October 28, 2009

Bulk view

Big dreams and small dreams can coexist

On the way home from work yesterday, I realized that big dreams and small dreams can co-exist.

I’ve struggled with that idea for a while. Ever since grade school, people have told me that I have great potential. I distinguished myself early through programming, went to a high school for geeks, and continued to do pretty cool things in university. Once I’d gotten past class essays, I discovered the joy of writing and presenting.

Big dreams were easy for me to find. My parents often reminded me that to whom much is given, much is expected. Whether I was focusing on open source, computer science education, or even something as esoteric as Emacs, I could find the big picture and see the difference I wanted to make.

Big dreams have their own tyrannies. I heard stories of younger people doing more incredible things, and I felt that I had been wasting time. I read studies of women in the workplace, and I worried that having relationships or raising a family would stop me from being able to do what I want to do. (The numbers are pretty scary.) Choices felt like compromises in a zero-sum game. Time spent doing one thing could not be spent building skills in another.

Something changed, and I’m starting to figure out how to express it.

Yesterday, I realized that big dreams and small dreams can co-exist. I have big dreams that require decades, such as helping build truly global organizations. And I have dreams about the minutiae of everyday.

I used to feel embarrassed by my small dreams. I’m slowly giving myself permission to admit that yes, I do want to know the pleasures of harvesting from a garden. I want to know what it’s like to build a small business–not a billion-dollar one, just something that teaches me how to take business risks and create value. And who knows, maybe someday we might raise a family. (The preview I have from watching W- raise J- is pretty encouraging.)

The previous paragraph still feels a little odd. I half-expect my parents to chime in here and tell me it’s too early to think about these things, or coworkers to shush me because confessing interests outside the workplace may hurt my chances of promotion, or former teachers who might say, “I can’t believe you’re settling down! You could do so much more than this.”

But small dreams are also okay. It’s good for me to know that I have them, and for me to nurture them just as I do my big dreams.

It’s good to talk about them, too. We hide our small dreams because we think they make us small. We fear they’ll limit our big dreams. As a result, we miss out on the kinship of small dreams and the joy of everyday things.

So what triggered this epiphany that big dreams and small dreams can co-exist?

Yesterday, one of my little experiments at work started paying off. A small program I’d written helped me learn a lot more about helping communities connect. I realized that even where I am right now–a recent hire, a relative beginner–I can help make my big dreams happen. More than that, I realized that my big dreams are amazingly flexible. To follow my big dreams, I don’t need to wait for the right job title, salary, or situation. I can contribute from right here. I can work with others. I can start from scratch if I need to.

That realization is incredibly liberating, because it means that I don’t have to worry about falling short of my potential as long as I do my best with each step.

It seems that the key fear people have about life decisions is that if they make the wrong one, they can fall off the fast track. Promotion in organizations is like a tournament where losses have far more impact than you might guess. People re-entering the workforce after an extended break can be at a significant disadvantage compared to people who have stayed in. Even backing the wrong project or the wrong leader can scuttle one’s hopes.

But if my success isn’t determined by external factors such as position, pay, or prestige, then possibilities open up. I was successful yesterday because I had helped make things better. I can be successful again and again. The better I get at understanding success, the better I’ll be at creating opportunities for myself and others.

That ability to create opportunities for my big dreams means that I can explore my small dreams without worrying that I’ll mess up my life. =) Based on my experiences so far, I can follow my intuition and my curiosity, trusting that the different threads of my life will come together in surprisingly useful ways. Having small dreams doesn’t mean I care less about my big ones. The small dreams round me out, coax me to grow, and give me a kaleidoscope of raw material that will help me help make my big dreams happen.