Taming the Unicorn: 4 Lessons for Turning Your Dreams Into Realities

When I was a kid, I was a little unicorn-obsessed. I had posters of them on my wall. I insisted on watching The Last Unicorn when it came out, although I decided it was really weird and creepy. I would constantly draw them in my notebooks. My favourite toys were my plastic "She-Ra: Princess of Power" and her trusty steed, a flying unicorn named Swift Wind.

The summer I was nine, I spent a great deal of time riding an old, pudgy mare named gal around the neighbouring farmland, but she was always a winged silver unicorn while I rode her. (Thinking back on it, I'm pretty sure my obsession with unicorns may even be the reason why I wanted to ride so much in the first place.)

My silver "unicorn" and me, 1986.

I even wrote a rather long-ish story that year about a princess and a unicorn that my teacher seemed fairly impressed by.

"You could be a writer," she said.

This obsession with unicorns lasted right up until 1989, when Disney's The Little Mermaid came out, replaced the 1975 version of Han's Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid in my affections as my favourite movie of all time, and it's been mermaids pretty much ever since. :-)

When we are young, anything seems possible. As we grow up, something happens to our dreams--they become much more "practical" and "worldly", usually based on lessons learned in the school of hard knocks. We realize that it is probably not likely we will become a rock star or get paid $100,000 a year to play video games. We decide that having a unicorn is a foolish fantasy--so we let that dream die and settle for a mule.

He's not a unicorn, but at least he's cute!

He's not a unicorn, but at least he's cute!

Or maybe a pig--it consumes a great deal of our resources, but it's never going to take us to the lifestyle we want.

You know what? Some dreams we have as kids should die. Like showing up to the school dance and having all the boys worship you and making Katie Stuckup who embarrassed you in gym class see red because she's not the centre of attention for once? This is not the kind of dream we should hang onto. It is selfish and, if executed, would be just as hurtful as what Katie did. (Not to mention, be a little creepy.)

I'm talking about those dreams you had at 4, or 6, or even as you ascended the stairs to accept your high school graduation certificate--the "what do I want to do with my life?" dreams. These are the dreams we should nurture, feed, and work towards. But too often, they starve to death in the barn from neglect.

I've been there. Other than being the proud owner of a silver unicorn, something I wanted to do ever since I was little was to make music. I loved playing piano and I loved writing songs. As I got older, that dream became more defined--I wanted to be a professional songwriter, as well as the next Andrew Lloyd Webber (but female and Canadian, obviously). When I had a crisis of destinies at the age of 20 (which story I'll save for another post), I decided that I had better go to college that fall (only 6 weeks later!) and take music.

That decision changed my life. Two years later, I graduated with a diploma in Jazz Piano and Composition, a partially-begun musical that I was co-writing with my BFF and writing partner, Candace Marshall, a few dozens songs in various genres, and zero idea what to do next--because I had no experience in business, and no one told me that musicians are businesses and brands all in one.

That was 17 years ago, Since then, I have accrued a great deal of business acumen, and none of it in the halls of a facility of higher learning. I've also redefined my dreams a few times, and learned a great deal along the way. Here are the top lessons I have learned as I have striven for my dreams:

1. Know what your real dream is for this moment.

You can have ONE BIG DREAM, and have other dreams that are equally as important, but in conflict with it.

For instance, my ultimate goal was to have a solid career making income from writing music. But I also wanted a family, and kids, and needed to help provide income immediately while my kids were small. Songwriting is a long-term investment. You don't start off making tons of money. It might even be years before you make any money. So I had to create another source of income.

For years, I let this frustrate the heck out of me. How could I ever create inertia in a songwriting career if all my time was spent chasing after littles and running businesses to provide supplemental income?

Eventually, I did reach a place of peace when I realized that being a stay-at-home-mom to my kids was one of my dreams, too. I willingly chose to put my career aspirations on the back burner until my children were all older and in school (even if I home schooled until they graduated! Which didn't happen, but could have.) I realized that, although it seemed long at the time, I really only get them when they're small for a few short years, and there would be plenty of time to build my career after that. And now that I am at that point? I know I was right.

Look at your dreams and goals. Decide which ones are the top priority. Set a date or life stage when the other dreams will become more important. Then relax, and do what is important now.

2. Know that no skills you gain are ever wasted.

Often, on the way to a dream, you end up doing a lot of stuff that seems to have nothing to do with your end goal. Working retail, waiting tables, working in manufacturing or other jobs--all of these teach you valuable skills--people skills being one of the most important, especially if you work with the public at all.

