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The 5 Stages of Dreaming for World-Changers

Healthy Leaders

The 5 Stages of Dreaming for World-Changers

Jonathan WilsonJonathan Wilson
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I am working on a dream, no a vision, a strategy, a project, a plan –

That will change the lives of millions of children.

Children like the girl evacuated from the radiation of Fukushima who others looked at with suspicion;

Like the boy in Sichuan, China who thought the earthquake was his fault;

Like the girl in Samar, Philippines who gained courage to expose the abuse she suffered at home.

Our next step with OperationSAFE is the Philippines where 1.5 million children are affected by disasters every year. But I am getting ahead of myself.

This article is about the 5 Stages of Dreaming, or how the world really gets changed.  This is as true for business entrepreneurs as humanitarians and saints.  Whoever you are, the starting point for changing the world is always with a dream.

  1. Dreams – The good ones are the ones you can’t forget.

Dreamer, you know you are a dreamer

Well can you put your hands in your head, oh no! (Supertramp)

Dreams are white fluffy clouds, ephemeral things that float into your head and out again, shape-shifting as they go.  They wake you up in the middle of the night, or linger in the morning fog and make you say, “I wish it could be like that!”  Cue the Beach Boys – Wouldn’t it be nice…

But as fleeting and intangible as dreams are, it is how every world-changing idea gets its start.  Someone has to make a wish.  But the reality is that there are infinitely more wishes than dreams that come true.  What is the process that takes us from wishes to real change?  The first step is to go ahead and dream!  But learn to distinguish between the clouds that are made of fluff and the ones that might have silver linings.  When it comes to dreams, the good ones are the ones you can’t forget!  There is something that keeps you coming back.  Once the dream starts to iterate (often with variations on a theme like Mozart), then you begin crossing the line over to vision.

  1. Visions – The future never looked better!

The Nautilus was piercing the water with its sharp spur, after having accomplished nearly ten thousand leagues in three months and a half, a distance greater than the great circle of the earth. Where were we going now, and what was reserved for the future? (Jules Verne)

If dreaming is the territory of the troubadours, then vision belongs to writers.  They both imagine a world where things have changed.  But the difference between the dreamers and the visionaries is the detail in which they see it.  Vision takes the essential idea of the dream and asks the question, “What would the world be like?”

One of the essential roles of vision is to make the crucial decision of whether that change would actually be a good thing at all.  Would the world be a better place if humans could live forever, or robots could think like we do, or all the world’s governments were joined into one?  Many of the visionary writers who have seen the future so clearly (or perhaps given others vision to see what could be) have also warned against changes that would be catastrophic.

Vision helps a dream gain substance by gathering details.  What would it look like?  What else would change?  What would be the problems?  What stands in the way?  Who might help?  Who would oppose?  As a dream is turned over and over and looked at from every angle it most often will simply evaporate from overexposure.  Most dreams are simply that, just dreams that cannot withstand the light of day.  But if a dream holds up under scrutiny and becomes a vision then the next step is to work out how to navigate the obstacles and chart a course for success!

  1. Strategies – The roadmap to the future.

Leaders establish the vision for the future and set the strategy for getting there. (John P. Kotter)

Strategy is the process of getting from here to there – when “there” has not yet been clearly defined!  No one needs strategy to get from point A to point B.  All that is usually required is a map, a train schedule or a bus ticket.  It has all been done before and can be accomplished again with a bit of knowledge and the right resources.  It is getting to a place that no one has been to before that requires strategy.  Being first to reach the New World, or to fly the moon, requires a whole different kind of thinking. Strategy is the domain of the explorers!

Vision fills in lots of details about what might happen, and what might go wrong, but it does not get you where you want to go on its own.  Strategy looks at what vision provides and starts working out possibilities.  This is an absolutely crucial step between going from nothing to something.  There is always more than one way to approach any problem and when you are tackling world-changing problems it most likely means that your solution won’t be the accepted standard.  Because if the standard worked, then you wouldn’t need to be dreaming.  Strategy lines up the possible solutions and decides which one is to be preferred.  But it doesn’t stop there.  It also keeps in reserve all of the other possibilities in case the details of the vision turn out to be wrong!

Strategy also introduces another important element into the dream.  If the dream is truly a world-changer then there will most likely be significant obstacles or opposition to it.  Otherwise someone would have already figured out a way to do it before.  All kinds of limitations come into play; the goal must be achieved before time’s up, the money runs out, the competition catches up, the enemy figures out how to counter, or your team gives up from discouragement.  Finite limits are why a possible solution, the best solution must be chosen and invested in, even though there is still uncertainty.  Once this best solution has been decided, the next stage once again requires a different type of thinking.

