I was waiting for a call.
I got an e-mail instead.
"We regret to inform you that we had many highly qualified applicants and...YOU SUCK WE HATE YOU YOU ARE NOTHING."
Okay, so the last part I might have made up.
But you know this letter.
The one where those first few sentences make everything go hazy and jab one single word into your heart:
This particular rejection came from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I had applied for a doctoral program without a lot of belief that I would get in (not from an unhealthy lack of self-esteem but a genuine understanding that I did not fall within the average age, years of experience, typical background, or GRE scores) but at the suggestion of a friend, I decided to apply anyway.
Like any overachiever, even despite my lack of qualifications, I couldn't do it halfway. I went all in: I studied for the GRE for a month to raise my score to Harvard levels (I did!). I reached out to current students in the program to ask for their advice. I edited and redrafted my application essay 15 times.
So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when I got asked to be one of the top 50 people to interview for the program (from which the final 25 would be chosen). But I was surprised. I was shocked. And I was thrilled.
Though I had worked so hard on my application, up to that point I still hadn't ever entertained the thought of actually going to Harvard. Not really.
Now that I was going to be in Cambridge for an interview I began to allow myself to imagine what it would be like to actually get in and attend.
I got excited.
I got my hopes up.
I went on the interview. It was a fantastic experience.
And then, the email.
One of the Harvard graduate students who had helped me told me that most likely the 25 chosen for the program would get a call. My interview had gone so well that I was waiting for my phone to ring any day.
And then it didn't.
And while I knew that failure is a requirement of success, that trying and learning was so valuable, I still crumbled.
Knowing the importance and potential and normality of failure didn't make it any easier to go through in that moment.
I lost it. Like, really lost it. I immediately broke down crying, curled on the carpet of my second-floor apartment, my wracking sobs probably disturbing my neighbors below.
But what made me cry wasn't that I no longer would be spending the next three years at Harvard.
What made me cry was a feeling of worthlessness. That somehow this meant that I was nothing. That I was naive. That I was stupid. How dare I try. How dare I dream. How dare I think I could go somewhere like Harvard. I am unworthy and unprivileged and that is just my lot in life and there's nothing I can do to change it. I'm a terrible, worthless person who has nothing to offer so I should just stop. I should give up right now, because this is all pointless. Why do I try so hard? Why do I want so much? Why do I care so much?
And then, the worst one descended and threatened to lock itself onto my brain forever:
I hate the way I am.
I knew this wasn't healthy, but I didn't know how to get myself out of it at the time. On some level I knew I needed to grieve, and then eventually I found the steps to get me out.
I decided I was going to make not getting into Harvard the best thing that ever happened to me.
I also realized that Harvard itself wasn't necessarily my dream. It was a way, I thought, to expedite my dreams, but there were other ways I could still make my dreams of impact come true. I decided that, not only was I not going to give up, but that I couldn't give up.
When the pain got so bad one afternoon I actually tried on giving up, like trying on a pair of jeans in the fitting room of my mind: I'll just stop caring and just live life with this numb feeling, day to day. I'm not going to care anymore. I'm not going to reach. It's killing me. I thought that this might bring relief, but instead, those giving-up-jeans started to suffocate my heart. It made it worse. No, giving up wasn't the answer. After this moment, there were four words that came to my mind that changed everything. They gave me much relief and became the fuel that moved me forward:
I am a dreamer.
I realized that I can't not dream. I can't not go for things, big things, things way out of my reach and things I am crazy to want and pursue. I can't not be crazy. It's just who I am apparently. And I can't escape it. And finally, finally, I don't want to.
Hi, my name is Isa, and I am a dreamer.
But, as we all know, dreaming alone doesn't get one very far past their vision board. What you do to make your dream happen is what really matters.
I had read practical success books about "doing," and they were very helpful, but sometimes they lacked the passion I felt; the books that focused on dreaming alone felt a little empty and shallow at times.