When I decided to pursue writing fiction as a career, I took an amazing course from Holly Lisle (How to Think Sideways) and decided to write a short story for practice. Since I was already in the throes of researching what will become my amazing historical mermaid fantasy trilogy at some point, I wanted it to be something I didn't have to do a lot of research for. And I ended up writing The Friday Night Date Dress.

The characters in the book are a photographer and a self-taught seamstress who works at a diner, both things I know about. It is set in places I am familiar with. It was very easy for me to write that story because I simply drew on my own interests and work experience to create vocations and backdrops to tell this story. Even that failed attempt at a modelling career that sparked the vocational crisis that sent me to college got used.

As a writer, nothing is ever wasted. However, the same can be said of other career paths, too. Many of your skills can transfer to other positions, or at the very least give you greater empathy for others working in positions you have held. 

3. Know that your dreams may change as you learn more about yourself, and that's okay.

Thin Places: A Memoir
By Mary E DeMuth

About a month ago, I read Mary DeMuth's memoir, Thin Places. In the book, she talks about how she had musical aspirations and one day realized that she no longer did. She was content.

It was like a thunderclap went off in my brain. I put down the book and thought about it. At first, I was sad that she had "let that dream die," as I saw it. And then it hit me--I no longer wanted to be a professional songwriter, either. I want to be a writer!

How did this miraculous transition take place? Since Levi died, I have had a great many opportunities to examine myself, what I truly find important, and what I want to do with the time I have left. For the first time, I realized that my motivation for pursuing so many different hobbies and interests and "doing everything myself" was rooted deeply in my need to achieve. I was stunned to realize that all that activity was desperately trying to win the approval of someone from my past, and that is what drove me to keep learning more and doing more.

Once I realized that, I was able to step back and say, "Whoa! Why do I think I want this in my life? Do I need to be so driven? Do I need to do everything myself? No."

The route to your dreams isn't a straight ladder. It's a winding path up the side of a steep mountain, with plenty of switchbacks along the way--and the occasional fork. When you get to one, stop and ask yourself whether you still want your original goal. It's okay to change destinations if you realize your original dream is now the pig and not the unicorn.

4. Know that "magical thinking" won't get you there--Consistent, Persistent Effort will.

Our dreams are magical, aren't they? They give us something to hope for, strive toward, a reason to get up in the morning. But if you want to achieve them, you can't indulge in "magical thinking."

What is "magical thinking?" Magical thinking is an irrational belief that something will occur when a certain condition is met. For instance, when Dumbo was convinced that he could fly only because he carried a feather, that was magical thinking. 

There is no "magic feather." There is no perfect time, condition, or situation to pursue your dream. Conversely, if you aren't making progress, it isn't because of external circumstances. Yes, these can put road blocks in your way. But if your dream is something you intend to do, no matter what, you will find a way around them.

That's what it really boils down to: you need to decide that your dream is so important that you must. do. it.  Once this decision is made, you will no longer need a "magic feather" as a crutch--or it's lack as an excuse.

While integrating this into your psyche, please remember step number 1. We are not robots on an assembly line, destined to have only one role to fill our entire lives. We are in families and other relationships that have a bearing on when we take steps towards our dreams, and how much time we can devote to them.

Just don't let these relationships become your "magic feather." We have "time" to do the things we really want to do. When my kids were young, I scrapbooked for at least an hour a day. It was how I stayed sane. Could I have used that time to advance my musical career? Yes. But I chose not to, and said I had no time. That was magical thinking.

By the way, I eventually smartened up, which is probably why my scrapbooks drop off abruptly circa 2009. However, even when I did start making better use of my time, my highest priority was still raising my family, not making my name as a songwriter, so I had to carve out small niches of my day or week in order to work on my music career. But I made this choice deliberately. This is not magical thinking. It's prioritizing.

Now, even though I am pursuing writing, not music, the skills I gained while doing that (not least of which is self-discipline) are letting me advance much more quickly than had I spent all those years frittering away my time and wondering why I never had any.

Do something today to move yourself closer to your dream. Sign up for a marketing course. Enhance your skills. Make contacts within your desired field. Create more of your product. Whatever you need to do, DO IT. "Thinking about it" never accomplished anything.

Remember, if you want to catch a unicorn, you first have to go find one--and have something to help you catch it.

Image copyright: catmando/123RF Stock Photos

Do you need to get rid of some excuses/magical thinking? Do you need to prioritize which goal is most important right now? Do you need to decide what your dream actually is? Or are you looking at this checklist and going, "Yep, I know what she's talking about, because I've been there and now I know this stuff."

Leave a comment and let me know! I love hearing from you! Let me know how it's going as you "tame the unicorn!"