In my current phase of life, I find myself searching for next steps and trying to stay open to new possibilities. When I mention this to people, many urge me to “dream big,” or something along those lines. I realize that “dreaming big” means different things to different people. To me and my circle of 30-somethings, it often means a demanding career filled with status, money, influence, travel, pressure, tight deadlines, and accolades. They envision a high-risk, high-reward type of endeavor. While I understand that they’re trying to be encouraging, I really wish they wouldn’t be so quick to steer me toward workaholism.

We’ve been taught to worship ambition and feel shame for “playing small.” When we think about our jobs and our life strategy, many of us can’t help but factor in a decision’s high or low status.  Contentment seems to take a back seat to glitz.

In truth, I find more joy in the quiet moments than the flashy ones. I’m happier when my life isn’t overrun with meetings, deadlines, and stress. The blank space gives me room to live.

As I dream about what comes next, I can’t help but be excited by the small things. I think it would be amazing to have a simple life with people I love, a job or business that meaningfully helps a handful of people, and the training1 required to make responsible decisions for them.

Though we’ve all heard stories of famous people insisting that they succeeded because they took risks and shot for the stars, I don’t buy it. Luck seems to play a larger role than the ultra-successful care to admit. To further obscure reality, we never hear from the countless people who dreamt big, took a risk, and failed. For them, dreaming big turned out to be a horrible life strategy.

When I look at the small group of 30-somethings in my life who have made a meaningful impact in our world, none of them started off by dreaming big. Instead, they found something they cared about and dedicated themselves to it. Because they consistently put out high quality work, people started calling on them to lead, and they accumulated true influence.

So instead of asking myself, “How can I affect a million people’s lives with my next project?” I ask myself, “How can I affect 30 people’s lives? What do I love so much that I’d be happy to suffer for it, even if no one notices?” For the first time ever, I’m giving myself permission to dream small.

 

Footnotes

  1. While most of my peers in entrepreneurship and blogging mock the idea of going back to school, I’ve become convinced that credentials matter. We’re plagued by an anti-expert backlash where we turn to bloggers, podcasters, self-published authors, coaches, and marketers instead of experts. Electing Donald Trump is perhaps the epitome of this backlash, and we all know how that’s going…

    And yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy here. For most of my professional career I’ve felt that credentials don’t really matter. Increasingly though, I find myself turning to and longing for true experts who have extensive education and experience in their field.

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