Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Follow your dreams. Realize your potential. Dare to lead. Live your legacy.
During the Q&A portion of a work-and-life conference at which I delivered a keynote, someone asked how I respond to women who perceive advice to follow their dreams as pressure.
As one who has myself articulated variations of the phrases above and supported them with actionable advice from personal experience, I love this question. I love it because it challenges advice that we may take for granted, and invites us to address some assumptions.
First, we acknowledge that we live in a time of incredible change. It is a time of disruption across industries and societies, a time when women are being recognized for the value they bring, and a time when barriers are being broken and new paths are being walked.
With change and disruption comes great uncertainty regarding how to integrate the old and new and move into the future. With disruption also comes enormous possibility. Societies, industries, and the world stand to benefit when all human beings realize and live their potential, follow their dreams, dare to lead, and live their legacies.
Here are six tools for women who perceive the invitation to excel as pressure.
1) You have the right to say no to your dreams.
While this may seem to be at odds with advice to follow your dreams, the truth is that we have free will. A lot of us have the gift of living in societies with enormous freedoms, yet millions of women do not have that gift. The transformation of societies noted above includes bringing the truth of human potential to societies where those freedoms are greatly challenged.
Most women who read this have the ability to choose among various paths. We have the right to determine what is best for us and to reject, suspend, or postpone even those things that are good for us. Embrace and exercise that right.
2) Go inward.
Articulate your own dream; don't simply follow a trend. Do follow your dreams if they come from within. Do follow them if they are unique to you and were placed in your heart from birth or through your life experiences.
How do you tell the difference between following the crowd and a deeper calling? You discern by inquiring within —in silence—through prayer, meditation, or quiet reflection. No one can discern this for you. You can receive help along the way, but you must discern.
3) Imagine alternate paths.
Use a notebook or journal to carry out this exercise. Imagine what will happen if you don't follow your dreams. What will you be doing in five years? How will you feel? What will you see and hear? Who will you be with? What will you say about yourself—to yourself and to others?
Next, imagine what will happen if you do follow your dreams. What will you be doing in five years? How will you feel? What will you see and hear? Who will you be with? What will you say about yourself—to yourself and to others?
Once you’ve completed the exercise, make a choice, and be sure to take steps that are consistent with your choice.
4) Your dreams are valid no matter the size.
Some erroneously conclude that advice regarding following one’s dreams is limited to big dreams. I work in the area of anti-bribery and anti-corruption. I am committed to disrupting the decades-old issue that limits countries’ ability to realize their full economic potential. This is an example of a big dream—it spans many countries and has a global impact. It is not limited to a specific family, community, or unit.
Not all dreams need to be that big. I also have smaller dreams that I’m deeply committed to, such as those involving my family and personal relationships. These are small dreams with enormous impact. What is most important is not the size of the dream, but whether in fulfilling them, you believe that you are living in accordance with the highest and greatest good.
5) Explore your purpose.
Part of the reason some perceive advice to follow their dreams as pressure is because they haven’t tuned in to their life’s purpose. I believe each of us is called to accomplish various things in this world. If you haven’t identified what those are for you, spend some time thinking about them and exploring them.
What interests you and what are you curious about? What are you excited to do? Sara Blakely, businesswoman and founder of Spanx, describes purpose as “the intersection of what you enjoy, what you’re good at, and how you want to serve the world.” Cultivate those, and you will be more connected with your purpose.
6) Get a mentor or coach.
Women who do know their purpose and are clear on what their dreams are often don’t know how to go about executing them. Or they may be dealing with fear—of success, of failure, or of the unknown.
Just as a sports coach challenges an athlete to sharpen her skills and attain higher forms of excellence, a life or career coach challenges an individual to push through comfort zones and barriers that are self- or society-imposed and attain higher forms of excellence. I highly recommend getting one.
For those who may not be in a position to hire a coach, it is easier than ever to access valuable information and advice online. Identify a mentor or coach whose message resonates deeply, and who has walked the path you seek to walk. Study them with the intention, not to admire or to be entertained, but to go deeper and discover how to consistently execute your goals.
In choosing to live your dreams, you are choosing life itself. You are choosing to live in harmony with the highest and greatest good. In choosing to dance with your life’s purpose, you touch the very essence of life.
That is not pressure. That is what we are here for.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes.