I’ve grown accustomed the controversy that follows the Academy Awards. This year, though, it was a little dumbfounding.  In some circles, Lupita Nyong’o’s acceptance-speech statement that “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid” was met with philosophical dismay and disapproval.  “Not all dreams are valid” came the impassioned refrain from sources I generally respect and agree with.  “We musn’t promote delusions of grandeur!”
To quote Arsenio Hall, these are the things that “make me go ‘Hm.’”

dream flight

That our current generation of young people is hyper-aspirational is not exactly news.  If you’ve read anything on the topic, you know that an inordinate number of today’s youth have somewhat irrational expectations of global fame achieved with minimal effort.  This is the generation that was reared on a steady diet of “If you dream it, you can do it” and “Just being alive means you’re exceptional.”  These over-simplifications are exacerbated by headlines about celebrities who reached worldwide renown by posting one song on YouTube or were discovered while shopping in the cosmetics department at Macy’s.
Just as I did when I was young, they think, “If it can happen to them, it can happen to me.”
But the sentiment seems more intense and more believed-in now, yielding a generation that feels it must “be all that” or it will conclude it is “nothing at all.”  In this season of graduation ceremonies that mark the beginning of new chapters, what can adults of influence do to protect young people from this idolatry of dreams without dismissing their power to move us forward?  How can we teach the young people in our lives to dream well?


Redefining Significance
We must first help our young people to understand significance.  Though culture might elevate fleeting mediatic fame to the highest rung on its “significance ladder,” the church’s message can be misleading too.  It tends to promote ministry (like pastoring and evangelizing) as the noblest, most meaningful and God-pleasing occupation, thus diminishing the “lay” careers to which young people might be drawn and for which they may be gifted.
We inadvertently send the message that being a teacher, a stay-at-home parent or a carpenter is much less “eternally valuable” than sweating in a mission hospital in the jungles of Africa or going door-to-door with a sheaf of tracts.  We’ve lost the opportunity and the vocabulary to enflame the imagination of our young people for noble careers in which their skills themselves can glorify God.  (Please read Skye Jethani’s Futureville for more on vocation and its role in cultivating God’s Kingdom on earth.  More on that in a future post.)
Significance cannot be measured in box office sales, diseases cured or souls saved.  It is most commonly achieved by tapping into our God-given abilities and investing intentionally in our sphere of influence, thus revealing and honoring the way he designed us.  But we’d be short-sighted to conclude that we can only achieve significance when we’re functioning in our strengths or “calling.”  The economy is such today that an increasing percentage of the population is working make-do jobs while hoping for other employment more suited to skills and training.
Can an accountant flipping burgers to make ends meet find significance in that position?  Yes—because significance is also what we bring to the job.  The commitment, professionalism, pursuit of excellence, kindness and dependability we display are in themselves significant, the manifestation of God’s character in us.
Why is this important?  Because so much of our dreaming stems from a yearning for significance.  If we can instill in our children a broad, balanced understanding of true significance, it might expand the scope of what motivates their dreaming.  Am I saying that fame isn’t something to which Christians should aspire?  Not even remotely!  But giving our young people an appreciation and hunger for significance that transcends status and popularity is an important endeavor.  It will shape the nature of the Big Dreams and Rational Dreams that move them into the future.

Dream Big

Big Dreams
It’s okay to have big dreams—pipe dreams too.  The most influential people in this world wouldn’t have achieved greatness without the irrational, pie-in-the-sky aspirations that propelled them upward.   There is one critical caveat to this point:
Their dreams were in keeping with their abilities.  Even if their skills weren’t honed yet, it’s safe to speculate that young Steve Jobs probably had some natural technological ability and that young Condoleezza Rice showed signs of diplomatic dexterity and that young Walt Disney could draw better than…well…me.  If a young lady lacks even a hint of the skill-set required for her Big Dream, parents and educators would do well to redirect her thinking without breaking her spirit—by celebrating what she does well (or will do well with a little training and effort) and nurturing a broader, evolving vision of her future.  If subtlety fails, blunter words may be in order.
But generally speaking, if our Big Dreams are predicated on a desire for authentic significance and fueled by natural or “trainable” skills, why not head in that direction?  Set a lofty goal, strive toward it, anticipate reaching it…
…but hold loosely to it.  A Big Dream becomes dangerous when it is an Only Dream.  How many starry-eyed young people set out to be the next Steve Jobs, Condoleezza Rice and Walt Disney and didn’t succeed?  And how many of them, as a result, concluded that they were failures?  At success.  At life.  At significance.  They had only one dream—a Pipe Dream, at that—and when it disintegrated, they had nothing left to stand on.  This is why it is equally important to have…

