The science and art of achieving your dreams

Shonda Rhimes is a successful writer, director and showrunner. She’s best known as the creator of US medical drama, Grey’s Anatomy, as well as its spin-off series, Private Practice. She’s also the executive producer of the hit US political thriller, Scandal, and has writing and directing credits on a number of other television dramas and films over the last twenty years.

In short, she’s more than a little impressive when it comes to her accomplishments in the arts and television (she was once named one of TIME magazine’s ‘100 people who shape the world’); all of which makes her a pretty credible commentator when it comes to boiling down what it takes to forge and achieve big goals.

In a commencement speech delivered to the graduating class of Dartmouth some years ago, Rhimes remarked on what has become in many ways the prevailing mantra of the 21st century, i.e.

“Follow your dreams. Listen to your spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don’t stop dreaming until your dream comes true.”

As for Rhimes’ feelings on all of the above?

“I think that’s [all] crap!”

Fairly emphatic, huh.

Now Rhimes is not anti-aspiration, or against blue sky thinking or having goals. Quite the opposite. Her issue, in her own words, is that

“Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams… [they] do not come true just because you dream them.”

Which begs the question: Why and when do dreams come true?

Because the reality, as Rhimes so sharply points out, is that not everyone reaches their dreams, not everyone fulfils their ambitions. In fact, most who have goals and aspirations actually fail to achieve them.

So, what makes the difference? What allows some to succeed where others fail? Luck? Hard work? Talent? Let’s agree each of these play their part. But what’s been tickling my intrigue when coaching others has been the many less obvious factors that can influence whether a person achieves their goals, or doesn’t.

Factors I had the opportunity to unpack and share more fully during a recent masterclass I delivered for the good folks over at CareerShifters.

I’m going to share three of them here.

Find Meaning

A survey carried out by the Energy Project (a US management consultancy involved in examining productivity, engagement and performance in the workplace) found that employees who derive meaning from their work are over three times more likely to stay with their organisations.

More than three times. That’s a big deal.

In fact, in terms of importance, this need for meaning trumped items related to career growth and learning opportunities, work-life balance, connectedness to the company’s mission, and, according to separate research, even money.

In other words, when it comes to working hard at something, the ‘why’ is a far bigger pull toward success than the ‘what’.

We need a meaningful reason behind what we’re striving for.

The interesting thing is research shows we get this sense of meaning from what we contribute to others, rather than what we accomplish for ourselves. As Jennifer Aaker, lead author of a study on the topic by the University of Stanford, says

“Happiness [is] linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness [is associated] with being a giver rather than a taker.”

In other words, to gain the kind of motivation that leads to success your goal needs to be about more than just you — and thereby something you’re willing to potentially sacrifice your own comfort or convenience for.

So, ask yourself the following question: How does your goal or dream serve others? What does it give?

If you’re able to answer well, the chances are you’ll be better equipped to achieve it.

Say No

The story goes that Warren Buffet first met Bill Gates back in 1991, ostensibly a meeting that neither was looking forward to, although, as is often the way with such things, both ended up enjoying.

Apparently during their tête-à-tête Buffet pulled out his organiser, a little black diary book, and as he flipped through the pages revealed to Gates how empty it was.

“You’ve gotta keep control of your time,” Buffet explained, “and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.”

It turns out Buffet may have been right in more ways than one.

In a review of a study carried out by the Harvard Business Review some years ago, the “opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on [one’s] most important tasks and define when and where [one] gets their work done” was cited as a core requirement of being productive and engaged.

Of course, it’s fairly obvious to say that meeting any goal will require that you set aside time to work toward it, but what’s startling is the extent to which many notable figures assert their need to guard their time, no matter how anti-social or aloof or selfish it may make them appear.

Take a look at this excerpt from a letter written by Charles Dickens when rebuffing an invitation from a friend.

Charles Dickens wrote twenty novels, several plays, along with short story collections and literary criticism and was one of the most prolific writers in the history of English language.

“‘It is only half an hour’ — ‘It is only an afternoon’ — ‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day… Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

Or how about these thoughts from management consultant and author, Peter Drucker

“One of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours — productivity in my experience consists of not doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”

Talk about single-minded. But as technologist and thought leader, Kevin Ashton, puts it

“Saying ‘no’ has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. ‘No’ guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know.”

The mantra? Focus = success. Distraction is a problem. Time is a currency.

So ask yourself; are you willing to say no? To be unpopular, misunderstood, at least temporarily, for the sake of achieving your dream?

Be Fail Safe

Despite Rhimes’ mock ode to the value of failure, the ability to tolerate it remains an integral part of achieving any significant goal.

Back in 1983 Dr JH Bryan even linked an intolerance for failure and uncertainty with impaired learning. Basically, you have to be willing to be embarrassed, get things wrong, make mistakes, be unsure and vulnerable, in order to learn.

The romantic poet John Keats’ called this understanding ‘negative capability,’ an approach Pablo Picasso also subscribed to.

“I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

Pablo Picasso

In fact everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Michael Jordan to Thomas Edison have extolled the virtues of failure; often counting it an essential part of their journey toward success.

‘I’ve failed over and over and that is why I succeed.’ — Michael Jordan

So, are you willing to fail in order to eventually succeed? To be exposed, to fall short, to be imperfect or worse? Or does feeling good matter more to you than being good?

How you (honestly) answer these questions will often determine how likely you are to reach your goals.

Which brings us back to Shonda Rhimes and her axioms on achievement. Because the reality is the above requirements are not the kinds of things a person arrives at in an instant.

It takes time to discover genuine meaning in what you’re seeking to apply yourself to, and to develop the conviction you’ll need to commit the necessary time and energy to its pursuit.

But whatever point you are at on the journey, the one thing we can all do is commit to doing rather than just dreaming. As Rhimes herself puts it:

“Maybe you know exactly what you dream of being. Or maybe you’re paralyzed because you have no idea what your passion is. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know. You just have to keep moving forward. You just have to keep doing something, seizing the next opportunity, staying open to trying something new. It doesn’t have to fit your vision of the perfect job or the perfect life. Perfect is boring and dreams are not real. Just…DO.”

So, my question — have you discovered a meaningful goal or dream, a passion that will serve others in some way and contribute to the world around you?

If so, what are you doing about it?

How are you developing your skills and working toward your goal?

What have been the challenges for you in doing so?

What have you learned?

After all, when it comes to dreams, the journey can often turn out to be as valuable as the destination.


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