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The Learning Cooperatives are founded on the concept of making a life for yourself…living your dreams, not someone else’s. But in a culture chockful of prescribed paths and prepackaged dreams, how can we do that? It is probably more of an art than a science, but after listening to the stories of people who are living out their dreams, I’ve found some common themes that provide good lessons for the rest of us.
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- Know who you are and believe in that person.
When I taught high school seniors for years, I saw dozens of kids blindly pursue futures that they weren’t sure about; they weren’t sure about themselves. Regardless if you’re 18 or older, before you can work towards a future that is your own, you must know who are. There is a journey before the journey in which you discover your interests, your values, your style, your strengths. You come to care for this person and long to protect who you’ve discovered. Yet you are confident enough in this person that you are open to change, knowing that the core of who you are is quite strong and can’t be lost easily.
- View struggles as tests.
Allow me to share the story of my WORST class trip ever. I was a public school teacher, responsible for a busload of teenagers with one other teacher who was sick as a dog that day. We accidentally went into NYC (yes, that can happen), the Lincoln Tunnel got shut down after we got in, a student got quite sick on the bus, another had to use a bathroom badly (which is impossible to find in the city), later we thought we lost a child, and on the way home I had to rush to the back of the bus to beg a girl, much larger than me, not to punch another student. When I got back to my seat, the boy behind me asked how I was handling all of this, and although I felt like an anxious mess, I calmly said, “You know, everything that goes wrong is an opportunity to keep your cool.” Sometimes life feels like the worst class trip ever, and we just have to stay cool.
- Be open to the unexpected opportunity.
Dreaming is great. Planning is effective. But sometimes (often?), things don’t go as we envisioned. Although we should be discerning and not go through every open door, especially when it feels plain wrong, we also shouldn’t pass all opportunities that don’t align with what we had in mind. Dreams take shape differently in the light of reality. That doesn’t mean they won’t be fulfilling. Did you know Taco Bell began as a hot dog stand and Avon used to sell books door-to-door? That being said, perhaps the best approach is to expect the unexpected, allowing our dreams to take a life of their own.
- Know when to leave.
In addition to being open to opportunities, we must trust ourselves to know when to leave. We may want to stay because something is safe even though it doesn’t at all align with our heart’s desire. Or we may want to stay because this was the dream we sought even though it doesn’t fit anymore. But how do you know when to leave? When acclaimed poet Gary Snyder was asked, “How do you know when a poem is finished?” at the 2016 Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival, he simply replied, “It tastes done.” The same is true with life.
- Stand your ground.
So after you have taken on an opportunity that you didn’t expect or left when you had planned to stay, stand by your decision. Philosopher Ruth Chang explains that hard choices, more than anything else, are a reflection of who we are. With each choice we make (especially difficult ones) we are making statements about ourselves. Having a chia seed smoothie for breakfast every morning? You are a person who cares about your health. Boston creme donut? You’re probably more of a live-life-to-the-fullest sort of person. So when we make choices that are a truthful reflection of who we are (see #1), we must be tenacious and stand behind them.
- Work hard and for yourself.
We don’t have to be slaves to the clock or to-do lists, but we should put ourselves fully into what we do. Carlos Serrano, NJ’s Empanada Guy, spoke at one of our recent events, and said “Don’t play hokey-pokey with your dreams.” Put your right foot in, take your right foot out? No. Both feet in. And the only way to sustain that kind of investment in something is to do it because you believe it in. Whether you own the business or don’t, work for you. In other words, do work that is personally meaningful to you, that is a reflection of who you truly are and what you truly value. We don’t have to settle.