Dreams to Action

“The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would solve most the worlds problems.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Fellow blogger, Ben Casnocha brought up an interesting point recently. What is it that separates those who dream and talk about big things from those that actually take action towards achieving it? I think this problem could be considered one of the fundamental problems with most self-help, personal improvement or goal-setting, in that most people dream big and know what to do but then they never do it!

Most of what I have seen to resolve this problem involves various motivational techniques. The hope is, I guess, that if you get yourself pumped up enough you will cross a threshold and start taking action. Some techniques, such as goal-setting, emphasize creating clarity and precision to turn those dreams into action. While many of these skills can be effective in turning dreams into action, I think they avoid the real reason why crossing the threshold from dreams to action is so difficult.

The Problem

I believe that the fundamental reason why turning dreams into consistent and directed action is actually rather simple. The process of dreaming up your goals is completely different then actually taking action towards them. In fact, the two activities aren’t even close. It is because these activities are, in essence, so completely different from each other that is the real reason why it is so hard to turn a dream into action, because it is like turning lead into gold.

Dreams VS Action

This distinction is highlighted again when we examine why so many people can buy tons of self-help books and then make little or no consistent changes in their lives. The answer is simple. Reading self-help books is a completely different activity than pursuing personal development. Generally if someone says they are interested in personal development it means they like reading self-help books, it doesn’t mean that they enjoy actually pursuing the personal development they read about.

A great analogy of this phenomena I heard from financial blogger Ramit Sethi. Ramit pointed out that many people like going to a Footlocker, trying on and purchasing a nice pair of running shoes, and then never end up running in them. The reason isn’t that hard to understand. Buying running shoes is a completely different activity from running. Even though they seem related in terms of their context, the emotions, actions and skills involved in each of them are so different you might as well be comparing doing an exam to lovemaking.

Just because something has a similar context, doesn’t mean it is the same experience. Researching the gladiatorial fights of ancient Rome and studying the culture isn’t the same as having hungry lions and barbarians with battle axes killing you in front of an audience. In our minds we may sort the two activities of being a similar context, but actually experiencing each event separately would tell us that the experience is completely different.

So this is why turning dreams into action is so difficult. The activity of imagining feeling thin, fit and healthy is nowhere close to staring at the clock on the treadmill as seconds slowly tick away, drenched in sweat feeling like your lungs are on fire. Imagining owning your own business and being a successful entrepreneur would be nowhere similar to the day to day tasks of keeping your organization afloat.

Dreaming can occasionally create action because of the sheer motivation it creates. If you get enough positive energy worked up from dreaming big you may temporarily start taking action. But unfortunately this motivation is only temporary, so unless you do something to make that action consistent, you will likely slide back to where you started. Because of these occasional leaps from dreaming to action I think some people have falsely assumed that dreaming is related to taking action. If you need to have a huge boost of motivation every time you take action, I promise you it will be incredibly difficult to be consistent or stable enough to produce the action necessary to achieve the dreams you want.

Most self-help authors approach the dreaming to action gap as if it were a natural and logical shift. This isn’t true at all. There is a gaping chasm between dreaming and actually taking action and until you have successfully built a bridge, you have a long way to jump and an even longer descent if you fail.

The Solution

If there is such a gap between dreaming and action, what really separates the people that dream big and realize it from those who never make that bridge? What separates those people who buy the self-help books and those that actually use that information in creating a greater life? Unfortunately the answer is neither simple or easy, which probably explains why self-help books are so popular and inspiring success stories so rare. But, I believe that if you are willing you can transform yourself from a simple dreamer to a dreamer and achiever.

Step One: Enjoy the Action

Why do we love to dream big? The answer is obvious, dreaming big is incredibly enjoyable. Thinking about that success makes us happy. Reading self-help books and uncovering those great ideas makes us feel like our dreams are more realistic which makes us even more happy.

Is this how we feel about taking action? Hardly. Most people abhor taking the actions necessary to fulfill their dreams. Thinking about losing weight and being attractive is fun, wheezing while you struggle to run to lose that weight is not. Thinking about earning money and being wealthy is fun, waking up early and going to work every day is not. Herein lies the problem. As long as you don’t like taking action, it is very unlikely that dreaming big enough will compensate for it.

