Many summers ago when I was a teenager, my grandfather took my brother and me to Big Diamond Pond in northern New Hampshire for a weeklong vacation at Sportsman’s Lodge. We stayed in a log cabin on an open hillside overlooking the lake. The days were sunny, warm and lazy, filled with flitting butterflies, chirping crickets and songbirds. We spent hours swimming, boating, waterskiing (well, mostly my daredevil brother), fishing, catching lightning bugs at dusk and generally creating our own mischief. Adolescent hormones coursing through my veins at the time also compelled me to sneak glances at Cindy, the lodge owner’s attractive daughter. Granted, she was at least four or five years my senior, but no harm in looking, right?
But I digress…
One evening as we sat on the porch watching the sun set over the lake, my grandfather puffed on his ever-present cigar and said, “Steve, as you go through life always reach for the stars. Because if you only reach for the roof, you’ll never get off the ground.”
As a result of that advice, I’ve always dared to dream big dreams. His words were sound, and I have the stardust to prove it.
I’m not suggesting it was easy to achieve those dreams. In fact, it was anything but easy. But the difficulty was not what you might think. It was not the loftiness of the dream that challenged me but, rather, trying to keep the dream alive in the first place. You see, we live in a world of mediocrity where average people enjoy doing average things. There is safety and comfort in knowing one’s spouse, best friend, neighbor, co-worker, family member, or loved one has no aspirations to climb higher in life than you. We enjoy being on the same page.
If someone does indeed attempt to climb the ladder to the heavens, it immediately convicts others of their laziness. And they react strongly.
I didn’t know this fact when I was in college. A woman across the hall from me in my dorm, Angela, announced she was going to become a writer. To her credit, she found an empty room in the bowels of the building and set it up as her “escape” where she could write the proverbial Great American Novel on a manual typewriter. (Or was it a short story? I forget.) Click. Clack. Clack. Clack.
While others rolled their eyes, I silently cheered her on. Her actions watered a literary seed within me.
A year or so later, my English professor challenged me to do something with my writing skills. Between the two events, I had no choice but to finally acknowledge and pursue my muse.
The push-back was enormous. “What makes you think you can get published?” my college co-eds scoffed. “You’re not an English major.”
The accusation was correct, and I nearly bowed out. Indeed, I wasn’t an English major. I could have been – very easily, in fact, since writing was second nature to me – but I was intrigued by the field of science and had decided to learn more about it even though I pulled B’s and C’s in the courses. In the end it was about personal growth, not grades.
Quietly on the side, I wrote and submitted poems to a number of literary magazines. After one of my poems was finally accepted for publication by North American Mentor Magazine, I informed those same friends I was now published and I would begin writing a book. And thus began the years of people trying to kill my dreams. To wit:
“You may have published a poem, but it doesn’t mean you can write a book.”
I proved them wrong. I had a book contract in hand before I graduated college.
That was soon followed by: “You may have written a book, but it doesn’t mean you can write a newspaper column.”
Which was soon followed by: “You may have a newspaper column, but it doesn’t mean you can write magazine articles.”
And then by: “You may write magazine articles, but it doesn’t mean you can be a correspondent.”
And by: “You may be a correspondent, but it doesn’t mean you can be a professional photographer.”
And by: “You may be a professional photographer, but it doesn’t mean your photos will be used in tourism materials.”
On and on and on it went. At each turn, I stubbornly fought to keep my dreams alive. I refused to be chained to mediocrity. Over time I prevailed and my efforts were successful. Sadly, such an outcome is not widely shared, especially among authors, artists, musicians and essentially anyone with a creative bent. Society seems to take pleasure in crushing their vision, hopes and dreams.
So just how DO you make your dreams come true?
Match Your Dreams to Your Strength
When setting goals, focus on your strengths not your weaknesses. For instance, if you are a mediocre runner but a wonderful writer, focus on improving your writing skills not your athletic ability. If a person can improve 20% by heeding this advice, then an above-average writer (an 8, on a scale of 1 to 10) can potentially become excellent (10). By contrast, an average runner (4) can usually only improve slightly (6).
