When I was a teenager, my mom called me a dreamer.
She didn’t mean it as a compliment, but she wasn’t wrong.
I’ve always been idealistic, my head regularly inhabiting the clouds. I’d sing along with John Lennon’s Imagine and revel in the fact that we were soul mates. You’re NOT the only one, John. We’re in this together!
I took pride in that side of myself. But when my mom labeled me a dreamer, and I knew it wasn’t a compliment, it got my attention.
Of course, my idiot teenage response was, “What does she know?”
Eventually, I would relate to Mark Twain, who said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
When I graduated from college, I had big dreams. I was going to marry the love of my life. I was going to become a successful artist. And I may or may not have imagined the small town I came from erecting a statue in my honor one day.
But in order for my dream to work, I needed my parents to let me live with them in the year between graduation and the wedding. That would give me the financial runway to knock on doors, get my name out there, and start making things happen.
I knew I needed a plan. I put together a multi-page document outlining my detailed strategy and financial projections. I don’t know if my parents let me stay with them for that year rent-free because of the brilliance of my plan, or because that’s what parents do and there really wasn’t another option. And as most business plans go, big chunks of it fell apart when it got punched in the mouth by reality.
But it did give me focus, direction, and accountability to do the work that propelled me forward on my journey. It exposed me to an important truth I’ve seen at work again and again in the last twenty-five years:
The most successful people balance hopes and dreams with practicality and hard work.
If you spend all your time with your head in the clouds, you may come up with a world-changing idea or two. But if you don’t have the initiative and work ethic to put toward them, they’ll never materialize.
World-changing ideas are worthless without execution.
On the other hand, a relentless work ethic that lacks vision is wasteful. People in this camp default to letting someone else tell them what to do – which is unlikely to lead to happiness – or they toil without purpose, methodically plodding along in no particular direction.
When you keep your head down all the time, you’re blind to the road signs pointing to exciting possibilities.
A rocket ship requires practical thought, precise calculations, and productive persistence to achieve orbit. But it requires a dreamer to imagine they can reach the stars in the first place.
It’s a tricky balance, and my experience leads me to believe people are usually stronger in one area than the other. As I shared, I am a dreamer at heart. But getting where I am today required a lot of hustle, sacrifice, experimentation, and experience gained from failure.
Henry David Thoreau gave us the blueprint when he said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
My mother’s candid observation was meant to be helpful. And it was. It inspired me to buckle down. Maybe at first just to prove her wrong, but eventually simply because she was right.
What camp are you in?
If you are more of a dreamer, maybe you need to spend time putting your ideas into action with a little elbow grease. It’s more comfortable to live in Dreamland where reality doesn’t rudely poke holes in your grand visions. Don’t be discouraged by the failures you encounter, for they are not arrows piercing the heart of your dream, but merely guideposts pointing you in the direction to go.
If you are more of a “nose to the grindstone” type of person, perhaps you need to give yourself permission to wonder aimlessly and dream of something better. Sure, it’s more comfortable to stay in work mode than get your hopes up for a future that may never happen. But that only leads to a future you never wanted. Don’t worry about figuring it all out before you begin. Plant your flag on a future summit and use your work ethic and practicality to plot your path there one step at a time.
Both ways are hard. But great things don’t come easy.
This gummy bear knows what’s up.
Dreaming of six-pack abs is a good start, but amounts to nothing without any sit-ups.
But the sit-ups are a waste of time if we never pondered why we wanted the six-pack abs in the first place.
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