  1. Projects – Gathering the necessary resources.

Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible. (Edwin Land)

The biggest difference between a strategy and a project is the size of the team.  You will have noticed that the process of dreaming is a funnel.  The top of the funnel is full of white fluffy clouds that get weighted down by the details of vision and start the long journey down towards reality.  If they survive the limitations and uncertainty of strategy then there are a very few that become an actual project.  But precisely because the dream is so “manifestly important” in the words of the Polaroid inventor Edwin Land, it is also “nearly impossible.”  Without a team, the dream is nothing more than a good idea.  A project adds resources to the strategy – people, money, and relationships.  Up until this point it was possible for the dream to exist in the rarified air of the ivory tower or the inventor’s workshop.  But once you involve other people’s time, money or resources, you need a person to manage these things.  Projects require leadership.

However, it is important to realize that projects never change the world!  A project is still a long way from an actual solution that will change lives on a broad scale.  It is simply where the dream makes first contact with the soil.  Until this point the dream has been more atmospheric than earthy, but that will change as soon as a project is started.  Everything that can go wrong will!  The dream will be go through a food processor of very human, earthy factors – pride, greed, envy, conflict and simple entropy.   The leader must know when to stand by the preferred strategy and when to retreat and use a different tactic.  The leader must clearly see the vision and never deviate from it.  The leader must absolutely never give up believing in the dream.  All of this is gut-wrenching and prone to failure.  But if the dream can come out the other side and still deliver, then the last step is within your grasp!

The project is a testing ground to see if your dream, your vision, your strategy has what it takes to change the world.  In the project you will have to expose your dream to the comments and criticisms of others on the team.  You will have to soul search and pivot until you find what works.  And this is in the end what you are searching for all along – what works.  But the key is finding what works without you.  What works without the supercharged drive and energy, the indefatigable spirit, the indomitable will of the world-changer.  The final step is producing the plan.

  1. Plans – Building the highway to change!

Stop setting goals. Goals are pure fantasy unless you have a specific plan to achieve them. (Stephen Covey)

Many dreamers make the mistake of thinking that raising awareness of problems will bring solutions.  But most real problems are not solved by people caring, but by people acting.  The real bottleneck is that unless there is a clear route established by which people can act and make a difference, there is very little incentive for most people to do so.  The first dreamers who saw potential in the American West were ecstatic in their descriptions of the possibilities waiting for those who were adventurous enough to brave the frontier.  But that is the problem.  Not everyone is an adventurer and trying to convince them to be one is a losing strategy.  It wasn’t until the explorers returned and then the first wagon trains started to cross the prairies that the West became a dream for more than the “crazy ones.”  Once the trails became established there were soon long lines of Conestogas waiting to make the journey.  This is how the world changes, when it becomes possible for everyone not only to care but to act with a good chance for success.  The last step of dreaming is trailblazing or highway building.

Plans allow everyone to get involved.  Plans make what was so extremely difficult the first time (or the first 30 times!) so simple that anyone could do it.  It might be technological so that instead of a complicated process that requires skill and training, the same thing can be done with a push of a button.  It could be software that simplifies things and makes it possible to accomplish things from anywhere, rather than people having to travel somewhere.  It could be infrastructure that makes travel, organization or communication easy.  It could be a shift in thinking that allows people to approach problems in a new way.  Whatever the plan is it must involve moving away from the solution being something that only you or a small team of people can do to something so simple that anyone who cares about the problem can join in.  This is how a dream can change the world.

Our Plan to Help Children

Let me share with you our plan as a way to illustrate the dream funnel that I have been talking about.  Eight years ago I had a dream of bringing hugs, help and hope to every child who suffers trauma from disasters.  This was the dream that I could not forget.  It kept rattling around in my brain as I visited various disaster sites around Asia and saw the plight of the children.  I knew that there had to be a way to help them.

I began to have visions of what my dream would look like and what the obstacles would be.  I read that children who suffer trauma are susceptible to a host of physical, social and psychological problems as they grow older.  Trauma during childhood can set up cycles of hopelessness and violence that keep communities poor.  I found out that on average 90 million children are affected by disasters worldwide every year.  I also discovered that most of these children have no access to mental health care.

We developed a strategy based on the model that the Red Cross uses to train laypeople how to save lives by learning basic first-aid and introducing AED [Automated External Defibrillator]technology in public places.  Our strategy is to train people in communities that are vulnerable to disasters in psychological first-aid for children and to provide them with a curriculum that makes it easy and engaging.

Our project began in 2008 with the Sichuan earthquake in China that killed over 69,000 people and left millions homeless.  Our training was given to volunteers who proceeded to hold OperationSAFE camps for children teaching them five essential lessons for resilience to trauma.  We learned a lot and then went back the next year and tried again.  Each disaster, the curriculum and training has been refined.  Since the first camps we have worked in Haiti, Tibet, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines, helping thousands of children to recover from trauma.

But we are not satisfied to help thousands when it is possible to help millions.  What dreamer would be?  Our plan this year is to launch OperationSAFE in the Philippines where our project has seen the most traction.  The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable places to disaster on the planet with 1.5 million children affected every year.  Our goal this year is to build an organization, a highway, so that local volunteers can receive training and curriculum to hold OperationSAFE camps in their barangays in response to typhoons, flooding, fires and earthquakes.

We are confident that this year we can help over 10,000 children in the Philippines.  We have a plan in which we are confident because it has been tried and tested.  Now it is ready for everyone.