Dreams are important. To state this is to simultaneously “master the obvious” and state a truth that eludes a lot of us.

No Regrets

I recently faced the passing of a close relative. One result of the personal crisis has been several searching conversations with close friends and family. One conversation yielded the insight that there are two things you really don’t want to be thinking when lying under the (literal or metaphorical) bus that just hit you. The first is “gee, I really wish that I had done x”. This is the focus of this post. I’ll write on the second one (“gee, I really wish that I had taken care of X”) at a later date.

A body of emerging research strongly suggests that those of us privileged enough to be worried about career navel gazing are not deeply satisfied by money past a certain level of income. Being happy is largely a function of the personal relationships you have, community engagement, family connections etc. Similarly, within the constraints of your career, research suggests that higher levels of personal autonomy and sense of control equate to higher satisfaction and better help.

Being unhappy is, well…unpleasant. It would seem like a thing to avoid if possible. That being said, we are all bound up in external definitions of success and other considerations that compete with “following our hearts.”

The Challenge

Here’s my challenge to you; define success for yourself. Go through the exercise of writing down what a successful life looks like. It is important to be honest with yourself. Putting something in print in front of your face (or whatever method works best for you) requires you to actually articulate ideas coherently. My next challenge is to find a trusted friend or mentor and share these ideas with them to get feedback. (This begins to delve into an entire area on building and activating a network, a topic for much discussion at a later date). Do not have this be someone tied to your immediate job etc. Use your judgment to find a good friend who knows you fairly well, but can be dispassionate about the topic (ie: not someone whom your decision directly affects). I find the mere act of having this discussion helps clarify thinking and may lead to some conclusions. Some things sound crazy out loud while others get you more excited. The conversation sparks other ideas etc. It will also help identify issues with your hopes and dreams.

Here’s the next challenge, if you really think something is interesting and what you’d like to do then pursue it. Regrets are terrible things and can ruin you. “Gee, I really wish I’d done…” is a terrible thing to be carrying for years. A personal example for me was going to history graduate school. I’ve always had an interest in teaching and in history. Seems like a PhD would be a good idea. So I enrolled in a doctorate program after undergrad. What did I learn? I don’t want to be a history professor.

Thought going in: teach, mentor, debate, active exchange of ideas. Reality (for me): waayyyy too much time alone in the stacks doing research, very difficult job market, low pay, no reward for teaching etc. For me, this was a tremendously liberating experience. I KNOW I wouldn’t have been happy on that path and so I changed course and have been very happy (and better compensated) in my career choices since then. People ask me if I would have done it differently to get a few more years work experience earlier, gotten into a different MBA program etc. My answer is “Are you kidding me?” I had a great time, learned a lot and moved on. I had a great experience. I definitely do not sit around angst ridden over some idealized (and ultimately fictional) life as a history professor.

Don’t expect “perfection”

I am not a believer in self-help industry guidance with lots of exclamation points about getting “EVERYTHING!!!” and being “THE BEST!!!” etc. A friend of mine points out that by definition “it’s an average world.” My point here is not to say settle for mediocrity. Rather, it’s to encourage you to define your own set of success criteria and measure yourself. Don’t get caught up in who’s o the covers of magazines living a fabulous life.

You WILL ultimately be happier w/ something you love. You may not, however, get “everything you want”. Only a precious few get to be happy at work, have healthy family lives and be wealthy. If you do, good for you. For most of us there are choices about priorities to be made. Not making these choices will definitely lead to less than satisfying outcomes. Things to balance include family, friends, faith, work, health, interest etc. The list goes on.

My encouragement to you: Think about your goals holistically, not artificially separating work and personal. Having done that, be brave and explore your interests actively. Sitting on the couch dreaming won’t get you anywhere. Commit to a plan and put some effort into it. If you get yourself that far you will better understand the implications of your dreams across all your life goals. Then you can really understand what you want.

Some call it experience, others wisdom. Either way, it mostly comes from doing. (Aside – A friend often comments that “the devil is smarter for his age than from being the devil.”)

Take away: Spend the time to know what you REALLY want and take action.


6 Responses to “Dreams”

  1. Hi Phil,

    I like the purpose-driven life that you are advocating and I have an article by Richard Leider that I think you would enjoy. The founding fathers of this country had as their core value, “Life, Liberty, and the pusuit of Happiness,” not the pursuit of money, wealth, land, possessions, fame, etc.

    Do you have a process to help people define, think about, and articulate their success criteria?


  2. Peter – Thanks for your observation regarding the founding fathers. I do feel “happiness” is THE real goal for all of us. I also struggle with defining it. Lacking a definition, a process definition of how to get there is elusive.

    I also am philosophically hostile to “# step” processes. That is a personal tendency. I tend to want to struggle through it and explore, but not have the path through defined for me. I will tell you my process, but am not assuming this works for everyone.

    As I state in the initial post, I think everyone needs to contemplate what really makes them happy. Having said that, it isn’t easy. It requires real self reflection and exploration. My goals in my late 30s are quite different than when I was 20, 25, 30 etc.

    I tend to think about my goals in two ways. Long term goals for me are broader and my measurement of progress is more directional. “Financial security” is vague and I track in an “am I progressing” type way. Short term goals like “get my career blog going and post regularly” have more explicit tracking. It’s a yes/no answer on is it up and I can see how often I post.

    I encourage people to sit down and write goals out. Make them explicit. It sometimes helps to think about categories of goals to help think about things at a lower level. I tend to think about personal vs. professional and long term vs. short term. The short term should relate to long term in some way.

    For 2007, I have written down multiple goals as well as quantitative and qualitative targets for each (as appropriate). My personal goals are : significant progress on book, get in better shape, personal intellectual development, build and maintain network, build financial security, build a healthy home life. For each of these I have some sub goals that better define them. I have a spreadsheet and track progress monthly.

    To use this blog as an example. I have a long term goal to write a book. I had it for several years and have chunks of ideas written down, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. My long term goal wasn’t getting done even though it was written down and I tracked my (lack of) progress. So this year, I shifted gears to start a blog. I broke down the bigger goal and am planning on making progress in smaller, more consistent steps this year. We’ll see if it works 

    I’ll write a future column on measurement, but a final word on this is that defining goals without tracking progress is silly. There’s no point. I try to set stretch goals that I know I may not hit, but if I complete a good chunk of them in a year then I’ve made real personal progress.

    I’ll develop these ideas more as I keep writing. I hope this answers your question.

  3. […] They can relate to career path, personal satisfaction, salary or all of these and more. I have written on this in prior posts. I encourage you to not lose sight of your long term dreams as you work through the current […]

  4. […] – Be thoughtful about what you want. I’ve written about this in prior posts. Do you seek life balance, interesting work, high compensation etc.? What are your goals and how do […]

  5. […] something new, I want to hit on a challenge I see a lot of people face as they try to achieve these dreams. Many mistake “dreaming” for getting off the couch and making the dream happen.  If you find […]

  6. […] are important and seem to be consistent across these conversations. I’ve written about this in past posts, but my thinking has evolved over time. I want to dig a little […]

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