THE BLOG

If You Dream Big, Define Success Accordingly

06/23/2015 10:17 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

I'm a big believer in the power and importance of dreaming. I'm not talking about fantasies or the stuff that wishes are made of. I'm talking about aspirations that take hold of you and your life and won't let go. You can't shake them even if they seem impossible at the beginning, outlandish, or well beyond your reach. I believe dreams arise from a complicated, highly personal mix of our life experience; what we know, what interests us, and our desire for the future to improve upon the present. Depending on our personalities and circumstances, we may dream of bettering our own lives and those of our families or of bettering the lives of people in our local communities or distant one, eventually transforming the world.

I'm not here to judge your dreams. There is no contest that determines whether you are dreaming the best dream or the right one. You are the only one who decides whether to pursue your dream, or do something else. Whatever your dream is, I'm here to cheer you on and to urge you to keep it alive. I say to pursue it and not let it wither. Proceed with the knowledge of what will be required to fulfill it, and don't kid your self.

I don't think anyone has tracked the statistic of how many of us give up on our dreams, but I'm sure it includes many, many of us. I don't think it happens in any one moment, I think life happens, and obstacles land in the middle of our path. We get worn down trying to move or circumvent them and our vision for the future gets obscured by the present. Next thing we know, our dream has ebbed, pulled by forces that prove stronger than our will. I'd like to arm you with some ways to counter that pull.

Following your dream is different from doing what you love. There are lots of things we love that may or may not improve our lives. I love eating chocolate, I love desserts; I love pretty much all things sugar. However, eating those foods every day will definitely not improve my life, although it may make me happy in the extremely short term. At some point, following your dream will involve doing something you don't love or something that makes you uncomfortable or anxious.
Don't buy a standard definition of success; create your own. Make sure it matches your aspirations, not anyone else's like your parents' or your friends'. Don't set yourself up for failure here: if your dream is to own your own home, don't define success as becoming a multi-millionaire. If your dream is financial stability, don't focus only on how much you can earn; manage your expenses too. If you dream of working in the back country to address environmental issues, don't settle for a desk job in the corporate world. If you dream big, define success accordingly.

Secondly, don't kid yourself about yourself. Be clear about your capacities. In particular:
• How hard are you willing to work? The bigger the dream - the bigger the gap between today and the future you envision - the more persistence, doggedness, and dedication will be required to fulfill that dream. Be honest. If you're not up to putting in the work, don't hold that against yourself, but don't blame circumstances for sideswiping your dream.

• How much tolerance do you have for uncertainty? How much of a risk-taker are you? Again, the bigger the dream, the more uncertainty. Be clear what kind of risks you're willing to take, and what kind you're not: there are financial, emotional, physical, intellectual risks. Different dreams require different kinds of risk and different amounts. You may be comfortable taking one kind of risk, but not another. You may not be comfortable taking much risk at all. That's for you to decide. Of course, you should be aware it's pretty much impossible to fulfill giant dreams without taking a fair amount of risk.

• Are you willing to make mistakes and to fail? There's no way to successfully tackle any challenge in life without failing. The worst part about failing when you're pursuing a dream is it really hurts. The more public the dream, the more likely humiliation and shaming could accompany your failure. Of course, true failure includes disappointing yourself, people you respect, and people who count on you. That's what happens when you care about the outcome of your dream. There is no such thing as "failing fast," as if failing is a logical, unemotional task to check off on the list of steps to success. Failure hits hard, usually unexpectedly because we often deny we're heading in that direction. If we are to learn from failure, it has to get our attention by being painful enough that we would prefer to change and grow than keep doing whatever we did to get us to the point of failure in the first place.

• Don't let your fear derail you without questioning its logic. Fear is a funny thing. It can protect you or stop you. Figure out which is which, and don't let that private naysayer voice inside your head drive all your decisions.

I remember deciding to train for the Olympics less than six months into my rowing career as a college freshman. That was back in 1976 when two of my teammates were training for the Olympics, the first time women's rowing was included in the Games. I figured, "if they can do it, I can do it." That was the beginning of my dream.

I was woefully unprepared to become an Olympian. I was new to sports, small for a rower, my college coach told me I would never make an Olympic team, and I was asthmatic. I also had no idea what reaching the pinnacle of my sport would require, which is likely true for all of us when we set our sights on a goal. Ignorance truly is bliss sometimes.

I had a great time on my college crew. We were a group of feisty young women who pushed and challenged each other constantly and over our four years together won nearly every race we entered. Yet my efforts to make the national team fell short time after time. Starting at the end of my sophomore year, I tried out for the U.S. team 3 years in a row without success. In every one of those moments, in the wake of asthma attacks that sent me to the ER, my college coach telling me what he believed was the cold, hard truth, and hearing the internal drumbeat of my fear warning me away from a dream that seemed to be edging away, I had to choose; stop or keep going. Despite these obstacles, my dream had hold of me. I wanted what I wanted, rational or not, realistic or not, good enough or not. To me, the goal justified all the discomfort and uncertainty required.

