You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. –C. S. Lewis
I Can Do Anything!
Do you remember as a kid when adults asked us: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
And at that joyous age of five or six or seven, we respond with all of the energy and excitement of childhood when we say, “Football star!” “Astronaut!” “President!” “Firefighter!” “Superhero!”
And the adults would say, “That’s so wonderful! What a great dream you have! If you work hard, you can be anything you want to be.”
Didn’t that feel awesome? Didn’t it make us feel so big and powerful, that a smart grownup had validated our dream, said it was good, and said that we had what it takes to make that dream a reality?
I can do anything! we think to ourselves. Anything! I can travel to Mars and start my own company and write a bestseller and play piano at Carnegie Hall, all on break from saving the world from alien invasion (or zombie horde).
As we grow up, though, the tenor of that question changes, and so does the adults’ response to our answers. When we say “Astronaut!” at age 10, the adults still may say “Great!”—but each year as we grow older, and especially as we cross the threshold into our teens and charge toward adulthood, the question develops a decided edge to it, and our youthful answers are not as well accepted. Do you remember?
“I want to be an astronaut!” you say at age 14 or 15 or 16. And in response, instead of “Awesome, you can be anything you want!” the answer becomes, “Well, not very many people make to being an astronaut, and only the best of them make it to the space missions. What if you considered being an engineer who works on the space shuttle that takes the astronauts into space?”
At first, when faced with this option, we say immediately “No way! I don’t want to be some damn engineer—I want to fly the spaceships, not make them!”
“Well, just think about it… we’re just trying to give you a backup plan.” they say.
And as we approach our graduation from high school and start college, the question grows teeth. “What are you going to do with your life?” the adults ask, and now we know, after years of conditioning, that saying “astronaut” at 20 or 21 or 22 is not going to be met with the same enthusiasm as it did when we were six.
So we say something like, “I’m going to pursue my degree in aerospace engineering, and see about getting a job in the space program.” Astronaut is still what’s in our mind’s eye, but the adults are thinking “Oh, good, engineering is secure. I hear NASA is having troubles though, but maybe he’ll find a good job at one of the government contractors….”
Conditioning Away the Dream
As adults it’s hard pinpoint a specific moment when we gave up on our dream, because it probably wasn’t a specific moment. It was a gradual process, a slow conditioning over time, to accept the safe path, the college-job-tenure-retirement track that was the hallmark of security and stability and success.
My parents conditioned me because they wanted the best for me, and they thought that “best” was the Conventional Wisdom of Work: go to college, get a stable career at a good company, and slowly work your way up the ladder over your 40 years of employment, until you retired with a nice pension and could enjoy your golden years in comfort and security.
I’m sure that path must have worked for somebody, sometime, but I’m not convinced it works for anybody any more… how’s it working for you?
The scary part is, as much as I talk about finding your own way and freeing your own hero, when it comes to my kids I have struggled not to do the same exact thing to them. When my daughter said “Horse Trainer!” at 9 or 10, I dismissed it as a phase (“What 10-year-old girl doesn’t dream of owning a bunch of horses?” I justified) and started selling her on “veterinarian” or “zoologist.” When my son talked about being an “Inventor!” my mind went immediately to—ugh!—“engineer.” (See the next section for the explanation behind that “ugh!”)
And the worst part about it was that I did it automatically. It was in my brain and out of my mouth before I even knew I was doing it. So the conditioning that worked on me became like a virus, starting to infect them, too. And that scares the hell out of me.
So now I’m consciously and committedly pulling back on that instinct. I’m much more sensitive to it now, aware not only of when I’m doing it, but also of the effect it has on them, and on me. And if I hear that conditioning threatening to take over, I clamp my teeth together until I get control of it, and then I say instead, “That sounds really exciting! Go for it! I believe in you, and I’m here to support you.”
Sure they might fail. Sure they might pick something that’s crazy difficult or huge or daunting. I’d rather they dream their own soul’s big, powerful dream, risk everything and go for it full-tilt, and potentially not reach it… than settle for something small and safe and let the big dream die.
And to allow them to believe in and pursue their own dreams, I have to believe in and pursue mine, conditioning be damned.
