performance had slowed? Perhaps you got into photography, but you stopped taking your camera everywhere with you as you had at the start.
If you think back through your own life, I’m sure you’ll be able to find examples of where you’ve been inspired with a great idea, but that energy has petered out after a while.
In the context of DREAMS, your aspiration will likely take some time to bed down, so while you’ve built momentum through the Explore and Momentum stages, it is now time to ensure that you can keep going for the long run. You might still be working on your goals and actions by the time you get to Sustain. You’ve built momentum and now you need to focus on keeping it.
It’s also worth making the point that DREAMS is iterative (even as applied to the same project/dream). You’ll work on sustaining then you’ll come around again to the stage of seeing whether anything has changed in terms of Destination, and you will (perhaps several weeks or months down the track) see where you’ve reached in terms of taking a checkpoint of Right Now. You might find that you need to pause and Explore a bit more and change the story and goals you articulate.
Back to Sustain. In my life, I know that I need to cycle 20 miles on my bike, twice a week as a minimum to maintain my energy/manage stress levels at work. If I don’t do this not only my fitness slips back, but ALL my routines begin to be impacted. This is a fact, for me, with loads of personal evidence to back it up. Yet sometimes I pretend that it doesn’t apply. Just like I try to pretend that I don’t need to sit at the kitchen table to think before jumping into writing. So, one strand of Sustain for you could be a combination of what I’ll call technical and personal processes and practices.
The technical practices will apply specifically to your aspiration. Perhaps you’ve started writing but now need to keep that up, and get better. To keep that up you’ll need to schedule time into your week to write, and probably also get into the habit of recording ideas that come to you in a notebook or on your phone. To get better at writing, for example, you’ll need not only practice but likely to also educate yourself on style and impact (e.g. through books and courses), learning how to assess your own writing (and its strengths and weaknesses) and how to self-correct.
If you’ve set yourself a goal to change careers, for example, then perhaps you have some initial momentum (you’ve updated your resume, gained some skills, made some contacts) but you need to keep up the work rate and continuous improvement around your applications or networking or creative set pieces to get the attention of the recruiter or hiring manager. Perhaps you got the job, and naturally the learning and work doesn’t stop, you have to make it stick. Same with starting a business, you can start a business easily but you need to persist with finding the product/market fit, refining the business model and marketing and so on.
You might have started, but at some stage you’ll need to think about whether you’re dabbling or you need to take things up to the next level of performance and impact. This involves a set of skills around continuous improvement. What is the next level?
Perhaps you want to change careers, and you’ve worked with a non-profit in your spare time to build up skills and connections in the area you want to move to. The next level of performance could be to move your pro-bono work to paid work at the same or a different organization (you might still volunteer after this). Perhaps you’ve joined a small firm, and want to make the leap up to a medium or large firm.
What I’ve called personal practices, links back to understanding how make the journey to your aspiration sustainable in the context of the rest of your life.
You can use the 5 spokes of The Wheel (Complete) to understand, if you haven’t already, the interrelationships between different areas of your life. Which of the areas of Vocation, Health, People, Spirit and Self-Express support your aspiration and which don’t? What about time and energy management, do you need to change when you are focusing on your aspiration, or where? What fine tuning do you need to do to get or sustain the right level of accountability you need to maintain focus.
If you’ve set performance metrics for your aspiration, then you’ll need to take another look at the set of metrics to understand if they are still the right ones, and if the tolerances and targets are still right.
Reinventing yourself used to be the exception, but now I’m feeling that it will become the norm, and to an extent that will be driven by change being forced upon us. The role of DREAMS is to allow you to take the initiative and not only be able to change once, but to build a capability, a confidence, and experience around change that will let you change again and again.
- A structured approach such as DREAMS increases the chance of success in reaching your aspiration, because it organize necessary work, and it taps into your personal motivations and drive
- Don’t censor your dreams too early, understand why you hold them, and try to build in a bit of that dream energy into your week, and to put your unique stamp on your goals and future
- Take the time to get hands on with you aspiration and explore it BEFORE articulating your goals, play first, then perform
- Compile your dossier by completing the exercises listed above and let the ideas stew for a few weeks. Do this sooner rather than later. Creativity comes from this incubation period where multiple ideas and perspectives around a problem (what you are trying to achieve) come together
- Perform a quick assessment of where you are vs your dreams, and identify 3 concrete actions you can take to engage with and explore the realities of what you are trying to do
- Try to articulate your aspiration (the whats and whys) in a few sentences or paragraphs. Talk to a friend or trusted colleague about what you plan to do. Rehearse it in front of a mirror. Find help!
Thanks for reading along. The purpose of this article has been to introduce you to some of the ideas that can allow you to get thinking about your aspiration, and ultimately to avoid the regrets of not doing anything about it or wishing you got started much sooner.
I plan to use the DREAMS approach as the basis of an ongoing conversation over the next months (hopefully in video or podcast format!). I want to get perspectives on the topics in the approach (and Complete overall) from podcast guests, experts, and yourself!
You can participate in this discussion in the comments below, or please join the LinkedIn group for Complete at the link below.
Until next time.