Why are successful people successful? It is because they enjoy taking the action to make them successful. Bodybuilders enjoy lifting weights and eating right. Successful entrepreneurs love working and starting companies. If you enjoy the action towards your goal you don’t require the insanely high motivational reserves to achieve it. This seems pretty simple, but it is astonishingly true. The reason I have changed and improved so many habits, is because I love doing it.

What if you don’t like taking the action necessary to reach your dreams? Well here I think you have only two choices. Either change your dream or find a way to enjoy the action. There are only two options. Change your dream to something that you would enjoy fulfilling. Perhaps the dream you have isn’t really the right one for you, changing it to something that you can really enjoy fulfilling can fix this. Otherwise you need to find a way to enjoy taking the action either by changing how you perceive or approach it. I may follow-up with another article for improving enjoyment of the action, but until then I’m sure you already have some ideas you could use.

Step Two: There Is Only Now

Another reason why so many people fail to turn dreams into reality is because they imagine their dreams as a part of the future and not the present. Unless your dreams are some how tied into this very second, they will be impossible to achieve. Until tomorrow comes you have no stake in it. All you ever have is this moment and until you realize this everything you want will remain on the never-ending horizon of tomorrow.

If your dreams don’t have roots in the present there cannot be any trees in the future. By present I mean this very moment, not this year, week or even this day. If your dreams don’t somehow tie into this exact moment they can’t come to fruition later. I have written extensively about the need to think in the now in several articles including velocity-based goal setting and one of my most popular posts Balancing Today and Tomorrow.

Step Three: Build Momentum

A lot of people talk about building momentum, but what really is momentum? Momentum is simply habits. If you were an incredibly successful person and loved taking the action necessary to make you succeed, but with a magical flash suddenly disliked taking that action, what would happen? For a short time, nothing. Because your mind and body are so used to taking action it may take weeks, months or even years before you completely stopped taking action.

This also works in reverse. If you suddenly change your perspective towards dieting and exercise so that it becomes fun, you still need to build habits and momentum to make that action consistent. Some of these habits can be formed subconsciously over time, other major habits may require more conscious effort. I have written extensively about changing habits, so if you want to build momentum, some techniques to do that are here.

Momentum cannot overcome the first step of enjoying the action. A great analogy of this is that momentum is your speed and enjoyment is the relative amount of friction. If you don’t enjoy the action you are taking it will be like rubbing against sandpaper and you will lose momentum steadily. Don’t think you can just create a bunch of habits to do things you really hate and hope they will stick.

Dreaming is still incredibly important. You need to dream to provide direction, clarity and inspiration to your action. Just remember that turning dreams into action requires a little more than a self-help book and some fancy running shoes. Ultimately action is what makes imagination into reality.

  • Shivaram

    Hi Scott

    I just want to say that what u have written here is really nice I tried some of ur suggestions and am really enjoying it

    Thanks Scott for ur valuable suggestions



  • Scott Young

    Thanks, Shivaram

  • Gordon R. Vaughan

    Hi Scott, just found your blog, via Ben Casnocha’s, I believe it was.

    This is a great article, with real insight but very practical. I think “Enjoy the Action” is really key. This goes counter to how we’re trained in life. School, for example, tends to teach us to muddle through stuff we’re bad at, rather than find the path of least resistance and move on.

    Also, the analogy to friction is really helpful. Achievement requires hard work, but if there’s a lot of friction because we’re not enjoying the effort, we won’t make much progress. It’s important to get #1 right before just pushing ourselves to build momentum (wish I’d learned that a long time ago!).

    I would suggest one slight adjustment: rather than “Either change your dream or find a way to enjoy the action”, frequently the best choice may be just to modify your dream rather than completely change it.

    A lot of musicians, for instance, give up on their dream of being a top performing artist, without realizing there are many other things you can do with such an interest. In fact, I think it most always takes some flexibility in order for someone to really find their ideal role.

  • Maximilian

    My personal experience is that I cannot entertain any more than 3 simultaneous thoughts at any given time, and obviously by having three ideas in mind at once, not only do I not have anymore attention to spread elsewhere but only one of those ideas is a main focus and two of the ideas are sort of background.