The Soul Rebels
I had therefore to remove knowledge, in order to make room for belief. –Immanuel Kant
Believing in my dream and fighting off the yoke of that conditioning is a struggle I’ve fought for years. I’m reminded of a time my soul rebelled against that conditioning with that same ferocity it had when I was a kid:
My first day of college orientation at the University of Michigan. All of my friends were choosing their first semester courses. They were picking things like philosophy and literature and psychology and religion and political science—all these amazing choices, mind-expanding subjects—to me, the ideal college experience… an education.
And me? I walked up, and when I said “College of Engineering” I was handed a list—the list of courses I would take for the full four years of my college career. Classes like chemistry and physics and engineering and math.
“Where’s the philosophy or anthropology or…?” I asked, starting to panic a little.
“Well, you have these two elective slots that you can take that sort of thing.”
Two? TWO?! My mind was screaming.
The poor staff person could see my distress, but obviously misread it—as concern about having to take liberal arts courses, rather than concern for not being able to take any—because she replied, “Most of the engineers just take ‘Great Books I’ and ‘Great Books II’—don’t worry, those are really easy.”
No, no, no!
Within minutes I was on the phone, almost in tears, telling my parents I couldn’t possibly stay in engineering one more minute.
“Just stick it out for the first year,” my mom said, trying to be supportive, yet realistic. “See how it goes. Who knows, you might end up liking it.”
No way in hell, was the thought in my head. But I said, “Okay, that makes sense.”
And so I tried it, hated it (no big surprise to you or me, I’m sure), and was in my counselor’s office before the end of the first semester. He explained that I couldn’t transfer from the College of Engineering to the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) until the end of my first year, and I explained, very firmly, that I was getting out as soon as possible. Without another word he signed the waiver that let me take any class I wanted, and another form that would start the process of my transfer to my new home in LSA.
So for my second semester I jettisoned the Engineering curriculum and started taking courses I was really excited about, and gave up an engineering scholarship to pursue my definition of an education, instead of job training.
Yep, I gave up a scholarship and a career-building education in a stable field. Not the safest path. But I did so because I knew it wasn’t right for me. I’d gone to school to have my mind expanded—to think and learn and argue and grow—and I just couldn’t see doing that in engineering. (No offense to those for whom engineering is their calling… it just wasn’t mine.)
I haven’t ever regretted that decision.
Even when I’ve struggled to make the bills, and worked days and evenings to make ends meet, and took jobs I wasn’t thrilled about, and squeezed in time to write some stories or a novel (or this blog) on the side—I haven’t ever thought, “Gosh, I should have stayed in engineering.”
Lost in the Attic
Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter. –Arnold Schwarzenegger
But I lost my dream in other ways, a small bit at a time, nibbled on by the rats of “normal life.” I took jobs as an editor (that’s close to writing, right?) because it paid well, and was steady, and I needed the money. My writing projects got back-burnered as I took on more and more responsibility, as I got promoted, and then promoted again.
And then, with the responsibilities of job and family and house and bills and all that, writing slowly fell by the wayside. I’d fiddle with a story on weekends, but never finish, never get it to the point where I’d consider sending it out. (There’s a whole other gravity story there… for another time.)
Despite all that, the dream of writing, of creating, of putting amazing stories into the world and having people be really moved and inspired and entertained—that’s never left. It’s been there, buried deep under the weight of responsibilities and excuses and time spent in idle (if fun) pursuits.
Is yours the same? Is your dream like that favorite childhood toy—relegated to the attic when you “grew up” and started to “act your age”? Is it waiting there, in a dusty corner of that attic, waiting for you to find it, brush it off, and feel again that rush of emotions—of infinite love and possibility and fun—you felt the first time you held it in your hands?
A Different Choice
One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying. –Joan of Arc
My point in writing this is not to blame the grownups in our lives for brainwashing us into drinking the Kool‑Aid of “normal life.” It’s not to complain about what’s happened to us, to wonder where all the good years went, to wail and gnash teeth at the unfairness of it all. It’s not even to question why we let it happen—I’m sure there are books written on the subject.
