Anyone else read between the lines of children’s books? If you are reading a bedtime book to your child, I encourage you to pick up the lessons that its author might have intended for you. As a parent of three sons, I re-read these stories so often that I find it impossible not to connect the dots between the author’s original intentions and potential lessons for adult readers. Remember, children’s authors know that grown-ups read these tales too, and a parent would be foolish not to pick up on lessons themselves (even tangentially). As a job-interview coach, I am on a mission to remind clients that achieving their dream jobs is possible, and I believe this empowering message can even be found within kids’ books.
My family started reading books by acclaimed author Mo Willems in 2013, back when my first son was 2. On the surface, Mo’s books couldn’t be simpler. The accompanying illustrations are simple, outlined with bold, black lines. Out of his many stories, my personal favorite is Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus.
As the title suggests, the story’s central character is an incredibly persistent yet frustrated pigeon who wants nothing more than to drive a bus. The conductor talks directly to the reader throughout the narrative, asking to make sure the pigeon does not drive the bus. Then, he leaves. That’s when the pigeon goes bonkers, spending time and effort in trying to get the reader to let him drive. By breaking the fourth wall, the story makes reading the book clever and funny. I sometimes ask my son, “OK, so now can the pigeon drive the bus?” and of course he screams “No!” This is central to the story’s plot.
The pigeon’s aspirations are loud and clear at the moment when the bus is left alone. This bird knows what he wants and will go as far as manipulations and lies to have a chance at the wheel. Eventually, though, he accepts that his ultimate dream will not come true. The driver finally returns aboard the bus, making it clear that the bird never had a shot at trying his hand (or wing) at driving the bus. So, what does the fowl do at the point when he is deflated? He immediately becomes distracted by another shiny object: a nearby tractor trailer! Now, his dreams of driving a 10-axle vehicle begin to consume him — and the book ends.
The pigeon protagonist sounds a lot like anyone who has felt deflated after pursuing their dreams. As a job interview coach, I’m reminded of clients who had their confidence bruised when their ambitions didn’t pan out. It makes me think of clients with children, who’ve had dreams gnawing at them for years. These dreamers have had to put their ambitions on the back burner in pursuit of helping their kids go after their own goals, as though it were either one or the other. Every night when I read to my sons, I’m reminded that both my dreams and theirs can coexist, just like the idea that a Mo Willems book can entertain a child and teach valuable lessons to its adult readers. The lessons I’ve learned are shaped by my years as a job interview coach who has seen too few people really going after their dreams. My big takeaway when I read Mo Willems is that a real dream or ambition has a life of its own. So, I ask you: what is your real ambition? If you could go back to when you only had yourself to focus on, what would you be doing instead?
Your original dream never goes away
You may get distracted along the way and pick up professional degrees in the process, yet these might be considered distractions until you are ready to pick up your dreams once again. As a job interview coach I am committed to making it socially acceptable to fulfill childhood dreams. I believe that the same dream you imagined when you were younger is still worth realizing as an adult. I’m not referring to being a cowboy (unless that’s what floats your boat). I want you to revisit your original aspiration, the one you had when you first realized your greatest passion, unique talent, or ability.
For me, it was becoming a world-famous copywriter in an advertising agency. I was 12 years old when I thought that up, learning about advertising in elementary school. Around the same time, I was glued to an after-school TV show in which the protagonist owned an ad agency. I was smitten with the idea of owning my own ad agency and coming up with jingles. And yet, I made different decisions the older I became: I eventually meandered into law school, studied for one semester, then left. Instead of following my passions, I went into the corporate world because my then-employer paid for my tuition. The caveat was that I had to work for them in exchange, and then everything afterward was rooted in my need to support myself. Looking back, I wonder what I was thinking. So much changed from when I was young, back when it was OK to dream freely. As time passed, I picked up more responsibilities, leaving me feeling like I had to suppress my risky dreams with safe choices, such as going to law school or working in corporate. Guardrails went up around my original dream. Those creative aspirations never left me, but they were immobilized by a figurative fence with a big “keep out” sign. These days, I see a lot of guardrails around my clients’ dreams. What guardrails are you putting up for yourself today? Are they responsibilities to your family? Are they a lack of top talent or skills? No time? You may hide your dream or put it away, but it will keep popping up from time to time. Soon, you’ll notice that it’ll feel like clockwork whenever you end a chapter of your life: you might rethink your career after being let go from a role, or you might reconsider your life choices when you turn 40.