    Why is this relevant? Well I figure it this way. I’ve discovered that I’m happiest during times when I am having a good time presently, when I also can remember having good times in the past, and can expect good times in the future. My prime example of this is televised Saturday Morning Cartoons. Nearly every Saturday of my youth the most wonderfully enjoyable best feeling animated series’ would air and I would look forward to seeing them (future), I would enjoy them incredibly while they played (present – usually the dominant thought), and I could rely on how good they were due to past Saturdays (past). Having three ideas in mind fulfilled my three thought threshold and because all of them were fulfilling, it caused my current experience to bolster and overflow with the good each idea contributed to the collective thus making that time a dream I never wanted to end. Not only that, but the state of elation I was in caused me to see perfection elsewhere, I can remember loving the way the morning light brightened the world. How it coruscated upon the trees and the way poured into the windows was ethereal.

    Applying this “Psychology of Saturday” as it were, to the greater picture of life itself. I’ve discovered by aligning of all three states of time in a unified and authentic way enough to cause an emotional response in us, life is entirely fulfilling (I’ve also discovered when entertaining anything less in mind, life is below par). I consider Career, Social, and Lifestyle pursuits a sort of three for three in and of itself, not to mention application to each idea individually via the threefold time line (past, present, and future good within each concept).

    Career to my mind is what makes life worth living via our purpose in the eyes of society, it’s our addition to the cumulative movement of humanity into greater and greater technology, efficiency, and happiness. For that reason to me career isn’t necessarily about making a livelihood or about money (in my view that’s what business, investment, and finance is for). The idea is when you feel worthy, a positive part of the world’s forces of good, that’s one dimension of fulfillment. Now for the other two.

    The social arena is then the backdrop for personal fulfillment. It’s compassion, kindness, and our value both in our own eyes and the eyes of those around us. It’s our reality (or agreement between people as to what exists) that we’re validated and wanted. It sounds somewhat pathetic to the machismo independent male mentality but really without it, we’d lose our minds.

    Last but definitely not least is Lifestyle. Lifestyle is having the quality of life we want. Particularly our being in the proper socio-economic layer, having the proper material possessions we’d like, and being able to do the things we’d like to do. Lifestyle is generally a reference to the acclaimed superficial aspects of modern life. Beauty and such. Interior design, designer clothes, hot cars, and as beautiful of people as we can pull into our sphere of influence or that’s what it specifically means to me. To someone else is could mean being able to read a book when they want to read it. Lifestyle is being able to do what you want to do, how you want to do it, not only in quality but also when we’d like.

    So not only does each of these three categories formulate a mind brimming satisfaction. But each one of the categories, each dimension of life, also can be fulfilling during each individual phase via time line (past/present/future). This is my way to fulfill myself in life. Before I’ve had any career credentials, I used my time toward self improvement and dreaming to make my dreams seem more realistic and attainable which feels very contenting.

    I feel if we think about something long enough, it’ll start to drive us crazy unless we do something about it. So from there we have a choice to make. Keep thinking the thought and continue along to do something about it before we go mad or stop thinking the thought altogether and fall back into old habits, mundane routine, and the proverbial hamster wheel. In that way, I find Dreams and Action are related. I do agree they’re two entirely different actions involving two completely contrasting sets of muscle memory/neuro-network. But there is a mental place where thoughts lead to action, specifically if you really really want something to the point of having a new life standard about it, to not being physically able to be without the condition, to preferring demise to having to live a life without that condition (hence why certain rich commit suicide when they lose their fortune under depressions). I feel when we keep our mind filled, constantly occupied, with the good of our world and our potential to feel good within it life can’t help but be amazing, with or without taking action on our dreams yet if we keep those dreams in mind long enough, given they aren’t contradicted in our minds with self-doubt, negativity, etc., we’ll soon have a choice to make and the right answer will prove very fulfilling.

  • kararu

    what if there is a fear of losing in your dream. How to overcome that fear and get into action. Just words like “fail better next time” or “get up after each failure” doesn’t help that much. Any ideas?