On Using What You Have to Get What You Want – my practical advice to reaching your dreams.
It’s so easy to find reasons not to do something.
So many of us suffer from feeling that we have to stay exactly where we are because there’s just no way for us to do that *one thing* we’ve always really wanted to do. Usually, it has to do with money, but there are plenty of reasons why we convince ourselves that the idea we’ve always had percolating in the back of our minds just isn’t practical or attainable.
“I don’t have the money to do it.”
“I don’t have enough experience.”
“I’m not smart enough.”
But for every reason that stands in the way of achieving your goals, you probably possess more qualities and assets that could be propelling you forward.
While I have certainly had lots of luck, the majority of my life I didn’t have a lot of money or a lot of friends. It would have been easy for me to look around and accept that everything was going to be this way forever, but – I found ways to pull myself up and succeed. In particular, I loved math and computers, and poured my energy into being the best I could be both. I was smart, and I knew I could leverage that positivity into the kind of life I wanted to have; I let that passion drive me rather than letting the adversities I faced tell me where I was going.
What Do You Have to Leverage?
Everyone has different strengths (and weaknesses). The most successful people are those that were able to identify their dream and harness their strengths to pursue it. What kind of strength do you have? It’s entirely possible that those assets are stepping-stones on the path to your dreams. Need some ideas, here are some potential areas to look:
Having a strong aptitude for an academic field or two can be an incredible advantage in pursuing your goals. Not only do you wield a higher than average understanding of a complex subject, but advanced degrees and academic honors lend you an air of credibility not everyone achieves. When it comes to winning people over to your side – partners, investors, employees – book-smarts and the corresponding credentials can be a powerful weapon.
Do you have a million ideas for how to solve every problem? If you can be the one to approach a problem and say, “Why hasn’t anyone tried doing it this way before?”, you can change the name of the whole game. Even if 90% of your ideas get laughed out for being too strange or impossible, no one will be laughing when your ingenuity lands you right where you need to be.
Connectivity (or networking) means you are the kind of person who can’t help but form relationships and bring others together. This idea is one I borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell who writes about this kind of person in The Tipping Point: “Sprinkled among every walk of life are a handful of people with a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances. They are Connectors.” And the networks of Connectors can be very powerful for leveraging new ideas and finding potential synergies and opportunities.
Every team needs a cheerleader, someone who behaves thoughtfully and supportively no matter what, a person who nurtures those around them. I like to call these people catalysts; when they are on a team or part of the group the whole becomes much greater than the sum of the parts. If you are always the good friend people can count on, the support you’ll receive in return when setting out for your goals will come back to you again and again. Plus, your attitude will be a valuable asset when the going gets rough.
There’s something to be said for having been around the block a few times (and I don’t mean in a dirrrty way). You’ll save time, money, and energy if you can apply what you already know about a field towards your goals. And you probably already possess the technical skills that are required. Your experience lets you go behind the scenes, to see where the biggest opportunities are and how to play the game. Not only that, but you’ll bring with you knowledge, connections, and proof that you know what you’re talking about.
- Raw Talent
Sometimes you can’t help being good at something. What’s the activity that, when you sit down to do it, feels like it flows so easily and like you could do it forever? If this is also the field where you see your dream job, count yourself lucky and go with it! You’ll have a head start on everyone else, and your efforts will pay you back as you pursue it more seriously.
The ability to not be knocked down is invaluable. Everybody wants someone on their team who they can turn to when the going gets tough, and if you can be that source of positivity and will to drive forward, you’ll be a huge asset. Even without major resources, a surplus of moxie can override a lack of money or connections easily. If you hear “no” as “not yet”, and are willing to be in the trenches at 2am, you can carry a team far.
- Problem Solving
The clock is ticking and a major decision has to be made…now. Is this where you thrive? Being a skilled problem-solver means that when the road gets bumpy on the path to your dreams, you’re prepared to handle whatever circumstances arrive. The ability to see the big picture and think logically – even under pressure, when it concerns your life’s dream – means you won’t crumble in the moment.
And of course these are only a few examples – there are many more. The trick is to identify what makes you special, your talents, and then focus on those as leverage toward your goals.
How will you make it happen?
You have to apply your strengths and energies strategically. Don’t get stuck doing tasks that feel productive, but that don’t actually help you progress from your current level. I know I have been guilty of this: working really hard on projects, or focusing on learning new skills, that actually didn’t do anything to propel me towards my dreams.
For example, when I was a software engineer, I would spend time trying to pick up lots of extra bugs in the system. At the time, I thought I was helping my team; I was completing low priority issues and also learning some other areas of the code base.
And sure, it was *useful*. But taking on a lot of low priority items – as long as other high priority things are getting done - is still less important than high priority work. No one noticed what I was doing, and even when I brought it up the recognition was far less than the expended effort. I worked super hard on tasks that only marginally helped my career and didn’t significantly push my skills either.
Thankfully one of my mentors clued me into this, and I started working on more strategic projects. We found projects that were important and visible, and consequently, because the work items were hard, they also pushed my skill set – both technically but also around communication. When you are working on high profile projects, it is critical that (in addition to your other responsibilities) you are proactive when you hit speed bumps or need help.
Don’t leap; step.
Some of the greatest things in history have been accomplished by people who were told they couldn’t do it. In the pursuit of your dreams, you have to decide that the qualities you possess are enough to propel you into that first step forward.
This can be a scary proposition for a lot of people, since in all likelihood you’re not completely dissatisfied with things the way they are now. When you’re facing the daunting task of taking the first step towards your dreams, your first reaction might be to shy away and think, “Why would I risk a fairly comfortable position for something that might not work out?” If the situation isn’t dire, where making a change isn’t absolutely critical, shying away from the risk can seem…just fine.
But here’s the thing about pursuing your dreams: it’s less of a leap – the usual imagery used for taking a risk and pursuing your dreams – and more of a series of steps. When you think about it that way, suddenly it gets a lot less scary.
When I first started my career, I wanted to be a senior software engineer. Over the years, though, I started taking steps out of that role as I was encouraged to pursue management as a career path. As an engineer, the thought that I could lead a team was completely foreign to me. I thought, “I’m introverted and I love programming; I’m not a manager – they are just overhead.”
But I kept going down that path because I wanted to have a voice, and it emphasized my natural aptitude and passions.
I worked with the strengths that I had, but also worked to improve the skills I wasn’t so great at. I had poor social skills, but instead of just accepting that and trying to be better at things I was already good at, I read self-help books and pushed myself to go to networking events, make small talk, and make new friends.
It’s something I still work on to this day. And while my rough-around-the-edges demeanor didn’t help improve my career, all along the way I worked really hard. For most of my 20s I never took vacation days (which reminds me I have only taken off 3 days since I started my job in November – time to plan a holiday) and I worked almost every weekend (I still do). I love my job and I am passionate about my work. And it carries me. Because of my drive and work ethic the people around me forgive my awkwardness, lack of attention and inappropriate comments; they respect me because I care.
It was through stepping, gradually and diligently – one meeting, one event, one promotion at a time that I eventually arrived at the position I find myself in today. I found within myself the strengths I needed, and I let those guide me. And I still keep stepping one day, one project, and one blog post at a time.
Know your strengths, have a goal, and work on your shortcomings. And most of all believe you can do it – you can get there.