It may be stating the obvious, but I hope if you have got as far as reading this article you will have noticed that a big theme of this blog self-development. And the self-help genre is full of books which encourage you to chase your dreams, go after your passion, live your best life… But what if you don’t know what that is?
What if you don’t have 1 big dream, but many dreams, a few ideas, a couple of projects and mild frustration with your desk job? After all, there’s no point deciding to Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway if you don’t even know what it is you should do.
For me, these were the questions that were plaguing me when my book club took on ‘Your Dream Life Starts Here’ by Kristina Karllson. And quite frankly, I was not enthusiastic about the prospect. How could I go after my dream life if I couldn’t tell what it was?
When reading becomes a chore…
I took this book with me in my bag everywhere I went – despite the size of it! – in the hope I would, at some point, feel inspired to read it. That moment did not arrive. Two days before the meet up, knowing that I had to actually host the event, I took the book out my bag, and made myself start reading. I skimmed the book through in a few hours, proud that I had got a task checked off my to-do list. Yet, I felt no more enlightened.
The concept of dreaming seemed to me like writing a bucket list – in other words, nothing new. Reading the book, I did not have any realisations about my life, career, or any other life struggles.
And yet, in the time since that first skim through, I have found this to be one of the most powerful books I have read.
In taking the time to do the exercises which I had originally scoffed at, I have felt a real shift in my perspective. I feel inspired, energised and hopeful about the year ahead, and have seen those ideas I had brewing the back of my mind kick into motion.
The power of your dreams
The first exercise in the book is to sit down and write out your dreams. 101 of them, to be precise.
101 is a monumental task. I suspect that the most creative amongst us may come up with 40 in the first sitting, but after I hit 10, it got tricky. (Not to mention the temptation to simply list out each country in the world I want to visit to fill another 50 or dreams on the list!).
Yet, getting as close to 101 as possible is the key to pushing yourself beyond what you normally dream about in your everyday life. It makes you delve into the depths of your consciousness to identify those dreams which have lay dormant or which have been turning over in the back of your mind without you noticing. Above all, it starts the process of bringing those dreams into reality by putting them on paper.
Here is a selection of my dreams:
- Travel. This is a big one. Top of my extensive lists are the following: Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, India (Taj Mahal, Delhi, explore Indian trains and rural India), Japan, China (see the great wall), Hawaii, a trip around the US, live for a year in New York and/or LA, the list goes on and on and on….!
- Reach my peak health and fitness, not only physically but mentally. I want to be flexible, strong, energised, free from anxiety & depression and regularly experiencing joy.
- Buy my own house, design/decorate it beautiful and own all my own wonderful furniture
- Buy a car that is comfortable to drive and looks smart, ideally electric
- Write a successful non-fiction book (exact specialism & definition of ‘success’ both are still being defined!)
- Look at my bank account and see savings and investments instead of debt!
- Learn Spanish and regain fluency in French
- Do 200HR Yoga Teacher Training & complete a yoga retreat
Since writing the list, I have a put in motion a 5-week trip to India through my work, joined a new gym, and opened a new bank account to better manage my finances and savings. I even bagged tickets to a retreat weekend (although a full, 1-week immersive yoga retreat is still a dream!)
As soon as I had these ideas on paper, I felt excited about my life, started to notice when these opportunities came up, and took proactive steps toward realising these dreams. Would these opportunities have come about anyway? Maybe, who knows? But I’ve certainly become more aware of what I am looking for in life.
#1 Downside to dreaming
The whole point of dreaming is not to impose limits on yourself. It is not a dream if you have 10 caveats: “I dream of owning my own home but that’s not a real dream because I don’t feel [insert excuse here: financially capable/independent/etc].” (Although, side note: listening to the caveats you impose on yourself can be an enlightening part of the process of writing down your dreams, as you realise often that what is holding you back is not a valid reason at all!)
Yet equally, how can you feel grateful for what you have when, in writing your dreams, you are also bringing to attention all the ways in which your life does not yet feel ‘enough’?
This theme is another which plagues the self-help genre. Earlier in the year, reading Paul McKenna’s book Change your life in 7 days, I found it impossible to visualise my ‘ideal self’ without essentially implying my ‘current self’ is not good enough.
Over the past year, I have started journaling almost every night. I end by noting down at least 3 things I am grateful for, and I aim to get specific about what things, small or large, I am grateful for that day. At first, I didn’t see a huge change, but after 6 months I can really feel a difference. I am excited about my life, proud of my achievements and feel much happier. I wasn’t sold on the idea of noting what you are grateful for, but it isn’t a short-term fix. It is powerful over the long term (and after all, hasn’t ‘giving thanks’ been central to prayer for centuries? Our ancestors knew what they were doing!). Taking time out of your day to visualise or write down everything that needs to improve goes directly against gratitude practice, and for that I’m hesitant to go after it.
#2 downside to dreaming
A lot of the dreams naturally relate to your career, so again when you’re not sure what you want to do, there may be 10 different dreams of businesses you want to start, things you want to do in your current career, and major career switches to entirely different professions. How do you address this? It certainly can help in terms of identifying what is going off in that brain of yours, but does nothing to help sort through the ideas, figure out what you would enjoy most.
Although I think proactively prioritising dreams on paper as suggested in the book is important to give you direction, to identify a route forward, what you think you would enjoy most may not marry up to what you actually will enjoy most.
Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Cant Ignore You, arrived in my life at exactly the right time. I can’t help but feel there was a little synchronicity involved there…
Newport outlines the issues he has with following your passion, and instead advocates for what he terms a ‘Craftsman mindset’. He argues that following your passion is not usually enough. Instead, you should focus on what you are good at, build up ‘career capital’ in that area (i.e. valuable and rare skills) that you can ‘cash in’ at a later date for increased freedom and independence.
Newport’s book resonates powerfully with me and confirmed what I had previously thought to be true: you find purpose not through following your passion, but through working hard and following opportunity.
Or, as Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her incredible SuperSoul Sessions talk, follow your curiosity, and you just might find your passion
I also believe that as you become good at something, in most cases you will enjoy it more. Mastery when aligned with your values brings pride and a sense of achievement. Alone, this is not a formula for finding your purpose or your passion, nor does it help you achieve your dreams, but it provides a baseline upon which to build a life you love. Or at least, that’s the plan…
Striking a balance
Ultimately, going after your dreams regardless of your capability, with no proven track record in that area and without sufficient planning is a recipe for disappointment. But to keep your head down and work hard without feeling inspired or excited by what lies ahead will only end in misery! Writing down your dreams is powerful. It helps orient you and inspire you. But it is an ever-evolving process. As you learn and grow, your perception of what you are capable of evolves, and so do your interests. As ever in life, there is a balance to be found: dream wildly and freely, act purposefully with awareness. Jay Shetty summed this up perfectly in his podcast ‘On Purpose’, with the following formula:
Intention + Awareness + Attention + Action
Dreaming is the key to identifying your intention, but awareness of who you are, what you can do and your career capital are essential to ensuring you have a viable plan. When you are ready, focus your attention on the objective and take action toward your dreams. It is only at this last stage that you should take the leap, by that point, you know you have mitigated risk, you know your strategy is sound, and the rest is left to faith.