Chuck Chamberlain admits he was feeling adrift when he first started putting his dreams on paper two years ago. He was living in New Jersey and had been working in the IT field for 25 years. It wasn’t fulfilling work, though, and he felt distant from his younger colleagues. “I wanted to do something more than just increase a company’s bottom line,” he recalls. “I wanted to help people.”
With some urging from his wife, Laraine, he decided to create a collage of his ideal life. He flipped through magazines and clipped out images that represented what he wanted his life to look like. Many of those images were straightforward: a warm and inviting home, a couple leaping for joy. But the central image in his collage was a photo of the famous cliff divers of La Quebrada in Acapulco. Chamberlain didn’t have daredevil tendencies, but after studying the photo he understood what it meant. “I realized I was ready to dive out of one life and into a whole new one,” he says. He imagined a life working with people, not computers.
Shortly after he made that collage, he learned he was being laid off from his job — a blessing in disguise, he says. “When they called to tell me, I think I surprised them with my great attitude,” he recalls. “I knew I was ready to pursue my passion for helping others.”
Hope is about turning challenges into opportunities, and for Chamberlain, having a clear vision of what he wanted his life to be empowered him to create a motivating path toward a promising future in the midst of what could otherwise have seemed like a discouraging career setback.
Clarify a Positive Vision
George Johnson, whose Minnesota-based consulting firm, Entrevis, helps clients develop meaningful life plans, encourages people to carve out a weekend or even just a few hours and ask themselves some key questions: What are your passions? What are your values? What is your purpose?
“These are starting points,” says Johnson, noting that these central questions will help you generate ideas that will lead to a sense of hope and purpose in your life. “They help give you grounding.” The next step: creating a visual representation of what a life based on your core values would look like.
Your representation may be a collage, like Chamberlain’s, that includes images of your ideal life, or it may take a different form. Some coaches recommend making a video essay of your life, adding words and music to the images. Johnson, who founded a nonprofit called TelAVision to provide those video services, says it’s crucial to be specific. If your ideal life and ideal self involve generosity, imagine yourself on the board of a local nonprofit or volunteering at an animal shelter. “There’s real power in putting your ideas into the world,” says Johnson. “Taking that step will help you stay committed to them.”
Put a Date on Someday
Perhaps you see yourself traveling around the world, starting your own business or writing a novel. These desires may seem out of reach at the moment. The trouble is, big goals typically get lost in the shuffle as we work to meet daily deadlines. The only way to make them seem doable is to begin taking some kind of action toward them now.
To keep your big plans moving forward, put a date to your dreams on a six-year wall calendar, says Barbara Sher, author of Refuse to Choose! A Revolutionary Program for Doing Everything That You Love (Rodale, 2006). “If you’re too busy to think about world travel this year, maybe you can plan to do it in three years,” she says. Put the calendar in a prominent place, and make an “avocation station” — a desk (or part of your desk or other visible area) where you can collect related materials like brochures, books and phone numbers. The station will provide a constant reminder that you have a goal toward which you can take small steps every day. You can start to gather information on the countries you want to visit, take on a small project to earn some money for the trip or talk to others who have done something similar.
By creating a vision and taking action, you don’t just reap the benefits when you actually accomplish the goal, you also create a new frame of reference for yourself. “If you’ve got a goal, then even the mundane things, like vacuuming the rug, will seem easier,” says Sher. “When you realize that you’re not always going to just be vacuuming the rug — that next year you’ll be in China — it changes your day-to-day experience of being alive. It makes you happier.”
You’ll also start picking up on subtle cues and opportunities to help those dreams come to fruition. “When you get clarity about what you want, you’ll find that things start happening for you,” says Johnson. Perhaps you mention your dream of traveling around the world to a friend who puts you in touch with a relative in one of the countries you want to visit. Maybe you discover that your job offers sabbaticals. Focusing on your goals will help you find opportunities you might otherwise overlook.
Where Hope Meets Action
Not long after Chamberlain decided to look at his layoff as an opportunity rather than a disappointment, he and his wife sold their New Jersey home and moved to Georgia. Recently, they started a retreat program that helps couples strengthen their marriage relationships — very much the sort of people-focused vocation Chamberlain had imagined when he created that collage two years ago.
Laraine says putting their dreams on paper made a significant difference. “It gave us hope and direction,” she says. “It’s amazing how you can shift your life when you are able to concentrate and focus on something. It’s so much better than just passively dreaming about it.”
Erin Peterson is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.