We Pace Within The Bars of Our Own Imagination

Have you ever heard somebody say, “I wish I could <do something or other>”, with a wistful look in their eye?  And you want to grab and shake them and say, “you CAN.  Do it NOW!”  And it is just so obvious to you that what they wish for is right there in front of them, ready to be seized if only they would have the gumption to reach for it.  Well, guess what: a lot of the time, you are that person.

We are the biggest buzzkill and the harshest critic standing between us and our dreams.  We shrink back from the echoes of old failures, from carping and doubting voices that ring inside our heads.  “I’m not the type who starts a company.”  “I’m not a natural leader.”  “I’m not creative.”  “I’m not a good writer, or an artist, or an athlete.”  We fence ourselves in behind these imaginary barriers, looking wistfully at the banquet of delights that we think is permanently locked away from our reach.

So What do You Want?  Really Want?

A fun way to start breaking through is to do a little fantasizing.  Try finishing these sentences:

  • “Of course it isn’t practical, but I’ve always wanted to …”
  • “I don’t do it any more, but when I was a kid I always loved to …”
  • “The times in my life when I was most exhilarated and at my best, I was …”
  • “In my dream job, I …”
  • “In the life that I daydream about, ….”

Get something down that you can look at.  Maybe write a journal entry on paper or on a computer, mindmap on a white board (with an encouraging friend, if that works for you), or draw on a big piece of paper, or collage a poster full of pictures.  Find some cool images on the Internet.  Whatever gets your juices flowing.

We’re not trying to be practical here, we’re trying to dream a little.  Always wanted to be an astronaut and explore other galaxies? You are five feet tall and walk with a cane, but fantasize about being an NFL running back or an Olympic athlete?  It’s all good.

After you’ve had a shot at this, and you sit back and take a look, you might suspect that some of your fantasies are a lot more fun in your imagination than they really would be in practice.  That’s probably true.  There is a reason that the phrase “it reads better than it lives” comes up a lot in adventure tales.  But you’ll never know until you try something, whether you will really like it.  And you may stumble across some related activity that is even better.  I backpacked quite a bit when I was in school, living out some fantasies that I had when I was a kid.  I discovered that backpacking is fun, but what I absolutely loved was rock climbing.  And I did quite a lot of it, in some amazingly beautiful places, and had adventures that I still often think about.

It takes a bit of work to figure out what will make you happier and more fulfilled.  You don’t have to – there are intelligent and highly paid people working hard to take care of that for you.  Their siren song is everywhere – how great your life will be if you have a fancier car, a bigger house, more fashionable clothes, and glamorous vacations.  There is overwhelming evidence that these things won’t make you happier, but perhaps you are the exception.  Run, hamster, run .. maybe you will get there, if only you can make that wheel spin a little faster!

Life Isn’t All or Nothing

One of the traps that I see people fall into all the time is being much too black or white about their dreams.  “I want to be an Olympic downhill skier, but I’m 40 so obviously that’s not going to happen.  So instead, I’ll have beer and chips on the couch.”  Uh huh.  Or, somebody is working full time and is a parent so they decide that their dream to be an artist is hopeless.  But you don’t have to be a full-time artist in order to make art.  If you are fascinated by outer space, you can study astrophysics, go to lectures, paint scenes set on other worlds, go to space camp, build your own telescope, and visit observatories.

If you love something, then weaving aspects of it into your life can be richly fulfilling, even if you can’t do it all the time or do it to the level that you fantasize about.  After all, even an Olympian only gets to compete in the games for a couple of days every four years.

Just Take a Step

Now you come to the crucial all-important step that so many people leave out.  They have dreams, but they don’t turn vision into action.  A grand goal like “become an artist” or “write a book” is great, but you can’t sit down on Monday afternoon at 2pm and become an artist.  You have to turn those ideas into concrete actions you can do right now.

To become an artist, maybe you need to research art classes at a local school or get an instruction book on some techniques you want to learn.  If you want to start a company, attend a local get-together of entrepreneurs or read a book about it.  I like to think about this as “just take a step”.  Write down everything you can think of that you know exactly how to do and can get done in less than an hour.  A big goal may seem impossibly daunting if you think of it as a whole, but surely you can spare an hour?  And then, after you’ve spent one hour, pick the next thing and spend another one.

