Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Sometimes when I wake up it’s 1957 and I’m eleven years old. The genesis of this repeated misgiving is rooted in a time from my early childhood when my dad held a job at the local plywood plant and collected payments on magazine subscriptions at night. Between his two jobs, Dad earned enough money to put us just below the poverty line. We lived down a long, lonely, dirt road in a house so small Kareem Abdul Jabbar could have stretched out his arms and spanned the entire structure. But Mom had dreams. She would help us work our way to greater prosperity.
After trying a variety of failed home businesses, Mom read an ad in the local paper placed by an elderly couple who wanted to sell their college boarding house. The massive structure they were selling sat across the street from the local college and housed a gaggle of college girls. Mom immediately borrowed our neighbor’s car, drove to the domicile, met with the aging couple, and talked them into loaning her money so she and Dad could then make a down payment on the home.
“It’s easy,” Mom enthused. “All I have to do is cook breakfast and dinner for seventeen people seven days a week. How hard could that be?” The day after inking the deal, Mom was up at 6:00 a.m. making breakfast—which included throwing bacon on the grill at 6:20 a.m. Eventually, the smell of this frying bacon would awaken me just in time to complete my task of setting the table for the crowd. To this day, when someone arises early at our home and cooks bacon, I wake up to the familiar smell and think it’s 1957.
Thanks to Mom’s dream, our little family had climbed out of a shack in the woods and into a large and comfortable boarding house, but there was never any money left over for things such as vacations and college funds and I was now a teenager with an eye set on a higher education. So Mom put me to work painting the entire boarding house—four hours a day, every day, for three summers. “I’ll pay you when you graduate high school and I send you off to college,” Mom explained one day when I had the audacity to ask for money for the work I was doing.
But how would Mom earn the college money she had promised me? At first, she made wedding cakes. But that was a lot of work for a small profit. She needed to dream bigger. And then, it hit her. She lived across the street from a college, why not attend? So, in 1964 when I graduated from high school, Mom graduated from college and took a full-time job as a teacher—generating, as promised, whatever college funds I lacked.
And Mom’s dreams didn’t end there. After I married and graduated from college, Mom dreamed her way across the country to live near my growing family. After she and dad retired, she dreamed the two of them to Guadalajara, Mexico where they set up affordable living in a small American retirement community.
But not all of Mom’s dreams panned out. “What’s the hole in the backyard?” I asked Mom one day after returning from college to a new home Mom and Dad had moved to while I was away.
“I’m digging a swimming pool,” she explained with a straight face. She and Dad didn’t have the money to build a pool, but if Mom dug a hole, then maybe they’d find a way. Always the dreamer.
A few days later, I overheard a woman at church asking who my mother was. Another woman from the congregation explained, “She’s the lady with the hole in her backyard.” Apparently the word had spread of her harebrained scheme. What middle-aged woman digs her own swimming pool with a hand shovel? And it turns out the detractors were right. Mom never did finish the pool—just the hole.
Throughout her life, Mom had many detractors. “You’ll never be able to buy a boarding house. You have no money.” “You’ll never be able to settle in Mexico. How will you get there?” “You’ll never, you’ll never, you’ll never . . .”
And sometimes they were right. Years of cooking for seventeen people yielded no profits. Dozens of wedding cakes resulted in little money. And then there was always that hole in the backyard. People who only saw that hole and knew nothing of Mom’s other more successful endeavors thought she was zany—even irresponsible. Friends and family who heard of Mom and Dad’s misadventures as they pulled a trailer down the Baja to find affordable housing in Mexico shook their heads in disbelief. “She comes up with these crazy schemes, and then he has to live them,” Dad’s side of the family would lament. Everyone was always taking shots at the dreamer.
But Mom wasn’t your typical, high-profile dreamer. She wasn’t a Cinderella. Cinderella, as did most fairy princesses of her time, dreamed of the day she would be rescued from her plight and taken away to live in a sumptuous castle where she would live happily ever after. Just because she was nice and pretty, she would be rescued.
Unlike Cinderella, Mom never asked for or expected handouts. All she wanted was a chance to work her way to a new station in life. Her dreams always ended with her and Dad (and often me) working our way to the next rung up the ladder.
I share this with you today because with the recent economic downturn and the accompanying malaise, I see far too many people who have the courage to dream, fail. After enduring ridicule from the people around them, they give up. Many simply settle. They take a job they absolutely despise because they need the work and then stay on for years. Or they close their eyes and imagine better times, but in order to reach them they do little more than buy a lottery ticket. They hold out for the mathematically impossible.
Or, perhaps worst of all, they stop dreaming. Instead, they come up with unimaginative plans that lead to marginal improvements. They assume that setting mini-goals will take them to their Valhalla, when, in truth, they need bigger hopes, bigger plans, and a bigger harness. Equally important, when they run into problems (and they will), they need to see setbacks not as evidence that dreaming is futile and silly, but as helpful feedback on what needs to change. In short, they need to dream, try, fail, make adjustments, and then dream again.
And so today (on my mother’s birthday) I honor her and all others who fight for their dreams, despite the naysayers and setbacks. I honor those who not only have the courage to dream, but also the energy to fight for it. I honor those who, despite the occasional loss, dare to create one more dream because, unlike most of us, they open their eyes wide enough to see the fruits of their past efforts—not just the hole in their backyard.