Suffice to say we choose to let it happen to us, for a host of reasons.
We choose to stop dreaming big dreams, even before we’ve had a chance to see if they can even come true. We choose to give up the opportunity of doing something great in the world, in exchange for the “safe” and “secure” and “logical”.
We choose to let others dictate for us what will make us happy or fulfilled, and we choose to listen to them, even when we know in our hearts that it’s the exact opposite of what we need. We know that the “grownups” in our lives encourage us to choose dreams they think will make us happy, careers they think will serve us well, and lifestyles they think we can live in comfortably—and they steer us away from dreams that might not come true, that might disappoint us, or might hurt us.
In a way, the people in our lives act much like our Lizard Brain/Resistance/Gravity does: encouraging us to avoid risk and pain in favor of comfort and safety. It’s all well-meaning, all good-intentioned, with our best interests at heart.
Or so they (and we) think.
But I will argue this point: do any of those reasons really serve our ultimate best interest, if they keep us from becoming the person we were truly meant to become?
You already know my answer.
It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen. –Muhammad Ali
There’s so many people who tell us what we can’t do, how we’re not good enough, how we should just be happy with what we have. What if we found someone who did the reverse? Who believed in us, in the infinite possibility in each of us? Wouldn’t that make a difference? Might that not fuel our dream again, fuel our launch into the stratosphere?
I’m positive that having someone who believes in us can help us see our dream as possible. It has for me. None of what you’re reading would be here if not for the blessing of having people in my life who believe that my dream is possible for me. And the beauty is that it’s rekindled the spark of my own belief in myself. I believe again that my dream is possible. And that, my friends, is incredibly powerful.
I’m also positive it only takes one person who believes in you to spark that change in you, to light the fire of your dream. If you have one person who is in your corner, who believes in you and what you’re doing, you can hold that person up against the naysayers and critics and unbelievers of the world, repel that negativity with the power of belief. The power of their belief in you, to start… and eventually your own powerful belief in yourself.
But this is not all about us. It’s not about taking that energy of belief into ourselves and doing nothing with it. No, the power of the dream is in the doing, in showing that the impossible is possible, and inspiring others to rekindle their own dreams. It’s about us serving as the catalyst for the transformation of someone else. It’s about believing in them, even if they don’t have the belief yet themselves.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. –Marianne Williamson
Go Forth and Believe
My charge to you today is three-fold.
First, find your dream catalyst, your true believer. If you don’t have one, find one (at least one). Make it a priority. Get out into the world and connect with people who share similar interests and beliefs to you, and soon enough you will find at least one person who sees something in you… who bonds with you and believes in you almost on instinct. And likely as not, you will see that same something in them… which brings me to…
Second, be a dream catalyst for someone else. Be heroic enough to be someone else’s true believer. Find someone for whom you can be the rocket fuel that launches their dream. All it takes is listening to them, carefully, quietly, intently. Dreams are shy creatures, especially when they’ve been beaten down or abandoned. They need coaxing to come out into the light. But if you are patient and kind and sincere, soon enough you’ll see that dream emerge. And what better gift to give to someone else than to help them believe in themselves, to believe they have a dream worth pursuing, a true life worth living?
Third, believe in yourself. This may sound hopelessly hokey to you (that’s your Gravity talking, by the way). Or it may sound incredibly difficult (also your Gravity talking). Either way, no matter the Gravity that’s holding you back from believing in yourself and your dream, I’m convinced that when you do the other two, this one becomes easier. Belief in ourselves may be sparked by someone else’s belief in us, but it grows when we become a believer in someone else. When we see the potential in another human being, and then another, and then another, we realize our power as a species to change our world for the better. And our belief in ourselves blossoms.
(If you need a little extra help in the loving and believing in yourself department, there’s a great little book that might help. It’s called Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It, by Kamal Ravikant. I highly recommend it.)
I Believe in You
I believe in you. Even if we haven’t met yet. I believe you have a dream inside you, clamoring to see the light of day, and waiting for you to set it free. I believe that dream is meant to change the world in some way, big or small, whether for many thousands… or that singular, special person.
I believe in you, and I believe in the power of your dream.
Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. –Harriet Tubman
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