Dream Smart

Rational Dreams
Though significance-fueled, healthy-perspectived Pipe Dreams can be a powerful, forward-propelling mechanism, they must be balanced by Rational Dreams that lead toward a challenging, but achievable outcome. What are my gifts?  How can I hone them?  In what career can I use them?  It’s not a grudging, “Well, if I can’t be Madeleine Albright, I guess I’ll be a nurse,” but a practical and reasonable, “If I can’t be Secretary of State, I’d still love a career in International Relations.”
Rational Dreams are born of self-awareness and purpose.  They lead to researching.  Strategizing.  Implementing.  And just like Pipe Dreams, they should be fueled by passion and founded on ability and drive.  Sustained by patience too, when life throws a monkey wrench into our best-laid plans.  While loosely holding to the grand, sometimes illogical ideal of Pipe Dreams, Rational Dreams allow us to determine what we can do in the here-and-now that builds a solid foundation for a life of significance.  And when one Rational Dream is achieved, there’s no limit to the number of new dreams we can stack on top of it.
With Rational Dreams, we move toward an end-goal that is within reach, one that inspires and stimulates us while maximizing our potential and imbuing our efforts with purpose.
Fiona is a doula and a mom to two children.  She tried out for The Voice in January and her Pipe Dream lit up her smile on the day we drove to Chicago to join the thousands of hopefuls standing in line.  When she didn’t get a call-back, her life didn’t end.  She was disappointed, for sure!  But she also knew she was going home to other endeavors that stimulate and validate her in different ways.  When her Pipe Dream dropped her, her Rational Dream caught her.  She couldn’t count on the former, but she could invest the latter.
Pools of grace
Pools of Grace
The dual-dream approach is at once whimsical and practical.  The fantasaical Pipe Dreams that exhilarate and propel us.  The Rational Dreams, crafted from specific gifts and stages of life, that anchor us to meaningful, reachable ambitions.  And then there’s the mystery—the pools of grace we stumble into on the arduous path through big and small dreams, the refreshing and quenching fulfillment we find in unexpected places while feverishly plotting career goals and world-renown.

My childhood’s Pipe Dreams of having a singing career or writing a Pulitzer-prize novel did not come true, but I sure had fun imagining their fulfillment.  My Rational Dreams led me to a teaching position at a school for MKs in Germany. And guess what I taught there—music and writing.  Bite-sized pieces of my pie-in-the-sky.

My Pipe Dreams fed my imagination and affirmed my passions.  My Rational Dreams led me down a winding path to a place of deep satisfaction and fulfillment—to pools of grace I couldn’t have imagined.

dream balloon
So how do we influence the dreaming of still-searching children—how do we foster hope, purpose and action?  By explaining significance to them and inspiring them to pursue it.  By convincing them that Big Dreams can be valid and that failing to reach them is not a fatal flaw. By encouraging them to honestly assess themselves, to set rational, stimulating, challenging and boundary-pushing goals.  By instilling in them an openness to change when growth and circumstances dictate redirection into a “better” they couldn’t have fathomed.

By teaching them to dream big, plan smart and be willing to pause for surprising pools of grace.


(This article was inspired by a vigorous discussion on the Phil Vischer Podcast.  If you haven’t yet discovered it, click HERE.)

Please add your thoughts to the conversation in the comments space below.  If it’s not working for you, email me at shellphoenix@gmail.com and I’ll post your suggestions and feedback myself.  As always, please use the social media links below to share this article with your friends and organizations, and click “Like” to show your support.



