My 10th grade American History professor handed me back a paper with red ink scrawled across half the first page. “Be Specific,” it read, except the B and the S were at 48-point scale and the other letters were at 12-point. “BS.” If I recall correctly, this was the first (and last) D paper of my entire academic career. It got my attention, as a good critique should, and made me focus harder, as a good writer should. I hadn’t intentionally written BS; I was just trying to complete the assignment, and I didn’t have a solid idea of what the expectations looked like at the AP level.
See how this is a metaphor for life!
I liked being an A student. I’m a front-row-center person. I always wanted extra credit and I kept my pencils sharp. The trouble is, once we get out of school, there are few areas where waiting for instructions and following them carefully will get you anywhere. Following instructions will most likely keep you out of jail, but it won’t get you a promotion, start a business, make any art of any kind whatsoever, build a romance, or make your dreams come true.
What are your dreams, anyway?
Dreams are vague. In dreams, one person can turn into someone else, and it doesn’t even seem weird. Objects can suddenly appear and disappear. We can walk from one room into another, when in reality those two rooms are 3000 miles apart. Usually, when we wake up, we can’t remember what we dreamed, and the details melt into thin air even as we try to remember them. Most nights, we won’t remember dreaming at all. Don’t let this happen to your real-life dreams!
I’m a fairly accomplished knitter. I can follow complicated patterns and I’ve made hats, scarves, socks, slippers, and complicated children’s toys. Any time I opened my knitting bag, someone would always say, “I always wanted to learn to knit.” I would always offer to teach anyone who asked. I would say, “Pick out something you want to make, and I’ll help you.” A few people went as far as learning to cast on. I think one of my students finished a scarf. In reality, people like the idea of knowing how to knit, or the picture of concentration and industry, but only in the abstract. Most people can learn from a book or a video if they really want. Once it’s time to get specific, they don’t seem to want it after all.
This is a great thing, actually. Eliminating lackluster options off our bucket lists is an essential step to being specific. For instance, there are approximately 6500 languages spoken in the world, so obviously anyone who wants to “learn a foreign language” will do best to eliminate 6499 of them and focus on starting with just one. Anyone who wants to “travel the world” is going to have to start by standing in just one square foot and traveling in one direction. Want to “start a business”? So do lots of people. Doing what? Where’s your business plan? Want to “write a book”? About what? Paper isn’t all that expensive – where’s your outline? How many drafts have you done so far?
I had the dream of running a marathon. It turns out it isn’t that big a deal. Millions of people do it every year, all over the world, in every season and every terrain. I trained for about six months and ran about an hour a day three days a week, plus four hours on Fridays, following a training schedule I got out of a book. It took me about half an hour to look up nearby marathons and choose one. Signing up took about 15 minutes. The marathon itself is basically putting one foot in front of another and following the course arrows until you get to the end. See, those are the specifics. Now if you want to run a marathon, and you aren’t currently making specific plans or training, you can focus on why, rather than how. Stretch, hydrate, get a proper shoe fitting, get a lot of sleep, and don’t over-train. See you at the finish line.
The barriers to entry for most dreams are really pretty low. I self-published a book, and I didn’t have to talk to anyone or ask for permission. I just wrote it and designed a cover and uploaded it. I operate my own website, and I put up new material at 9 AM PST every business day. Nobody came to my house and explained what I should do or what it should look like. I got specific and made those decisions myself. I do my own illustrations. I decided my art was art, whether anyone else agrees or not, and I work at it and display it and people look at it sometimes. Again, there wasn’t a committee that came by and juried it and gave me an art license. The terrain is not marked off with barbed wire. There are no guards at the border. Nobody checks your bag for illicit fruit. Just do what you want. When you’re creating your dreams, the materials are free and there are no rules. You just get specific and choose something.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.