Do You Need A Dream To Be Successful?

Blah, blah, blah.

Dream big dreams. Follow your passion. Change the world.

How can you possibly achieve anything without a courageous, reckless, impossible dream?

But what if you don’t have a dream? Or it’s not audacious enough?

Are you a hopeless failure?

Destined to mediocrity and insignificance?

In today’s culture, it’s as if you are flawed if you don’t have a big dream.

Hogwash.

Even Indiana Jones didn’t start his career searching for the Lost Ark.

But how do you thrive without a big dream?

Survival as the catalyst

Very few people start with the clarity of a big dream.

We like to think of the world as a stable place. Where we have a big dream, make a plan and follow a set road to a destination. It feels safe to think that way.

But even the most carefully laid plans can go wrong.

And it’s bloody hard to pursue a dream when you’re worried about putting food on the table or a roof over your head.

Sometimes it starts with surviving.

One winter I lost access to the building I was using to run my dog training business.

Boom.

No income and bills looming.

I felt like I was Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Revenant, lost in a forest with opponents on all sides, trying to survive a harsh Canadian winter. (Well, I was in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter, but that’s beside the point.)

In desperation, I started to write out a training program to help people prepare for a big event in dog agility. I burned the candle at both ends for weeks putting it together.

I cobbled together a basic website (with zero coding or HTML skills) and sent an email out to a list I was part of. And it took off.

I never dreamed of starting an online business.

But desperation opened up a whole new world for me.

That frigid Canadian forest was full of peril… and opportunity.

Curiosity as the clue

No one comes out of the womb with skills.

Skills develop because you follow your interests.

A brilliant musician once said to me:

I get really angry when people say to me I’m naturally talented. I worked my ass off to get where I am. If I had a talent, it was that I loved music.

Pay attention to things that catch your eye and your imagination. They are clues.

Imagine that same Canadian forest and the scent of pine on a warm summer night . You follow a twinkling firefly along a faint trail.

Let your interests lead you in the same way.

Maybe you like to draw, or write, or play the guitar. You hear those and tend to think “artist”, “author”, “musician”.

But you can express those interests in so many different ways. It’s not as simple as “I want to be a fireman when I grow up.”

I remember taking my Border Collie puppy to a local trainer for obedience. There was all this weird equipment around and she encouraged me to try agility (thank you, Carole Smith).

It looked like fun so I gave it a go.

It wasn’t my dream.

I never imagined dog training would become my livelihood — and take me around the world.

As Steve Jobs once said:

People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.

Dreams are the same way.

It’s okay to be uncertain about your goals and your dreams. So much unhappiness and discontent come from feeling like you should know what your dream is.

Leave yourself open to new things. Explore.  Don’t lock yourself into the things you should like… or think you have a talent for. Open your mind to possibilities you never imagined.

Enjoy everything you come across with a child-like enthusiasm. No goals or expectations attached.

Instead of scaring you, the forest becomes an enchanting adventure, ripe with discovery.

Remember, follow the firefly.

Peace in the present

You break through the trees and find a sparkling lake at the base of a magnificent mountain.

The path goes on, but you’ve no desire to go further. You’re happy. You feel content and fulfilled.

Is that wrong?

Should you be wishing for something more?

There’s no rule in the fine print of life that says you have to always be struggling and striving and proving yourself… pursuing the next world-changing dream.

And don’t let anyone tell you different.

That’s one attitude (of many) that happens to be prevalent in today’s culture.

Step back and enjoy life.

For a moment ignore the responsibility of your looming deadline or the crushing avalanche of expectation. Put down your phone and listen to the birds. Take in a breath of fresh air.

This whole “you must know your dream” thing is blown way out of proportion.

You don’t want to miss the life you have now, frustrated and impatient for some mysterious future revelation.

Sometimes the treasure you seek is right in front of you. But you need to slow down long enough to notice the lake, to luxuriate in it.

If you want to press on, do so. If you’re content in this moment, stay.

There’s no “right” answer.

You don’t need to change the world

If you have a big dream, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too.

You have so many choices and opportunities over the course of a lifetime there’s no way of knowing where you will end up.

Don’t limit yourself to one narrow view of yourself.

Perhaps not having a dream opens more doors?

Is that possible?

Any dream you have today is for the person you are today. It doesn’t take into account the person you are going to be. It locks you into a box, instead of leaving you free to consider the opportunities.

Although it seems like big dreams change the world, it’s the small movements of everyday life that change people. You don’t need a big dream to make a big difference.

What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family. – Mother Teresa

So don’t worry if you don’t have a dream. Keep it simple.

Here’s the thing.

You live life forward but you understand it backward. — Abraham Verghese

Survive your winter. Follow your firefly. Delight in each new discovery.

Because when you “arrive”, you’ll look back and you’ll understand.

You’re always living the dream.


(This post was inspired by the book The Path by Professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, and a thought-provoking conversation with Henneke Duistermaat.)

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