In my adult life I'd been awakened to so much injustice in the world, more rampant than I'd ever fully realized, that sometimes I could hardly breathe. What right do I have to dream, I wondered, when others are experiencing such tragedies truly outside of their control? Can dreaming and doing really help someone out of poverty, help someone who's just been diagnosed with cancer, help someone who's lost someone they loved so much that they know they'll never be the same again?
And then I realized that those who seem to make the biggest leaps do often start with dreaming.
That speech. You know the one.
"I have a dream..."
So I came to understand that not only was I a dreamer, but that maybe I was going to let being a dreamer become okay. It didn't mean I was dismissing the truly awful things that happen to people. It just meant that maybe I, and they, could do something about it.
The next thing I did was look for some inspiration. I read The Alchemist again.
It was wonderful again. Allegories are incredible and valuable art.
And like all great art, it left me with some questions:
What am I supposed to do to achieve my dream? Carry around rocks, get on a camel, and start working in a glass shop?
Seriously though, I wanted to know: What does this dream journey look like in real life? What could I learn from people who have achieved a dream they had? What happens when you're a dreamer and a doer?
I decided I was going to find out. And my next book idea was born.
At the time of this writing I am in the process of interviewing 100 people who have made a dream come true. I've interviewed 26 people so far and their stories and words of wisdom have already changed me and given me courage and guidance on what to do each day to move forward towards making a dream come true.
Since I'm still in the interview stage it's going to be a while before I can share all this delicious knowledge via the published book, but I felt so inspired after the interview I just conducted that I had to share some of the similar qualities I've been noticing of the people I've talked to so far. I hope they help you as much as they've helped me:
- People who achieve their dreams are patient. They understand that achieving their dream will require long hours and many years without a lot of payoff. They are willing to do the work.
- People who achieve their dreams like the work. The dream is rarely about some magical end result but more about the journey itself, about the work they get to do each day to improve and move closer to their dream.
- People who achieve their dreams don't seem to live in the future as much as you might expect. They value silence and self-reflection, and don't let thinking about where they "aren't" get in the way of appreciating where they are today. They seem to be fully present in each day.
- People who have achieved their dreams don't do it alone. They all have people who helped make their dream possible. They cultivated their community of mentors and experiences in ways to help them gain practice and up-close exposure to their dream.
- People who have achieved their dreams don't plan as much as you might think. They are intentional and set goals for sure, but rarely is everything mapped out. The focus is more on the work, the improvement, and being open to opportunities and various ways of making their dream come true - some ways, in fact, that they couldn't have even dreamed.
How can you take all this and use it to make your dream come true? That's what the book will be for. You can check out my website if you'd like to be notified when the book does come out, and if you have achieved a dream in your life I would love to interview you (details here).
In the meantime, here are some things I have learned can help make a dream come true:
Be quiet. Take time every day to reflect, journal, and think about what you want and where you're directing the majority of your time and energy. Pursue your dreams, not someone else's. Write them down. Read them every morning. And spend time every day working on that dream, educating yourself by reading and learning from people who are where you would like to be. Model them. But also don't be afraid to bring your unique self to the table, to your dream. Learn. Learn. Learn. And as you educate yourself, put what you learn into action. Do the thing you dream about now, in some way, no matter how small. Do it every day.
Making a dream come true is a long, laborious process. It requires incredible patience and resilience. Choose a dream for which the work is something you can see yourself getting up for every morning, because to make a dream come true you'll have to be willing to work harder and more strategically and with more focus, discipline, and dedication than anyone else.
Making a dream come true is less fairy dust and much more grit.
But, that being said, when you're going for your dream, there is nothing more invigorating, even when it's hard. While any dream has a chance of not coming true, most of us keep dreaming and keep trying because of two words that can only become present in your life when you act on your dreams.
They are the favorite words of one of my most treasured role models, LeVar Burton: