How to dream like a professional

Drawing: Ivan via Flickr

You probably have this week off, or at least it’s a light work week for you. It’s the perfect time to dream about your career.

Time without work deadlines is a precious resource. You are probably decompressing somewhere warm, playing board games with family, or riding character-themed rides at an amusement park. Go ahead, have fun. But this is also the perfect time to imagine how your work life could be different in ten years. And I don’t mean being promoted from graphic designer to senior graphic designer. I mean really doing what you dream of doing. But to do that, you have to do more than dream.

Here are some questions worth asking yourself — and worth putting a little effort into the answers.

What could I be doing for work that would make me happier every day that what I’m doing now? Would someone pay me to do it?

What do you love doing? Coding? Working the soil? Taking photos? Maybe it’s not realistic to turn that into a career, but how could you do more of it than you do now? Join a group of enthusiasts. Set aside time to work on it every weekend. Build it into your business trips. Now’s a good time to make a resolution to turn that dream into something a little more concrete.

About 12 years ago, my dream was to write a book. I started stockpiling cash, creating a home office space, dreaming of topics. And when the opportunity arose, I was mentally and professionally ready to take it.

If I could change one thing about my job, what would it be? How could I make that change happen?

Spend less time mopping floors? Supervise and nurture others? Give talks in front of a group? What are you doing now that you hate — and what aren’t you doing that you think you’d love? Now start planning for how you will develop the skills — and convince your boss — so that it’s worth it to change things.

I once hired a woman to help run my company’s Intranet. While doing that, she completed a master’s degree in interactive design and applied, successfully, for a job in the company’s IT department. This kind of shift doesn’t happen by accident; you need to do the work to get it.

Where in the world do I want to work? What job could I do there?

Could you do your job from Hawaii? Colorado? New Zealand? If that’s what you want, have you scoped out positions there? Talked to your boss about working remotely?

I have one friend who spends much of his life on airplanes. He identified Portland, Maine as the best city for his family and convinced his supervisors that as long as he could get to an airport, it mattered little where his home base was. Stories like this are increasingly common in world where phone and Internet are sufficient to accomplish most knowledge work.

What idea have I had that would make a big impact on the world? How can I work towards making it real?

Here’s a shocking idea: you could actually get paid to change the world. If you don’t believe me, at least look into it.

That might mean getting startup funding, taking a sabbatical for a while, or shifting your career into a new industry sector. But don’t give up on those dreams — take steps to get closer to them.

When I participated in a program for weight loss and wellness, I recognized that they needed my help to get to the scale to make an impact. Now I’m the volunteer CEO and we’ve got a $100,000 grant to work with. It’s not my main job, but I am making a difference.

If I took a month off, what could I do that would be awesome? How about a week? A weekend? An evening? And why aren’t I doing it?

I’m a big fan of doing what you dream about for while. In a month, you could determine if it’s your future, or just a fantasy that’s not nearly as much fun when you’re actually doing it.

Most people can’t take a whole month. But you’d be amazed what you can learn in a week of applied effort — my wife took a week-long artist’s course at Snow Farm in Massachusetts, and now she’s an artist.

You could take a month of evenings and weekends and write a novel. You could work in a soup kitchen for a weekend.

Don’t tell me why you can’t do this. Just figure out what it would take to carve some time out for your dream, and then reflect on what that time meant to you.

What’s the deadline on my dream? What steps do I need to take to get there? What step could I take right now?

Turning dreams into reality is work. Ask anyone who’s launched a business. But there’s no reason you can’t get started on that work right now, even though you have a job.

But you’re not going to get there without a deadline. When I decided to be an author, I was 47, and I decided that, if I was serious, I had to publish a book by the time I was 50. (I did it, too.) A deadline focuses you on the intermediate steps you need to take. Until you have a deadline, you don’t have a project. When you do have deadline, you can actually make progress toward it.

Who inspires me? How can I be more like them?

Who is your idol? Mariah Carey? Isaac Asimov? Elon Musk?

Why aren’t you like them?

If it’s talent you lack, develop it.

If it’s connections you lack, network.

If it’s experience you’re missing, do things.

You may not end up as Elon Musk, but you’ll be ahead of where you are now.

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