After not making the national team those three years in a row my father implored me to stop wasting my time and move on with my life. I was graduating from college and it was time to grow up and accept my adult responsibilities. I promised him I'd quit but I kept training. I lied to my own father, that's how driven I became. Despite my fear nattering in my ear the entire time or the evidence that was accruing right and left that I was not cut out to be an Olympian, I kept going. I had a different vision of the future than the rest of the world, or at least the part that knew what I was attempting. I was not going to stop dreaming until my dreams got dashed in the dust or a miracle occurred.

It took five more years for me to compete in the 1984 Olympics. Luckily, I first made the team in 1980. Unluckily, President Jimmy Carter announced a boycott of the Olympics to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, as the 1980 Olympics were to be held in Moscow. The U.S. convinced 64 other countries to join the boycott dashing the hopes and dreams of thousands of athletes worldwide. But it was worth the wait to compete in 1984. It was worth living through all those worst moments. I wouldn't have gotten there without them.

Twenty-five years later, I found myself dreaming of penning a story that would be regarded as a well-written literary success. I found a writing coach who was terrific, honest yet compassionate, extremely knowledgeable and supportive yet realistic too.

"Your chances of being published are slim," she warned me several times.
"Don't get your heart set on it."
I don't know if my heart knows how to avoid setting itself on the impossible, that's just the course it sets, which means I had a lot of work and of course lots of heartache ahead of me. I loved writing and the intellectual challenge the project posed. It all turned out, my book, Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX, was actually published. And yet, every time the book is reviewed, I have to steel myself for the possibility of public humiliation. Big dreams expose you to big downsides, no question.

Many people have told me, "It must have taken a lot of courage to write this book. You share so much of your personal story. I could never have done that." I wrote a lot about my fear of failure; about all my attempts to make national teams, and getting cut; about falling in love with a woman and caving into my fear of what others would think, abandoning myself and her, and paying the consequences; about marriage, children, grief and loss. It's not a light-hearted story. Despite the book's story line, I did not feel I was taking a personal risk in sharing any of what I wrote. Yes, I took risk in writing the book: I risked rejection, that no publisher would think my work was quality enough or compelling enough, to agree to publish it. This just goes to show how people perceive risk differently. Make sure you pay attention to your own tolerance for risk.

Another dream story includes my journey as one of the owners of the Seattle Storm. This is our 8th season and it's a tough business. Our culture still hasn't adjusted fully to the idea of supporting professional women athletes as we do men. But I bought the team to help realize the dream that women athletes can pursue what they love for careers. Three years ago, I started working on a new way to extend our franchise's reach into the community, both to build awareness of the Seattle Storm and to make the transformational power of sports accessible to more people.

Two months ago, we opened Force 10 Performance, a training center designed to help athletes of all ages and abilities pursue their competitive dreams. It's a completely different business model than the traditional health or fitness club: highly affordable, less than $10 per training hour; flexible scheduling that allows teams to set their own training times; and welcoming of young people, to make sure they have access to high quality conditioning and strength-building programs while they are growing quickly.

It's been difficult. The business is in Redmond, just across the lake, not that far from the Storm's home base in Seattle, right? Wrong. 15 miles seems like 1,500. We knew practically no one in that community. We held no deep connections. We hired staff that wasn't local. Our Open House in early April was a huge success. People came, loved what they saw, and had fun. And then nothing happened. The phone didn't ring nor did hundreds of emails did not land in our in-box requesting information. Coaches and parents did not flood us with scheduling requests.

Thankfully, the staff knows something about speaking a dream into existence, about not giving up just because the obstacle in the road is a huge boulder that requires creativity and ingenuity to remove. Every day, they have been searching for the people who will see the possibility of this center to transform the sports experience of athletes of all ages and engage with us. And you know what? The teams have started to come. The tide has turned. We didn't just live through the tough moments of uncertainty, hanging on for dear life, hoping things would go our way. We acknowledged the problems, identified solutions, and got in there. No matter the content or the size of your dream, you've got to believe, and you've got to do the work.

You choose which course to send your life down. Of course there's a lot you can't control out there. In fact, the list of what you can control is pretty short: what you think and what you say. There's no question luck will play a part in your future, yet that's no excuse not to go for it. How you translate what lands at your doorstep, how you respond to the good luck and the bad, all that is up to you.

Listen to yourself. What do you care about, what matters to you? Let your heart guide you. Don't set yourself on a path you don't find meaningful. You deserve a life that you find as engaging, enlivening, and challenging as you want and are up to the task of creating. Don't let anyone else decide for you who you want to be, or what you can do. Only you get to decide that.