    • Njamajama

    • 10 years ago

    A very thoughtful and well-articulated article, Michele. I am a coach whose practice focuses primarily on assisting people (of all ages) with identifying their skills, talents, and dreams and incorporating these into a transferable “toolkit” that they can carry from one vocation/avocation to the next. I am entranced with your ability to encapsulate this journey in one pithy statement – “Dream big, plan smart, and be willing to pause for surprising pools of grace”. I like that so much that I would like to ask for your permission to use it!
    I do have one question for you, however, having read, and reread your post above. You correctly state that we need to redefine significance as a prerequisite. Your next paragraph outlines two specific actions to take in that redefinition –
    First, you say that significance is “most commonly achieved by tapping into our God-given abilities and investing intentionally in our sphere of influence, thus revealing and honoring the way he designed us”, and;
    Second, that “commitment, professionalism, pursuit of excellence, kindness and dependability we display (in the careers or circumstances in which we find ourselves) are in themselves significant, the manifestation of God’s character in us”.
    Are these two in themselves enough to redefine significance? It’s important because you go on to say that a broad, balanced understanding of true significance may expand the scope of our dreams.
    Your subsequent explanations of Big and Rational Dreams and the Pools of Grace resonate very strongly with me, but if a broader and deeper explanation of true significance is foundational to establishing these dreams, then I wonder if more could be said about significance. Is significance in fact doing what God created us to do, and doing it with our whole heart, regardless of whether or not that vocation is deemed “significant” by any of the world’s standards? If the answer to that question is “yes”, then our main task, as advisors to others seeking significance, is in fact to re-inflame their passion for Him, not as an abstract concept, but in fact that this passion is best manifested in the series of ongoing, purposeful and deliberate steps we take “from this day forward”, as a demonstration of devotion to Him.
    In answer to my question to him about “what does God want me to do with my life”, a very wise man once told me that God will not drive a parked car. What he meant by that was that if I wanted to know what God wanted of me, I had to put that car into gear and start heading for the horizon. I have expanded that definition to suggest that with God, the journey is far more significant than whatever destination we may predetermine. Abraham went, even though he did not know the destination. So did Phillip, enroute to the Ethiopian. Perhaps the express willingness to commit everything to moving forward, is the prerequisite. The God-given skills, talents and motivations are the tools that qualify us to drive in a certain direction towards an anticipated destination, but the knowledge that a master cartographer may have some extremely interesting off-ramps ahead, as yet unseen, over the horizon, should be the ultimate motivator for the journey. This is counterintuitive to the largely Western concept of predetermining a life’s vocation at a specific time in life (right after High School – as if that is the smartest time of our lives!), providing instead a fascinating prospect of not really knowing where we will ultimately wind up, because we are not actually built to “wind up” anywhere static in our earthly journey – every milestone is but a milestone in an ongoing journey with eternal significance. Perhaps the Pools of Grace are in fact the BEST and most meaningful waypoints in our journey, as opposed to either Big or Rational Dreams – because it is in the Pools of Grace alone where our abilities, talents, and desires actually intersect and integrate with the Father’s own actions “for such a time as this”, before moving on down the road…
    Does this change my perspective on how to equip people for the journey? In keeping with the analogy – the best way to become an excellent driver is to drive. The journey and its waypoints provide an excellent opportunity to hone one’s skills and talents – again, not for the purpose of arriving at a defined role or vocation, but in becoming an expert at knowing when to speed up, when to swerve, when to brake, when to stop, and when to start again. The highway may seem endless, straight, and boring once you start out (my analogy always envisions a starting point in the middle of Saskatchewan, the flattest province in Canada), but everyone knows that every highway eventually leads to a dramatic change in scenery, and many, many prospective offramps and intersections. In the inimitable words of Rihanna, perhaps the watchword should be “Shut up and Drive”….
    Thank you again for such a stimulating article, and for the chance to comment!

    1. Thank you, Markus, for such a thoughtful response to this article. My focus was limited to instilling significance into our dreams more than finding God’s plan for us. This article came out of my concern that so many of us (young and old) are crafting aspirations devoid of true meaning. Hence the more focused scope of what I wrote in defining significance: dreaming in terms that allow us to tap into our God-given abilities and/or to reveal his character in us (this is often necessary when reality fails to live up to our Big Dreams). My goal was not to address the nature of God’s will or his methods for leading us (they would have required several more pages in an already lengthy piece), though they are, of course, a crucial aspect of our ongoing pursuit of those dreams and aspirations. I love your highway analogy and see it as the underpinning, larger context of the narrower concept I’ve laid out.
      1. Know God
      2. Aspire to something that is significant in a different way from how the world defines it
      3. Be on the lookout for surprising “pools of grace” that might actually reveal to you what you were hoping for all along
      4. …and before then, after then and between “thens” get moving, keep moving. Those pools of grace (something possibly more fulfilling than anything you could have dreamed of or planned for) are likely waiting around the next bend…or the next…or the next. Just keep moving toward your significant dreams and let God surprise you.

  1. Your excellent post elicits myriad thoughts, each of which would require a lengthy reply. Suffice to say for now: you nailed it! Hebrews tells us that our senses are trained to discern right from wrong via practice (engagement). I believe that we discover our God-given heart desires by engaging at whatever level we’re able at the time. Perhaps our “rational” dreams can only be discovered within our “pipe” dreams.

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