In 1989, the late, great actor Robin Williams delivered an impactful message about the importance of "doing you" to a whole new generation through his role as English teacher John Keating in the film Dead Poet's Society. The now iconic movie scene has Keating stepping up on a desk and exhorting his prep school charges to "strive to find your own voice," to "break out...dare to strike out and find new ground." I remember being moved and inspired by the scene.
As a 29 year old, I identified with Keating's call to "make your lives extraordinary, boys." I felt at that time, having just moved from Arkansas to Southern California, that I was just starting my grand adventure, my life. He also said "words and ideas can change the world." I had earned my undergraduate degree eight years earlier in journalism, and believed this with every fiber in my being. My own career choice to write for a living, first as a marketeer and later as a public relations practitioner, happily fueled my thirst for knowledge and quest to share the ideas and inspiration of the great teachers, entrepreneurs, scientists, activists, and artists I have been lucky enough to know.
It's 30 years later, and I am happy to report that—although in my darkest times I may have doubted it—dreams don't have expiration dates.
If it's never too late to follow your dreams, how do you start? What is keeping you from "doing you?"
What do you dream about? How do you go about "doing your thing?" Despite pundits playing it off as a recent or millennial obsession, this idea of being true to yourself, pursuing your bliss, following your True North, living your best life, has been around for a long time. In fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance," first published in 1841, is noted for his observation that it was not only okay to "do your thing," but that he encouraged it:
What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own, but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
Emerson claimed that two things cause us to doubt ourselves: not being true to the inner voice of our souls, and failing in our first endeavor.
1. Be true to the "inner voice of your soul."
How do you learn to be "true to the inner voice of your soul," as Emerson suggests? The most common emotion that prevents people from achieving their goals and dreams is fear. If you are spending a lot of time dealing with negative thoughts and emotions, you can lose track of your desired direction.
In her ground-breaking book first published in 1987, "Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway," Dr. Susan Jeffers explains how fear is based on the uncertainty of change and the lack of positive self image. Jeffers notes that some fear is instinctual and healthy and keeps us alert to trouble. The rest, the part that holds us back from personal growth, is inappropriate and destructive and perhaps can be blamed on our conditioning. However, because it is often impossible to figure out what the actual causes of negative patterns are, and that, knowing them doesn't necessarily change them, Jeffers teaches that if something is troubling you, simply start from where you are and take the action necessary to change it.
Easier said than done. Let's say that you are aware that you don't like the fact that lack of trust in yourself is stopping you from getting what you want out of life. Knowing this creates a very clear, even laser-like, focus on what needs to be changed. Jeffers asserts that you begin now to develop your trust in yourself, until you reach the point where you will be able to say:
WHATEVER HAPPENS TO ME, GIVEN ANY SITUATION, I CAN HANDLE IT!
The words she wrote then are as relevant today as they were then.
Neil Pashricha, in his book The Happiness Equation, gives the advice of "just doing it," without waiting for the "can do" or "want to do" aspects of confidence and motivation. He declares that it is a characteristic of successful people in many walks of life to take action first — the old "fake it til you make it" scenario, that asserts that action is often the first step to change, rather than the assumed prerequisites of skill, knowledge, or desire. Obviously this doesn't apply to everything, but you can see how it is good, practical advice for many things. Start doing, and you start a cycle of creating confidence and that sparks additional motivation to continue, and so on.
Pashricha's conclusion is very similar to Jeffers, who wrote her famous book when Pashricha was only eight years old. Useful advice, whichever generation you relate to.
2. Adopt a growth mindset. If you are reading this now, you likely have acknowledged that something about your life needs changing, and until now you haven't been able to take the steps to change it. When you are STUCK, perhaps even paralyzed by fear or inaction, it is crucial to develop a mindset that helps get you UNSTUCK. What if getting unstuck was as simple as understanding that you don't need to figure out what to do with the rest of your life, but to figure out, instead, what you need to do next. It's a brilliant way forward to designing your life. Or, at least, I think it's a brilliant way, because it assumes that we are mutable human beings, capable of growth and change.
Part of having a growth mindset is, indeed, refusing to "accept the hand we've been dealt." While it may be tempting to wallow in self-pity ("Why me?" "How did this happen?" "I didn't ask for this!"), it is crucial to be able to take the next step, however daunting or seemingly unrealistic at the time.
Some of the people I admire the most have been dealt some pretty bad cards. Take my colleague, Dianne Callahan, for example. Through her battles with lymphoma, Dianne has had multiple treatments, two stem cell surgeries, and a near-constant parade of graft-host symptoms and setbacks, each with its own set of surprising or debilitating visits to her life. The three-time cancer survivor now inspires others through her publishing, speaking, and teaching and is in high demand to share in her spirited, inimitable way what she has learned about how to live a joy-filled and meaningful life.
Dianne by all counts is actively "being true to the inner voice of her soul." Moreover, she is not easily discouraged by obstacles and issues that might deter others.
3. Don't be daunted by failure.
Many entrepreneurs are, like Dianne, able to see difficulties as problems to solve and situations to work through. In a word, they are not easily daunted.
Those who "dare to strike out and find new ground," even if that ground is rocky or uncertain, share traits in common:
-they work hard
-they rise early
-they don't avoid risk
-they accept responsibility, understanding it is necessary if you want the rewards that go with it
-they are able to handle conflict effectively
-they are able to see what is NOT in front of them; vision means looking past today towards opportunity that is invisible to others
-they don't ask others to do things they wouldn't do themselves
-they allow for vulnerability (often amounting to admitting or owning their own mistakes)
-they are not fearful of the unknown
This adventuresomeness is, in a sense, a willingness to adopt a pioneer spirit.
Can you do this? I think you can.
You can, because you have unique perspectives, experiences, and thoughts. You are endowed with unique gifts and abilities. Despite society's best efforts to force us into conformity, I am hopeful that the movement to "do you" continues to allow us to each grow in our genius.
So, you "do you." Dreams don't have expiration dates. But, why wait?