Magic of Starting

There is a wonderful quote, which is commonly attributed to Goethe.  Sadly, that’s not exactly true.  But it’s great anyway, even if it has a mixed ancestry, and I have repeatedly found it to be true: “Whatever you do, or dream you can do, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.  Begin it now.”

Are you being a spasmodic Hercules?

I’m a fan of Anthony Trollope, who was an amazingly prolific British writer in the nineteenth century.  While working full time for much of his life, he produced 47 novels and a variety of other works.  The novels were typically hundreds of pages long and many of them are regarded as classics; if you want to try one with a lot of contemporary resonance, you might like “The Way We Live Now”.  It’s about a financial manipulator who insinuates himself into upper crust society (a terrific miniseries was made of it starring David Suchet).  How did Trollope produce such a huge body of consistently excellent work?  This quote from him offers a clue: “A small daily task, if it really be daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.”  He was very self-disciplined about writing, finding ways to weave it throughout his life even while he was in a demanding full time job.

Trollope’s experience reinforces something I’ve often seen and experienced – the power of habit, and conversely how difficult it is to achieve something big if you try to pursue it with isolated bursts of activity.  Some things can be done in short sprints of effort, applied at uneven intervals, but many important and transformative things cannot.  You won’t learn a foreign language or start a company or play an instrument well or get in shape, without putting in the time and doing it regularly.

This is not a new idea .. Aristotle (who managed to achieve a thing or two) wrote about it a few thousand years ago, when he said “you are what you do habitually.”  You may know about a more recent take on the notion in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, where he talks about the magic of working 10,000 hours to master an activity.  Gladwell has found many fields where the people who hit that number have become dramatically better than everyone around them and achieved remarkable results.  You aren’t going to accumulate that kind of experience unless you are doing it virtually every day for many years.

I think that there are two reasons why a habit can let us achieve so much more:

  • The investment adds up over time.  When we’re forcing ourselves to do something, we often have a very poor sense of how much actual productive time we’re devoting to it.  We vividly remember the times when we worked on our project, not the long stretches when we didn’t.  We also remember all the time we spent thinking about doing it.  But none of that really matters – what counts is the time you spend doing it.  By making it a habit, you spend a lot less time thinking about it or planning it or stressing about not doing it .. and your regular investments of time really add up after a while.   It’s just like the difference between saving money as a conscious act of repeated self-denial vs. having it deducted automatically from your paycheck.
  • Habits take less willpower.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but I’ve found that it’s far easier to do something as a habit.  Once you have an ingrained habit, you don’t have to constantly force yourself .. it’s just what you do.  For instance, take working out.  For the past several months, I’ve worked out pretty much every day.  At 6:15, off I go for a 45 minute session.  I don’t think about it, I don’t will myself to go, it’s just the way it is.  I used to work out regularly much less often, and then try to supplement it with additional time that I had to schedule.  And that was always a struggle – a thousand other priorities competed with a workout, and they often (usually) won.  As a habit, it just happens.

There is some good advice in this article on how to make a habit really stick – committing for 30 days, doing something daily, starting with a manageable piece, and so forth.  I thought this blog entry from Martin Varsavsky was also very interesting – he has founded seven companies, runs a large non-profit, and he writes and speaks prolifically.  He writes about how he keeps so many things going at once, and it is by having carefully streamlined his life.  He’s cultivated a set of habits that save time, and has eliminated many that waste it.  Like television.  I find many of his ideas to make sense (our family “cut the cord” on television ten years ago, and it has been a great success for us).  I radically disagree with some of his other decisions, like not reading books – I’ve been an obsessive reader since I was 4 and would be miserable without having books as a constant presence in my life.  But the point is not whether you agree with his decisions .. it’s to think about your own life as carefully as he has and find ways to optimize it for what makes you feel happy and fulfilled.

What important goals could you be achieving by turning them into habits?