This idea that a dream never stops rearing its head is showcased throughout many of Mo’s books. The illustrator consistently draws the wily bird from Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus in the back covers of his other books (you can spot the pigeon in the back of Should I Share My Ice Cream Cone? hidden in the shape of an ice cream scoop). Go ahead and play this hide-and-seek game with your child, who will get a kick out of finding the pigeon.
Just as the bird continues to pop up in other books, our own ambitions constantly make cameos in our waking lives. Your core dream will never go away!
Your original dream takes different shapes
The pigeon wants to drive a bus in the beginning of the book, though later he switches gears to pursuing a trailer. Both are vehicles that move. What moves you? It’s not easy to uncover an underlying thread unless you have the courage to dig for it. Sometimes you have to pay for someone to ask you the tough questions to figure out what drives you. You might need a nudge, a reassurance that you have the right to be on that path. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes we need external affirmations to get us through the bumps.
This pigeon didn’t need reassurance. He needed to be taken off the ledge: he was fully committed to getting the reader to let him take a joy ride. In this case, YOU were the only person in his way — much like you are the only person standing in the way of pursing your dreams. Back in 2003, I cold-called advertising agencies using the good old-fashioned Yellow Pages. I asked to meet with a copywriter just for a shot at joining the industry. I secured a meeting with a little agency in downtown NYC, met with the copywriter, and was given an assignment. However, I never submitted that assignment. I let my fear of rejection get in my way. I didn’t even give the copywriter a chance to evaluate my work — again, because I was my own obstacle.
Your original dream is being lived by someone else
In Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, the bus conductor is living the bird’s biggest dream. It really doesn’t matter who is living out your dream. You are bothered by the fact that someone else had the vision and courage to go for it. What you might not realize is that they too had to make tough choices along the way to get what you wanted — and who knows, we can’t always assume it was their original dream either. Is life really that linear? So many of us want to be planners, but the truth is that things sometimes happen beyond our control. It’s your choice to get your feathers ruffled up over seeing someone else where you expected to be at this stage in life. Ideally, when you see someone else living your dream, you should use them as your models. However, as was the case in Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, toward the end of the tale the pigeon was so lost in himself following his frustration that precisely when the conductor said his goodbyes, he had his head down. That’s called a missed opportunity. My missed opportunity was when I worked for a top advertising agency in account management instead of as a creative. I didn’t even try to get into copywriting. Instead, I pursued my MBA. We let our emotions override our opportunities to take smart actions. It’s hard to think clearly when there are clouds in your head.
Your original dream is not lost — you are just hiding from it!
If you feel frustrated, disgruntled, overly emotional, sarcastic, or complacent, or even if you are downplaying what you really want out of your career, know that your original dream didn’t go anywhere, just like the pigeon who makes his way into plenty of Mo Willems’ other books. Your original passion lies inside of you. Your original ideas are valid. Your talents are not being used right now. Your current professional situation is just a shiny object that you are letting yourself be distracted by.
I also want you to notice how you react when someone tells you about their dreams. What’s your pattern? Do you encourage, discourage, poke fun of, or ignore dreamers? What about those who are making it work for themselves? When I think about what I want this article to inspire, it’s this: Right now, as adults with kids, we are putting our dreams on the back burner. We do it for many reasons, whether it’s due to the influence of “haters” or of naysayers who’ve chiseled away at our confidence. What I’m working toward in my business and in my home is encouraging the idea that my son can love arts and crafts today and never let go of his raw, real ambitions when he grows up. My mission as a mom and coach is to make it possible for adults to place their ambitions on the front burner. I believe my ambition and my child’s can live side-by-side. After all, imagine a world where a child can start his life loving whatever he wants, then grows up to have built a legacy around that true ambition. We can make this a reality!
Use your bedtime to revisit your dreams
My original dream of becoming a world-class copywriter in an advertising agency never went away. Instead, it evolved from copywriting in my own advertising agency where I’d be selling products and services, to copywriting in my own career-coaching practice, where I help people build up the skills they need to sell themselves. I believe in the potential behind people more than I could ever believe in the benefits of products or services.
I encourage you to connect the dots the next time you read a book to your child. Consider it a sign to revisit your original dream, then take a leap to make your aspirations loud and clear. Don’t be afraid of getting on a ledge for those dreams. Whatever you do, those aspirations will poke their heads in your life from time to time. When your chance arrives, take off your blinders and don’t miss the opportunity. And for goodness’ sake, let yourself finally drive that bus!
Originally published on Career Outcomes Matter.