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.’”
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?
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.
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…
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
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.
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.)
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