How do you react to people squelching your dreams or selling you short? Does this make you dig your heels deeper to prove them wrong, or surrender to low expectations?
Balancing Potential and Goals
A former colleague of mine, Jeff Atkinson, dug deeper. We both worked in thankless jobs at Stanford Business School. Occasionally he left work a few minutes early to chase his dream – a spot on the US Track and Field Olympic team. This eventually cost him his job. But his efforts to better his mile times got him all the way to the 1500m final! He held Stanford’s mile record – 3.55 minutes- for over 35 years!
Coaches and talent scouts failed to see his potential, and Jeff was not recruited after high school. Through steady hard work he eventually won the US Olympic trials and became one of the world’s top ten 1500-meter runners at the Seoul Olympics. This self-prescribed “late bloomer” was labeled by some as an “immature Southern California beach boy.” Jeff appeared easy going, surviving on a few hundred dollars a month working, training and couch-surfing with friends. But he had an inner purpose and sense of place that wasn’t defined by external expectations. This propelled him all the way to the finish line. He also dreamed of becoming a movie producer, but he now produces winning high school track students – as a track coach in his old Southern California beach town.
Meg Jay, PhD, talks about potential in her book, The Defining Decade. “Part of realizing our potential is recognizing how our particular gifts and limitations fit with the world around us. We realize this “when we do not let others tell us what we should be like.” Gold medalist Peggy Oleksiak emulated this. Recently she shared in Insider.com how a former teacher told her the sport of swimming “wouldn’t get her anywhere. “Stop swimming and focus on school,” he told her. Today she is Canada’s most decorated Olympian, having earned three medals at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Tyranny of the Shoulds
In The Defining Decade, Meg Jay describes the tyranny of the shoulds. “Shoulds can masquerade as high standards or lofty goals. Goals direct us from the inside, but shoulds are paralyzing judgements from the outside. Goals feel like authentic dreams, while shoulds feel like oppressive obligations.” Had Jeff and Peggy surrendered to spending more time at work or school, they would have failed to reach their full potential.
Life is a balance of obligations- but how many people never had a chance to fulfill their dream because society thought they should choose another path. Why should we define others’ dreams? My husband’s dream was to start his own company. Right when he received his first round of funding, he was offered a position at a profitable company. Should he take the safer financial bet? Building a company was a risky endeavor, but he might never again receive this opportunity. I agreed he should take the funding, and he turned down the job offer. Did his company survive? No- after reaching 20 employees, he lost his primary funding source when the venture capitalists lost their funding. But he will never regret the opportunity. The lessons he learned served him well for future leadership positions.
There is not always a clear path, but each decision can contribute to the next part of the journey. The most successful entrepreneurs are those who turn down the more conventional, safe routes, and assume a certain level of risk. They are not paralyzed by indecision or failure. But what is failure, other than society’s arbitrary measure? Sometimes we need to redefine success. What motivates people to take a leap? In The Last Lecture, Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch once told his students that obstacles are meant to show us how badly we want something.
What is your brick wall? When you hit a brick wall, do you let it stop you in your tracks, do you leap over it, or proceed with caution. Negative reinforcement can feel like a brick wall- either your own or someone else’s.
Is pessimism doing you a favor? A supervising teacher once said to me, “We have enough bad teachers, we don’t need another one.” This was her premature assessment of me at 19 as a young student teacher, when I struggled with classroom management. An older male education professor told me, “There are a lot of other jobs out there- you can become a waitress.” Eventually I became a long term substitute teacher, and discovered that I connected especially well to older students.
I became an impactful teacher when I was hired to help a group of at-risk high school students survive their freshman year. But for years, that supervisor’s words would haunt me every time I had a bad day, until I finally stopped believing them. My future was not hers to decide, and I did not need not let her negative assumptions determine my identity. Sometimes the best teachers are the ones who students know care about them.
Reaching for the Stars
A friend’s brother had a similar experience. A high school teacher once told her brother not to bother applying to colleges, as he did not “have what it takes” to succeed. He ultimately became a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic- and performed the surgery that removed her cancer. Did he succeed out of determination to prove this person wrong? Or because he had the internal motivation all along and no one knew how to unlock that.
