How to Realize an Impossible Dream

Some people seem to live impossibly dreamy lives and achieve things that appear completely unreachable for us normal human beings. I’m not talking about movie stars and billionaires with the fame and fortune to buy anything they want. I’m also not talking about folks who plaster social media with glossy, glamorous selfies in order to cover up a life that’s actually falling apart.


I’m talking about that friend, colleague, or neighbor who seems to have it all, do it all, be it all while the rest of us are stuck in humdrum everyday lives. I have friends who dreamed of moving to somewhere completely exotic like Dubai or Tanzania, then actually packed up and went. I have cousins who quit high-powered, high-paying, all-consuming jobs and decided to pick up consulting as a work-from-home soccer dad. I have clients and colleagues who started a nonprofit or business and thrive off the fruits of their creation. We all know *that* person and jealously wonder how in the world they did it. My internal dialogue goes into jealous overdrive with all the reasons they must have had it easy or had more passion or more resources or some magic potion that I just don’t have.


Well, Manuel Esteban, the former President of Cal State University Chico where I once worked asked me, “How in the world did you leave your tenured professorship? Nobody does that.” I was surprised to find that someone else saw me as *that* person with the impossible life. It was particularly surprising because I saw him as *that* person in return -- a man who truly lived the storybook American Dream rising from a middle school drop out in Barcelona to University President.


More recently, a client asked me, “How in the world did you do it?”


“Do what?” I replied.


“Figure out how to take your family on a worldwide gap year? I’ve always wanted to do that but it’s always felt too impossible, scary, and risky.”


More and more, I’m finding myself the subject of that question: how in the world did you create that dreamy thing that seems so impossible, scary, and risky (e.g. leave academia, switch careers, go into business for yourself, take a gap year, etc.)? This post attempts to take you behind the curtain to share the strategies my clients and I have used to realize seemingly impossible dreams.


We’ll begin with a flashback to summer break 2017 when Jason and I were visiting Rome with the kids in the midst of huge crowds and the worst heat wave in a decades. We said to each other, “Wouldn’t it be nice to come to Rome during the off season?” And for some reason, in that moment, instead of my brain listing all the reasons why that’d be impossible, we started imagining what it might look like if only it were possible. When would we go? How long would we stay? Where else might we go? What might the kids do for school? What might I do for work? That impossible dream became the Salter Gap Year. (If you want to follow along on our adventures, I have a private Facebook Group where I’m blogging as we go. Message me on Facebook and I’ll add you!)


STRATEGY 1 -- Make a wish.


Go ahead. Let yourself dream. I’ve always been a fantasy/scifi kind of girl so imagining a future in a world full of dragons or starships has always been gloriously fun and freeing. To dream big with my own life feels like weaving a fantasy story with me as the protagonist. To make a proper wish, I have to tell my “That’s Impossible!” voice to be quiet; this is just dreaming and wishing in a fantasy world. Hush for now. It’s not real. No need to worry just yet.


Jason and I dreamed up all sorts of wonderful wishes for a gap year with the kids. We imagined selling everything we own and living on a boat to sail around the world. Or perhaps buying a refurbished train car to ride all the way from Vietnam to Europe. We contemplated moving to Hawaii first, then doing house trades with folks around the world. Eventually, the wish that we kept coming back to was the idea of living for a month at a time in the capitals of major world-empires: London, Cairo, Beijing, Istanbul, Rome, Jerusalem, Moscow, Tokyo.


Ultimately, see if you can settle on a wish that lands in the Goldilocks zone. A too small wish is no big deal. It’s what you do everyday. You know exactly how to get it done and don’t need help. In contrast, a too big wish feels other-worldly and inconceivable. A just right wish feels just the right amount of scary with a heaping spoonful of excitement followed by an afterglow that leaves you tingling with possibility and promise. Just right wishes land in the middle of each of these scales:


  • Everyday worry and anxiety --------> Daunting and scary --------> Terrifying and demoralizing

  • Totally doable --------> Tantalizingly improbable / Just this side of impossible --------> Completely inconceivable

  • Good work --------> Exciting, passionate work --------> Burnout-inducing work

  • Easy, peasy. I got this! --------> Maybe with lots of help.** --------> I have no idea how to even begin.


Everyone has a different threshold for a Goldilocks wish. Don’t feel bad if something that’s way too big for you is easy peasy for someone else. Your brain is different. Your stress response is different. Your tolerance for risk is different. Your experience level creating impossible dreams is different. Whatever falls in your Goldilocks zone is just right for you right now. Practice with whatever feels just right.


