I should be working. Marking. Preparing my taxes. Doing that work that never gets done in the work week. Cleaning the kitchen. Doing chores.
I’m not. Instead, I’m staring out at the lake. Lost in thought. Daydreaming. Wasting time. Or am I?
Is it really a waste of time? Is this time spent dreaming any more or less valuable than any other thing I have to do? Most people would answer categorically that dreaming is far less valuable than any of the other activities I should be doing. Why? Why do we think this?
Why? Why do we think this? Well, dreaming doesn’t produce anything, does it? Perhaps not. So it’s of lesser value than those activities that “produce something”.
Let’s think about that for a moment. What value are the things that I “produce”? Easy answer to that. They are necessary to fulfil my needs.
But dreaming fulfils needs, too. My need to imagine and create is real. My life would be empty without that. I’d be fed, I’d be housed, my taxes would be paid, the lawn would be prettier and the neighbours wouldn’t hate us. But without creation, my life would be empty.
But even those dreams that don’t lead to some form of creation have value – add value to my life. Dreams have always shaped my life.
Dreams have been my sustenance through tough times. When I was a kid, I was bullied mercilessly in the tough neighbourhoods we lived in. My dreams of a future life sustained me. They were vivid. They were hopeful. They were real.
When we had no money, when food was not there. When my alcoholic mother lay in her bed playing the same song over and over and over – “Make the world go away…” I’d be in my room, reading and dreaming.
Later, in the heady days of the 1960’s there were other dreams. Peace. Love. A new beginning. I moved from comic books to music. I dreamed deeper dreams.
And when I discovered performing – music, plays and even, much later, stand up comedy. When I wrote songs, poems and even plays. These were dreams – preserved and channelled into a force that has driven my life.
I dare to say that even when my career moved into the corporate sphere, I never stopped dreaming of what was possible. It was one of the big reasons I got into Information Technology. There was that thrill of imagining something that could be and making that real. It didn’t matter if it was “hello world” in a new programming language or a large corporate system. I dreamed of what we could do. Sometimes we did it.
My dreams didn’t always come true. Some did. A gold album. A Juno nomination. A brief but intense acting career. Corporate success – achieving roles and positions that should not have been possible. Starting a company and taking it past the million dollar mark in revenue. Personal dreams – a long lasting marriage to a woman I love deeply and who has been my friend and lover for all these years. Raising two children.
Even the ones that don’t come true. As I said in a song I wrote, acknowldging that my dreams of music success had never been fully realized, “I never made it big. I mostly played for beer.” And there have been other disappointments. Lots of them. Some big, some small. But as I said in another song lyric, “For all of the troubles, the heartbreaks, the sorrows – I’d do it all over again.” And I would. In a heartbeat.
And the dreams don’t stop. Recently, working with my partner Fawn Annan, we’ve both dreamed of reviving a 30-year-old publishing brand and making it survive and thrive in the digital age. Or my dream to have a new album with my songs that I’ve never stopped writing. The book. Or creating a thriving high-tech presence in my home in Haliburton county. The dreams never stop. They are a vital force in my life. They give my life richness and meaning.
So when I taught my leadership class at the University of Waterloo, I got a terrible shock when I asked my students to preface their assignment by imagining – dreaming – what they would be like as leaders in the future. Now, I’m not totally naive, I expected some difficulty from some students. Professors don’t ask for this sort of thing. Especially in a Masters’ program.
But I’ve done similar exercises with corporate executives – it’s a necessary part of breakthrough type strategies – or any real strategy for that matter. I know that you have to create a framework that grants permission to “dream”. So I do. I use different frames – often getting them to imagine themselves on the cover of a major business magazine in the future, being interviewed about their success. Often this is all it takes – move the dream into an accepted framework and give permission to it. In that context, most, if not all, can muster some kind of dream.
Yet my students were, in the large majority, panicked by this idea of “dreaming” and “imagining”. Of all the things I did in this course, this was the most difficult. I’m used to students staying to clarify things about the weekly assignment. The line up to ask questions about this assignment went on for over two hours.
And almost without exception, they had one question. “How do I imagine what I will be like in the future?” Even when prodded, almost none of them had a dream that they could share. What they did regurgitate was rote – a good job, a salary, a family, a home. All the right things. Lacking in passion. Hardly inspirational.
I was dumbfounded and stumbled through, trying to answer this question for the first student. And then over and over and over – for the better part of two hours I attempted to help the students through the same problem – how to dream of the future. At first, I didn’t know what to say. I’d never stopped dreaming. Even in my corporate life. But they had. They simply could not conceive of how to imagine themselves in the future.
In desperation, I tried to give an example. “Do you remember when you were a small child and there was a holiday where you got presents? Diwali? Christmas? Birthday? Bar Mitzvah? Remember wanting a present so bad that it drove you crazy? And then not getting it? Now describe it to me.”
Almost all of them could do this. Some were embarrassed at first, but rapidly went back to that treasured memory. With a little prompting, they described it with clarity and swith real emotion as they pictured that present vividly in their mind.
“Now,” I said. “If you can do that for a toy, for an inanimate thing, even after all of these years, why can you not dream of your future?”
As I left the class and walked towards my car, the awful reality struck me. We’ve taken the dreams away from these kids. Or rather, taken away their ability to dream.
These are not underprivileged kids. They are not kids facing cognitive challenges. They are not downtrodden. They have not had their hopes dashed. Most have very promising futures. Their dreams haven’t been taken away from them. Their ability to imagine and dream vividly about a future has atrophied.
Why? Is it the bleakness of that future? Is that the reason? I’m not sure. After all, I’ve lived in the shadow of nuclear holocaust in the 1960’s with the Cuban missile crisis and practicing for nuclear war. I’ve lived through the environmental destruction envisioned by “Silent Spring”. I’ve been through three or more major recessions. I too look at the future – I believe that we are being misled and that climate change is already irreversible – and worse than anyone imagines. Despite all of that I haven’t stopped dreaming or lost the ability to do so.
Could it be less sinister and more just plain sad? Have we just devalued dreaming so much that kids stop making time for it? Have we outsourced imagination to media and electronic devices that stimulate us but leave nothing to the imagination? Is it just a triumph of the ordinary? Has the spark of imagination left these kids, as T.S. Elliot opined, “not with a bang, but a whimper?”
Perhaps. But here’s what learned from this exercise. As I walked through with each of them, this exercise of dreaming of the childhood toy – as I asked them to find that imagination they’d left as children, as I pushed them to activate their senses, even in that brief moment, something magic happened. After a term of semi-interesting but exceptionally bland papers, I’ve been marking some of the best writing I’ve seen all term. By starting with a dream, they’ve started to speak more authentically and with real and interesting voices throughout their papers. I’m reading engineers who are writing creatively, frankly and imaginatively.
Marking, which I normally cringe at, is suddenly a pleasure.
Will this stay with them? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that not many professors will ask them to imagine vividly or to dream. And that’s a shame. Because the skill may have atrophied, but it’s not dead. Surprisingly, it can be brought back to life much more quickly than I would have dreamed. I can only imagine that with a little nurturing, everyone could get back the vivid dreaming potential that many left behind in the childhood.
So I say this to my students and to anyone else reading this. Find it again. Cherish it. And don’t let them steal it again – your ability to dream. It’s not too late.