My son always showed interest in the solar system. He wanted to graduate from college and work at NASA like his father once did. Despite his precociousness from a young age, his dyslexia challenged him academically. This took a hit on his self-esteem. When I tried to enroll him in a Christian school, they failed to see his God-given potential, what he could become. Despite no compelling reason to reject his application, they informed us he might be better suited for a school with more “resources.”
He did not need special resources; he just needed people to believe in him, so he could believe in himself. Fortunately, others saw that potential and nourished it. At the age of 19, he received a full-time job offer with generous pay and full college tuition, and was nominated for a STEM achievement award. He put his college education on hold during the pandemic, but this once anxious kid delivered presentations to hundreds of people. And he is being mentored by some of the brightest minds in physics, working on the world’s largest digital telescope. He adjusted his goals along the way, but he did not stop dreaming.
Daring to be Vulnerable
In my first professional job, I struggled with organizational skills, handling hundreds of sales accounts for an educational textbook publisher. (We had new computers, but not the programs needed to operate them). I shared my concerns with my boss, which was seen as a lack of confidence to complete my work. It nearly cost me my job: my sales career nearly derailed before it even began. My boss had a preconceived notion of what would make a stellar sales representative, but we grew to greatly respect each other.
Thankfully we both persevered. Ironically, some of my biggest sellers were math textbooks- the subject that gave me so much grief as a high school senior. I ended up becoming one the most top-selling sales representatives in the company’s history, winning numerous awards, shattering sales quotas, and making valuable marketing and editorial contributions. I never knew if it was my desire to prove myself, or a natural ability, or both. At what point do we stop feeling the need to prove something to others- or even to ourselves- while keeping our identity intact? When are our efforts enough?
This manager gave me a chance and became my biggest supporter. She celebrated my successes, all the way to the awards banquet, and across the world when I presented at an international sales meeting. Years later, she visited me when I was struggling to walk again after being stricken with a painful nervous system disorder. My early teacher supervisor never saw the end outcome- how students now linger between classes to say hello, feel safe to ask me questions and converse about struggles they are having in their lives, and they bring their grades up from Ds to As. Sometimes the best employees are the ones who truly care about others.
A friend once shared how a high school counselor told her brother to avoid college- as he “did not have what it took.” He became a surgeon at Mayo Clinic. When she developed cancer, he removed the tumor! Similarly, Pastor Andy Konigsmark was told college would be a pipe dream, due to a severe learning disability. Andy earned a Bachelors, Masters and doctorate degree.
Even more compelling is author/speaker Art Berg’s story, The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. As a young man, he became a quadriplegic, when his friend dozed at the wheel. Art thrust himself into regaining as much movement as possible- then a doctor diagnosed him with “excessive happiness.” He sequestered Art to a solitary room so he would not give other patients false hope.
I recall this killjoy approach, when stricken with a disabling disorder after surgery to remove a mass from my leg. CRPS is a condition so painful, that some patients become suicidal. Keen to regain mobility when temporarily unable to walk unaided, I sought treatment at a prominent pain clinic. Having waited weeks for my appointment, I eagerly rolled my wheelchair into the examining room, MRI in hand. The doctor announced: “I don’t need to see it; I cannot read MRIs. I’m not good with feet, but I can take a look. We can give you a spinal nerve block, but you might bleed to death from low platelets. It might worsen your pain.” My dream of being healed was diminishing more with each sentence. She recorded in my medical chart: “Patient seems anxious.”
Fortunately I found a physical therapist who infused me with hope of fully recovering. I went on to complete two dozen triathlons, a few half marathons, 100K bike rides, and a half ironman.
Why are people so afraid to give others hope? A triathlon coach said to me, “I’ve learned never to underestimate you.” Yet many people do just that, whether intentional or not.
In the Bible, Proverbs 13:12 refers to “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” What longing are you waiting to fulfill and what or who is holding you back?
And how can you become an encouragement to someone needing hope? Offer a supportive presence and lead by quiet example. Professor Brandon Irwin, in the Harvard Business Review, writes: “Constant encouragement did not have the intended effect of inspiring plankers to improve. Having a partner who was better than you appeared to be incredibly motivating…as long as that person didn’t try to motivate you.” Sometimes a partner at your side is all it takes to push you to your best self!