Stop following your dreams and do this instead
When I was home educating four children, other parents were often aghast at how ‘brave’ this was. They would tell me that if their children weren’t in school and ‘made to study’, they would learn nothing. To me, the idea of children who were not full of questions and hungry to learn every second of the day seemed extraordinary.
Our different views of children and how learning works came from different experiences. What I observed was that by respecting children’s autonomy, their intrinsic motivation stayed in tact. In a supportive environment, children could choose their learning. Knowledge and skills flowed when the learner was in control. Their confidence and competence levels rose as a result.
This is why I became fascinated by intrinsic motivation when writing books like Winning Parent, Winning Child.
More recently I’ve been thinking about what it takes to create a life of value through work. And once again I’ve returned to thinking about intrinsic motivation. I’ve been reading Cal Newton’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which led me to researching Self Determination Theory:
Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.
When we having autonomy over aspects of our lives; when we are skillful and connected, then the motivation doesn’t have to applied from outside. This is as true of our work as it is of children learning.
And whether it’s the life of a scientist or a writer, work that motivates us and in which we find value and meaning is a great goal. We all desire this kind of work. We want creativity, control and the possibility of making a difference through what we do. Such work is something to feel passionate about.
So what’s wrong with finding our passion and following those dreams?
1. You don’t have one fixed purpose, you have choices
We hear all the time that we are each put on earth for some pre-ordained purpose. If that’s the case, why does so much effort needed to discover this single purpose? And why are ‘purposes’ all too often phrased in such general terms that they mean nothing? Generic slogans like ‘teaching the world wellness’ don’t motivate or enable us to live intentional lives. They are far too amorphous. How do we actually go about living ‘to bring universal harmony’?
2. You may not know your passions yet
The anxiety around discovering your passion and your purpose can be intense. But most of us have things we’re more disposed towards and more interested in. I’ve worked in theology, education, publishing and writing over the last thirty-five years. I’ve had a lot of meaningful work along the way in all areas.
But it’s only recently that I’ve begun to plan a next phase that brings the skills from all these areas together. I hope the next phase will make a greater contribution as well as being even more meaningful to me. I do know it wouldn’t have happened if I’d stayed with one area, even though I was passionate about it at the time.
And not everyone knows what they want to do at the age of 16, 18, 22 … It can take some trial and error. While experimenting we can develop skills along the way or spend more limited periods trying something out.
3. Putting dreams first is the wrong way round
Passion seems to be one of the watch words of our age. Slogans about finding ourselves and our purpose are everywhere. But even if you have a passion, that doesn’t mean you will be an overnight sensation by following it.
The purpose of this is not to squash dreams or recommend a life of drudgery. The goal is meaningful work that gives you have a high degree of control and creativity. But dreaming won’t get you there.
4. Asking ‘what can I give?’ rather than ‘what can I get?’ is a better route
The dream-route is one paved with craving. We all want things, whether emotional, spiritual or material, but organising our lives around what the world can give us tends to lead to wanting more. It’s not the way of satisfaction, deep work and meaning.
The myth is that living by some pre-determined passion, we find the elixir of happiness while making millions. The reality is that a life built on dreams can sour. When we reverse the order, ask what we can give to the world, the passion can follow. It’s not that it doesn’t matter, but that we have to have other things in place first.
Instead of dreams?
1. Get the skills
Cal Newton advises that we adopt what he calls the craftsman mentality. We ask what we are good at and how we can get better. We stretch our abilities through deliberate practice, developing skills that bring creativity, impact and control.
Adopt a craftsman mindset and then the passion follows.
When we do this we focus on what we can give to the world.
This isn’t a recipe for menial or meaningless work or for giving up on what you love. Instead it’s a way of developing a level of consistency, generosity and clarity that will stretch, challenge and delight you. What it won’t do is allow your ego to run riot.
2. Be deliberate
The book of Ecclesiastes tells us:
There’s nothing new under the sun.
Innovation is hard and to gain more autonomy and fulfilment we need to excel in our particular field. To get to this point needs:
- constant new learning
- pushing beyond your comfort zone
- putting in time and tracking it
- taking on projects that stretch you and getting feedback
3. Make connections
A meaningful and fulfilling work life requires particular types of connection. The biologist Stephen Kauffman coined the metaphor of the ‘adjacent possible’ from his work on evolution. It is the space beyond the edge of current thinking where the collision of ideas (often from different areas) results in innovation. It’s the space in which new ideas are possible and viable.
In Where Good Ideas Come From Steven Johnson takes the metaphor into culture, commenting:
The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.
New ideas come from putting together existing ideas in new ways. The more we make connections, the more inventive our thinking.
I’ve been teaching writing for the last twelve years and delivering mentoring for the last six, but as I work on a new project I find myself going back to draw on things I learnt in other fields. It’s exiting to make such connections. The synergy of ideas from writing, education theory and theological metaphors is powerful. But it’s also slow and deliberate work.
And it’s not the only way in which we need to connect. Besides connecting disparate ideas we also need to make connections with people.
People who always depend on others and give little or nothing are draining. But people who appear to need nothing, who go it alone, face a different sort of challenge. Sooner or later life throws a problem into the mix that demands we ask for help. If we’ve done nothing to build connections then being independent might seem less attractive at this point.
In the same way that ideas colliding brings innovation, when people connect and collaborate they are more than the sum of the parts. Collaboration enables us to be generous and live from abundance. It also builds a network of people who will help when needed. Being interdependent is far better than being either dependent and independent.
4. Make small experiments
You don’t have to do it all at once. Instead of thinking ‘overnight sensation’, think about building knowledge and skill with patience.
Try out small but important projects that make you create new value. Make connections. Go for small steps that have concrete results. And, again, check the feedback.
5. Be extraordinary
When you focus on skills, put in the work, try things out, learn from the results and start making connections, then you become extraordinary.
Seth Godin talks about the ‘purple cow’, a product or an idea so remarkable that everyone remarks on it. When what you do is excellent and attractive to people; when what you do makes a difference people will gather around it.
6. Be in the right place
But only if what you do is both excellent and findable. A cutting edge geneticist needs a lab, a team and funding. A nutritional blogger needs a platform that attracts traffic and interest.
You need to excel and you need to put yourself in the way of the right people in the right places.
- If we set out to follow our dreams without the skills and connections needed, there is a danger of imminent disappointment.
- There isn’t one purpose in life waiting for discovery.
- Instead of chasing dreams look for an area where you can exercise creativity, make a difference and increase your autonomy.
- It’s better to ask what you can give to the world than what it can give you.
- Push yourself; stretch your mind, be patient: focus and concentrate.
- As you develop skills, make connections and become extraordinary, the passion will follow and you will find yourself on a mission.