We are a species blessed with the ability for imagination. This gift is the precursor to creation and hope, it is unfortunately also the precursor to inaction and fear. For many of us, and many of the clients that I work with in my coaching practice, it is this second result that is often the case, particularly when it comes to our dreams.
We're Good At The Wrong Thing
When painting the landscape of our fears we are all Michelangelo, able to capture with such great detail all the subtleties, colors, emotions, and objects within our fears. We can articulate all the possibilities for an endeavor to go sideways, all the consequences of a decision, and all the loss we might experience. Many of us allow our fears to suck the air out of our dreams, choking them, never letting them grow into anything more than a disappointed whisper in the back of our consciousness.
Paying With Our Lives
Unfortunately there is a very real and painful consequence to ignoring our dreams: regret. An Australian palliative care nurse by the name of Bronnie Ware was witness to many deaths, and had many conversations with patients as they were transitioning out of this world. She recorded what she heard to be the top five most common regrets from her patients.
The number one regret, the one that she heard most often, she paraphrased as this:
"I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
She goes on to provide some commentary:
"When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made."
Can you imagine being at the end of your life with no ability to make any changes, and feeling an overwhelming sense of regret? Can you imagine that being the taste in your mouth as you go?
Loss At Any Cost
If we know that denying our dreams, many of which are objectively accessible to us, can have such terrible consequences, why do so many of us do it?
The reason partly has to do with how we're wired.There is a phenomenon in economics called Loss Aversion, which put simply means that we are wired to strongly prefer avoiding losses, more so than we are to achieving gains. Essentially we feel the psychological effects of a loss more so than the effects of a gain.
When it comes to our dreams we have a bias towards avoiding a loss, even if when we can gain so much. The irony, as we've seen from the regrets of those dying, is that we are actually embracing an even larger loss in the long-term.
The Answer Is A Question
What can we do to overcome this innate wiring that we have, which has us focusing on our fears? There is a set of great questions my wife's former workplace created in conjunction with the Conscientious Leadership Group, titled Questions For a Curious Leader. They've compiled them into a PDF that I highly recommend you check out.
Contained therein is this question:
Am I seeing that the opposite of my story is as true as my original story? Am I recognizing that the meaning I draw from my story is my chosen interpretation, not “The Truth”?
If I'm describing a possible outcome and it's clear that it's coming from a place of fear, I'll do two things:
1. Tell the opposite story of the one that I'm telling.
The fear story I used to tell was that if I quit the job I was unhappy with no other company would hire me, I wouldn't find work that made me happy, and I would live out my days regretting my decision. The opposite of that, or the dream story, would be that I would find other work, that the work would be fulfilling, and I would rejoice at having had the courage to quit my job.
2. Admit that the dream story could also be true.
I then confront the possibility of the dream story also being true, as true as I believe the fear story to be.
This process is great for two reasons. The first is it requires you to generate the dream story and articulate it in detail and out loud. The second is it helps you to accept that it might also be true, as likely to be true as the fear story that you were telling before.
A Step Forward
Our dreams are important. The regret that those patients felt was probably one of those most profound experiences of their lives. They had it, then they gave up the ghost.
What a tragedy. Not because they were the victims, but the greatest tragedy of all is that they visited it upon themselves. There is not one person reading this article that is beyond pursuing some of their dreams. Every day for the rest of this week you will wake up and either pursue your dreams, or ignore them. You'll be faced with the same decision every morning of next week, and the week after, and every day for the rest of your life. That is of course until you have no more days.
So today, right now even, I want you to think of the primary fear story in your life, the biggest, baddest story that's keeping you from taking a step towards that dream that's inside of you, maybe one that you've never told anyone else about. I want you to articulate the fear story first, and then create the dream story. Once you've done that, I would love to hear about them from you. Email me at samuel at thelittleyes dot com and share your stories with me.