Set The Right Goals
Dreams should be about doing the right, good and fair thing. In other words, they should involve improving the world around us, not solely benefiting our selfish desires. Dreams that fall into the latter category deserve to fail. It’s one thing, for instance, to want to become an author so as to reach and have a positive influence on readers with new thoughts and ideas, but it’s an entirely different thing to write with the aspiration of becoming rich and famous.
An axiom states, “Do few things, and do them well. Heartfelt work grows slowly.” In other words, don’t spread yourself thin by trying to pursue and achieve too many dreams at once. It takes drive, determination and desire to make a dream come true. So establish only one or two objectives at a time. After all, you can give either 10% of yourself to 10 different goals or 100% to one. Which strategy do you think is more likely to succeed?
Make It Manageable
It’s perfectly fine to dream big and tackle seemingly impossible goals. However, if you do not identify key, interim achievements that help you eventually reach the ultimate goal, you can become overwhelmed and discouraged – feeling as if you are not making any progress. So break your dream into smaller bite-sized objectives. For example, if you want to publish a nonfiction book (ultimate dream), then break the journey into the following six sequential goals: plot the book, write the sample chapter(s), develop the query letter, submit the query to literary agents or publishers, contract the book, and write the book. Always know the path to your dream.
We cannot always control what happens to us, but we do control our reaction to it. When pursuing a dream, you will get knocked down. It’s inevitable, and it’s not personal. When you stumble, you can see it as being either a speed bump or a sinkhole. The choice is yours. Personally, I encourage you to stand, dust yourself off and continue the journey. Before you do, make certain you evaluate why you hit the obstacle in the first place. Was it because you’re not paying attention to details? Have you diverted your attention? Did you attempt to do too many things at once? Are you honestly giving your dream the energy and work it demands?
For authors, the most common obstacle is the rejection slip. It’s nearly always a form letter that essentially states, “Sorry, we’re not interested.” Those just beginning their literary career need to ignore the letter and continue their efforts at placing their manuscript, keeping in mind that some of the most immortal books in history have been repeatedly rejected, including:
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (JK Rowling, 12 times)
Carrie (Stephen King, 30 times)
Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell, 38 times)
Watership Down (Richard Adams, 26 times)
Dune (Frank Herbert, 23 times)
Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Richard Bach, 18 times)
Lord of the Flies (William Golding, 20 times)
A Wrinkle In Time (Madeleine L’Engle, 26 times)
The greatest number of rejections received? That honor is bestowed on William Saroyan, who allegedly received 7,000 rejection slips before he sold his first short story!
My advice on rejection slips? Wallpaper the bathroom with them.
Plug Your Ears
When you make your dream known to others, most will initially respond with enthusiastic support. But realize that will wane over time and, eventually, even loved ones will unwittingly try to prevent you from realizing your dreams. How so? Well, keep two things in mind: First, it’s your dream, not theirs. And second, they likely have no clue what it will actually take for you to fulfill your dream. As a result of these two truths, when your time, energy and efforts don’t seem to be getting you anywhere fast, you’re likely to hear comments like: You’re working again? Why don’t you take some time off and do something else? Don’t you feel like you’re spinning your wheels on this? How long are you going to keep trying to reach your goal? When are you going to wake up to reality? When you start hearing these phrases, simply plug your ears. It’s typical push-back. Don’t take it to heart.
If your dream is continually kicked aside, beaten-up and left to die in a ditch, then you need to reevaluate the situation. Be honest: Does your goal truly match your strength(s)? Are you pursuing a trend or interest that has waned (or even disappeared) since you started the journey? Is the path you’re currently on the right one to get you to your objective, or is there a better path? How you answer these questions will suggest if you need to: a) tweak or totally rework your dream (or the pathway); b) allow the dream to die; or c) be content with being the proverbial prophet before his time and, hence, not being recognized for your contribution in this lifetime. Remember that change is inevitable; growth is optional. If you are not willing to grow, you will not reach your potential.
Thirty-years ago I stumbled across a public service announcement in Reader’s Digest that made me stop cold. It illustrated how we allow our ideas, dreams and goals to fade. I cut the page out, framed it and have kept it displayed on my desk ever since. In conjunction with my grandfather’s wisdom, it serves as a reminder to me to dream big dreams and fight to keep them alive. I hope you will do the same. Our world needs hope. §