Many of us walk around with dreams of acquiring a new skill, of finding another job, of starting our own business, of breaking out of difficult circumstances … And the dreams often remain that. Dreams. We – sometimes, at least – fail to turn our vision into reality.
Others find the means to make the desired change happen – even when the odds seem long.
What makes the difference? External factors certainly play a role: it is easier to make change happen if you have ample resources, including a supportive environment. However, our self-talk is even more important.
I will share some reflections on how I have worked on my own “inner voices” to make change happen. I do this in humility; there are people who have achieved much more than I have, who have taken greater chances than I have, who have successfully carved out a new life in more difficult circumstances than I have. My thoughts go to refugees, for example, who bet everything on a one-way ticket, not knowing their final destination, with limited language skills, without financial resources. Many of them succeed spectacularly. I take my hat off to them. But, others will have to share their stories.
What triggered my reflection on this topic of turning vision into reality was an exchange I recently had with a long-standing friend. We have known one another for 30 years. She was contemplating a career change, and I encouraged her. She wanted to become a teacher, and I expressed that I was convinced that she had a lot to offer and I recommended she simply “go for it”. I shared my perspective that the upside seemed large (greater fulfillment, greater sense of meaning) and that the downside seemed limited (What is the worst that could happen?). My friend appreciated the encouragement, but she was scared of making the jump. There were so many un-knowns. She paused and then exclaimed, “For you, everything seems possible: you just make up your mind to ‘go for it’, and you do it. But for me it’s just not like that.” This stopped me in my tracks.
It is true that I have carved my own path in life. Randy Pausch (Author of The Last Lecture) says: “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” Long before I heard Randy use these words, indeed, long before they were spoken, I have taken this attitude to life.
The first example that comes to mind is the choice I made when I was 15. I was just finishing junior high. Pimply and immature, I knew one thing that I wanted. I wanted to go abroad for high school. To learn another language. To get exposure to a different culture. To learn things that I could not possibly learn in my home environment. I was living in Norway at the time, and I applied to go to high school in France. I probably had an inkling that this would be tough – after all, I knew no French … So I piled up all the reference letters I could muster. I wrote glowingly about the summer jobs that I had had … and my application was rejected. In hindsight, I must say “thank you” to the wise people who rejected my application – it was the right call. But the rejection spurred me on. I did not receive any explanation for the rejection, but I surmised that my youth and my lack of language skills had contributed. I determined that I would apply again last next year. In the meantime, I would grow a year older (and, I was convinced, a lot wiser and more mature) and I would learn French. The aging took care of itself. I took care of learning French. My French was still rudimentary as I turned 16, but it was a lot better than a year earlier. I applied again, and got in. Over the next three years I had a ball. It was hard work, but, being fully immersed in a French environment, I actually did learn the language properly, and I picked up a wealth of cultural experiences. My dream was realized.
The most recent example is perhaps a choice I made last year. At the age of 52, I decided to move to Hong Kong. I did not know many people in Hong Kong but for a variety of reasons, I was keen to live and work in China. I wanted to understand (better, at least) the Chinese view of the world, Chinese culture and Chinese philosophy. I knew that I could only get so far by reading books on these topics while living in Europe. Having made up my mind, I set about to make it happen. I established a company in Hong Kong. On behalf of the company, I interviewed myself (this went very well), and extended a job offer to myself. With this offer in hand, I applied for a work visa. The application process was arduous. From memory, I believe I submitted more than 40 pieces of documentation, in three rounds, to the immigration authorities. They were still not happy. They indicated that they were planning to reject my application. I called up the case officer, convinced him to give me a two-week extension, flew to Hong Kong, opened my local bank account and returned the “proof of active bank account” to the immigration authorities. This was the last piece of missing documentation. My application was approved. Now I have been working in Hong Kong for a year, and I have started to recruit employees to my fledgling firm.
In between these two examples – one from more than 30 years ago, one from last year, there are many others. So, I can understand my friend’s attitude: “for you, everything seems possible”. I sense that it is true that I have had a knack for “making things happen”. This starts with mindset. It starts with identifying inner voices that are less-than-productive, and managing these voices. The inner voices say many things. In my case, they have whispered:
“What makes you think you can actually achieve this?”
“Are you sure it is worth the trouble?”
“Aren’t you being arrogant, believing that you can aim this high?”
“This new endeavor seems risky. You are much better off sticking to your current trajectory. After all, you are quite successful doing what you do now.”
Ignoring such inner voices does not work well. They will speak to you while you sleep. They will speak to you when you are under stress, when you are tired, when you are distracted – whenever you don’t have the energy to argue with them. The better way is to bring them out into the daylight. Write down what they are saying. When you take a hard look at these written statements, you can ask: “Is this all? Is this really the best challenge you have for me?”
The inner voices typically start with something factual, something true. They might start by saying: “It’s not always so easy. Remember: you failed to win that scholarship that you applied for. You failed to land that job you applied for.” Then they blow this out of proportion and apply the learning from these experiences indiscriminately. They might continue: “You often exaggerate your own capabilities. That is what happened when you dared to apply for this scholarship, for this job, and – see – you failed. Don’t think too highly of yourself. Better play it safe.”
Here is the technique I have found to manage the inner voices. After writing down what they are saying, I acknowledge the fact base. Then I test whether the learning from these facts actually applies to the current situation. Often it does not. And I articulate the reasons why it’s invalid to apply the learning to the current situation. Next step: I reflect on all the counter-arguments. What are good reasons that I should pursue this opportunity? When I have written all of this down, I find I have a much better basis for making decisions and choosing the risk profile I want.
It’s not hard to do. The main challenge is to muster the discipline to get started. And it’s worth it. It helps us break through the brick walls that Andy Pausch refers to.
Oh, and my friend whom I referred to in the beginning? She ended up taking the job as a high school teacher. She found the courage and made the jump. Today she is delighted with her job. Her students love her and she derives great meaning from her work. She addressed her inner voices and overcame her trepidation. I am hugely inspired by her success.
What are your inner voices saying? How do you manage them? How can you ensure they do not detract you from turning your vision into reality? I would love to hear your perspective and your experiences.