Living the Dream

Live your own dream, or you may just end up living someone else’s.

I love this phrase: “Living the dream.”

Whenever I hear it, I always think of the movie The Princess Bride. You know, the scene in which Inigo, Vezzini, and Fezzik are standing atop the Cliffs of Insanity after cutting the rope so that the man in black will fall to his untimely demise, only to discover that, once the rope is cut, he did not fall to his demise, but is now scaling the cliffs by hand.

“Inconceivable!” says Vezzini. One of the hundreds of times he has uttered the word.

Inigo turns to him and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

In the case of “Living the dream,” it’s been used sarcastically so much that it seems it’s lost most of its original meaning, in the same vein as, “Good one, Einstein.”

Sarcasm aside, when people utter that phrase, what they’re really saying is, “Living someone else’s dream.”

It begs the question: if you’re not living the dream, or worse yet, you’re living someone else’s dream, why do you keep doing it?

It’s a question I still grapple with in my life and work time to time. What I’ve found is that you often get to this point of frustration by following paths that are laid out by our well-intentioned societal norms and highly encouraged by people around us. But as the proverb goes, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

When it comes to career paths, our passions, and choices, we’ve designed our world to guide us in very specific directions and created societal norms to steer people clear of the troubled waters of uniqueness. Our norms clearly dictate the so-called normal progression of a life: grow up, go to school, go to college, get a job, have a family, buy a dog, buy a house, raise the family, retire from the job, then enjoy life, and shortly after, die.

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?’ And whenever the answer is ’No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

~ Steve Jobs

As a species, we have the most agency of any creature in our known universe. We’ve developed self-awareness to such an extent that we can reflect on our actions and learn from them. If anybody can change, humans can. And once we commit to that change, we can physically rewire our biology so that we see the world in a different way. That is pretty amazing when you think about it, because no other living creature can do that.

So why do we get stuck?

Comfort

Believe it or not, to venture out of the space in which we feel stifled is more nerve-wracking and anxiety-filled than remaining where we are. Rather than expand our comfort zone and deal with the temporary discomfort, we shelter in place. At least if we stay put, we know what’s expected of us, and we know what to expect. And what could be more comforting than meeting expectations?

Drama

Who doesn’t want to join teammates in glorious conversations about how their boss is an a-hole? It is so satisfying to partake in the gossip, especially if you happen to work for somebody for which there is mutual disdain. For the love of the drama, we want to be the victim, the martyr, to have a cross to have to bear. It’s a role that brings us some pride because it gives us something to talk about, something to share, a way to connect with others. But it is not healthy.

Choice

Life is a choose your own adventure novel. It’s gratifying to know that you get to wake up and conduct yourself in whatever manner you see fit on any given day. There are infinite possibilities to reinvent yourself. But often times, we simply abdicate our ability to choose and settle for the status quo. We could reinvent ourselves in every subsequent moment, but meh. Why take a chance when we can stay right where we are and let the world change around us? We never have to make a scary decision, commit to anything, or accept any responsibility.

So, how do we make a change?

What I’ve found is that it all comes back to this idea of mindset. Our mindset dictates how we see the world, whether we spot opportunity or continue to be mired in our present, unhealthy state of affairs.

Whether we realize it or not, we do have a choice in this regard and if we abdicate that choice, then the world will choose for us. Can’t recall who said it, but it goes something like this: If you don’t follow your dreams, there are plenty of people out there who will use you to follow theirs.

…There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

~ William Shakespeare

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has built her career on understanding mindset. Through her research and experiments, she’s identified two mindsets: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, people tend to believe that qualities like intelligence, ability to learn, etc., are fixed and cannot be changed; in a growth mindset, people believe that these qualities are flexible, and that their capacities can be increased through hard work and discipline.

For many years I lived in a fixed mindset. I couldn’t see the possibility that lay in front of me, even though I was focused (and to this day) on continuous learning. My choice of mindset was the default that was handed to me, one that was created out of a desire to seek other people’s approval for my actions.

We’re praised from a very young age when we “do the right thing.” But what the right thing is at any given moment varies with the desired outcome and our morals and ethics. But, the pattern that is reinforced is the need to please the most important people in our short lives, our parents and family, with our decision making.

When we receive praise for gaining the approval of others, our brains respond by triggering a dopamine rush. This dopamine rush feels so good that we repeat the pattern over and over again until it becomes a habit. Like a junkie, we become addicted to receiving the praise. The behavior then becomes self-reinforcing.

When we seek praise, what we’re looking for is validation and approval for who we are outside of ourselves. As we grow older and begin to develop a sense of self, we slowly realize that what we feel inside doesn’t necessarily match our outward actions. We are beginning to develop that sense of self and what’s important to us, and it’s in direct conflict with the previous training we’ve received.

We’ve been taught to gain approval by following clearly defined paths, so when we make an independent decision to steer our own course, we’re often looked upon with disdain and contempt, and made to feel less. Being human, and possessing a natural propensity to seek the condition of least resistance, we retreat and most times follow the prescribed path rather than following what we know to be true in our heart.

Now we’ve arrived at the root of the problem: misalignment between our inner essence and our outer actions. To truly live the dream, we have to let go of the desire to validate who we are from an outside source.

This is no easy task, especially in light of all the social programming we’ve received in this space. I’m approaching forty years on this planet, and this is still a regular challenge for me. Just when I think I get it, life kicks me in the teeth. It’s one thing to intellectually understand a concept, and it’s a whole other to actually implement it in your life. It’s taken me some time to get to a place where I can honestly say , “Do I look like I give a [email protected]#k?” Most of the time.

The one thing that has helped me, and I repeat as a mantra is, “I can’t control outcomes.” It reminds me of a fundamental human truth — you cannot control how things turn out; you can only control how you approach them.

Think about this in terms of Dweck’s growth mindset. If I accept this as a fact of my own being, then I can let go of my desire to drive a specific outcome and open myself to the process of learning and growing.

I manifest this in my life by focusing on the process, not the outcome. Yes, the outcome’s important, because it’s where I want to be, but the reality is that the only thing I can do to get there is to work the process. The end product I will produce will be what it needs to be.

‘The right shot at the right moment does not come because you do not let go of yourself. You do not wait for fulfillment but brace yourself for failure. So long as that is so, you have no choice but to call forth something yourself that ought to happen independently of you, and so long as you call it forth your hand will not open in the right way — like the hand of a child…’

~ Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery

The beauty of this approach is that when I’m doing the work, it gets me deep into flow. Inside of flow, I’m performing at my peak. And when I get to the end, if I don’t like the end product it produces, then I tweak the process, measure the outcome and adjust accordingly. Once I’m achieving the desired outcomes, then I stick to that process until it’s time to change.

The process itself becomes a form of play. Like a child who’s creating their world with pots and pans and cardboard boxes, I’m tinkering with things, running experiments, making adjustments, always in service to learning.

What’s been great about this approach is that there are seemingly an infinite variety of processes you can use to reach a finished product, so I can tinker with it as much as I want until it’s running smoothly. It also frees me from the perfectionist constraints of having to create something specific to the vision in my head, which is often the greatest source of resistance in any project.

I can’t yet say that every day I live is part of some beautiful dream. That will come with time and wisdom I hope. But I can say that the majority of the time I’m engaged in the creative process feels good, and the way that I engage with other parts of my life make me feel good. Bit by bit, it’s how I’ve begun to live the dream.