** What do you mean “Maybe with lots of help”? That’s exactly what I mean. Put aside the heroics. You don’t have to do everything all on your own. The right sized wish will be too big for you to do alone. It’ll put you in what educators call the “proximal zone of development” -- that place where you’re at the edge of your abilities and thus need the guidance, advice, teaching, and support of others to make it possible. It’s okay ask for help. Trust me, it’s more fun to collaborate and you’ll grow far more from the experience of working together.


STRATEGY 2 -- Think big picture outcomes.


It took Jason and I over a year of dreaming to settle on a Goldilocks wish for our family. We decided that the 2021-22 school year would be our Gap Year. The kids would homeschool and we’d work from capital cities of empires around the world. That would be the year my son would transition from middle school to high school, which seemed like the right time to really create some memories together. We had two years to figure things out.

But, before we zoomed in to deal with logistics, we zoomed out to take in the big picture view.


  • What will achieving this dream create that wouldn’t otherwise be possible?

  • How will it make you feel?

  • How will it change your life and the lives of those around you?

  • Why does it matter?

  • What are your priorities?


This is what we wrote in a document we started together in early 2019:


  • What do we want out of a Gap Year?

  • Tme together as a family while kids still like hanging out with us

  • Give kids direct experience with different cultures, people, languages, and history (USA and global)

  • Explore China with grandparents

  • Keep connected to work, friends, school

  • Set aside time blocks based on time zone for Jason to work w Eric, Irene to consult, kids to stay in touch w friends, come back home now and then to recenter

  • Top priorities

  • Kids well being

  • Kids education

  • Family time

  • Friend time

  • Our well being

A client who is contemplating starting a nonprofit farm school listed these for her big picture outcomes:

  • Time with each other

  • Being involved in the kids' lives

  • Working the land and getting our hands in the dirt

  • Being connected with others spiritually and in some form of community

  • Meaningful work

Isn’t that stunningly beautiful? Big picture outcomes like these become touchstones for the dream you are creating. Like the mission statement of an organization or the values of a leader, big picture outcomes serve as a roadmap through the wilderness. When you need to make a decision later on and don’t quite know which path to take, revisit these priorities and allow them to steer the course. (More on that in a moment...)


STRATEGY 3 -- Take it one step at a time.


One of my favorite thought leaders, Michael Bungay Stanier, recently said:


“Often we will back away from, or say no to, a project if can’t see the whole arc of it, if we can’t see the end point, if we can’t say, “This is how I’m going to cross the finish line.” I think rather you really want to be looking at it as projects where I can see a little way into the future. I can see the first few steps I’m going to take on this project. I can’t necessarily see how I’m going to get to the end of it. Because when you’re taking on a project like that, it’s going to have impact. It’s going to be thrilling. It’s going to be daunting. It’s going to help you learn and grow. And it’s going to be the type of project with which you want to fill up your life.”


The reason dreams feel impossible is because there is no clear path from start to finish. There will be risk. There will be uncertainty. There is no way to keep all the tasks and moving pieces in your head, or even on paper. Any big dream worth pursuing (whether changing jobs, moving towns, starting a nonprofit, assembling a new team, or taking a Gap Year) will be full of obstacles that you can’t control.


For Jason and I, the whole enterprise definitely seemed overwhelming and shrouded in fog. The biggest question marks were how to provide the kids with quality schooling, how to create a career for me that was time and location flexible, and how to save up enough money. There were many times where I wondered if we were completely insane to even try.


That’s normal. It’s okay and perfectly human to feel scared. Uncertainty is the name of the game with big dreams. It’s okay to put things down for a while and come back to it later. This is a marathon, not a sprint.


Here’s 3 tips to get around the obstacles and overwhelm:


TIP 1: Allow the plan to reveal itself starting with where you are and what you have instead trying to craft a complete, clear, polished target and detailed plan. A client came up with a brilliant analogy for exactly this situation. Consider two types of home chefs. The first starts with a polished recipe, reads it over a bunch of times, gets all the ingredients, and then makes it. That polished recipe approach works really well for me with small goals where I have lots of information to begin with, a reasonable amount of control, and can anticipate what might get in the way. However, for really big dreams with fuzzy edges, that approach is unrealistic. You can count on the universe to throw unforeseeable challenges in your path that will destroy any elegant, well-developed plan. (The Universe’s response to my Gap Year = global pandemic.) Instead, the second kind of chef looks at what’s currently in the fridge, flips through some cookbooks for ideas, and then does the best they can with whatever they’ve got. This is the better approach for a big impossible dream -- start with what you know right now and identify the specific areas you have control. From there take one step forward.


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ~ Lao Tzu, from the Tao de Ching,

Now, from your new position, reassess. Gather new data. Explore where you have agency now. When you’re ready, take the next step. Let every step take you closer and closer to the goal. Slowly but surely, you’ll get to where you are going, all the while staying grounded in the information you know and what you actually have control over.


The other advantage of this approach is that you won’t freak out as much every time the universe throws you a curve ball because there’s no beautiful, detailed plan to destroy. Instead, you just do what you’ve been doing all along: What do I know right now? Where do I have control right now? What’s the next most logical step forward based on that?


TIP 2: In order to take that first, most scary step, adopt the mindset that this is an experiment instead of a permanent, forever kind of thing. Picking a date was easy. But the real first step, the most scary action that had to be taken, was to give notice to my workplace, a team and school that I loved with all my heart. Once that single step was taken, the ball would be rolling and the Gap Year journey would actually begin. At the time, I had absolutely no idea what kind of career I’d fall into. I had to trust that I could make it in some kind of online work -- consulting was the first that came to mind. It helped a lot to also know that if I hated consulting, or couldn’t earn enough money, I could always come back from Gap Year and find a different job. I didn’t have to be a consultant forever.


Similarly, years ago when Jason and I were agonizing over over whether to move away from the Bay Area and all our friends for that professor gig at Cal State University, Chico, it really helped when we told ourselves, “We’ll call this a one-year experiment. If we hate it, we can always move back or do something different.”


So treat those super scary steps as an experiment. If it doesn’t work out, you learned something. Yay! And with that new information, you can take a new, smarter step forward.


TIP 3: When you aren’t sure which step to take, use the big picture to guide you. Obviously, the pandemic was a massive curve ball the universe threw into our beautiful wish. Back in April 2020, Jason and I had no idea what was going to happen so we simply waited. We were lucky to be trained in science with friends actively working on the front lines both medically and scientifically so we could make sense of the newest findings as they were released and could see the incredible work our friends were doing. This pandemic has truly sparked the greatest collective scientific achievements since the Manhattan Project. When it became clear that the new vaccines had 95% efficacy, and stayed effective even against the new variants, we were ecstatic. By February 2021, as vaccines started rolling out, we got in line for our shots and got back to planning.


We started with the big picture outcomes -- the ones we wrote down back in STRATEGY 2: family time, direct experience with different cultures and history, connection, wellbeing, education. How might we accomplish those outcomes in summer 2021 and keep our unvaccinated kids as safe as possible? We had already piloted camping/RV/tent trailer travel with our bubble pod throughout the pandemic and knew we were comfortable with it pandemic-wise — outdoor activities, minimal contact with other travelers besides those in our bubble, mostly cook our own meals, lots to do and see, etc. So our very exciting, fun, adventure-filled Gap Year Excursion #1 -- a grand tent trailer tour to carry us in a big loop through Big Basin, Dinosaur, Yellowston, Teton, Glacier, North Cascades, and Olympic National parks over the course of six weeks. It was epic.


Putting it all together

By the middle of summer, the burning question was: where to go for Excursion #2? That was harder. We had to use all 3 TIPS to figure it out.


The biggest pull was to Give kids direct experience with different cultures, people, languages, and history (TIP 3: Use the big picture to guide you). We really really wanted to go abroad -- to Europe or Asia or New Zealand. But with travel warnings and restrictions, and my daughter still too young to vaccinate, we couldn’t decide if that was wise. Then the universe started to give us new information (TIP 1: Allow the plan to reveal itself). In June and July, several articles were published showing how the COVID risks to children are no different than influenza. Maybe we were being too protective. Second, the Europe Union opened up to American travelers — just show a negative COVID test and full vaccinations for ages 12+. And finally, on August 2, the UK stopped requiring a 10 day quarantine for American travelers. So we bought tickets to Europe, and by some miracle, I’m here in a flat in London -- working and homeschooling the kids. For the seven weeks between when I bought those tickets and when we actually got on the flight, I firmly kept in mind -- this is an experiment (TIP 2: Adopt the mindset that this is an experiment). Everything I booked was fully refundable. If our passports didn’t show up in time, if our pre-travel covid tests didn’t arrive, if we tested positive and had to quarantine and recover, it was all part of the adventure.


And what an adventure it’s been.


So whatever your big impossible dream, see if these strategies and tips might help you.


STRATEGY 1 -- Make a wish.

STRATEGY 2 -- Think big picture outcomes.

STRATEGY 3 -- Take it one step at a time.


TIP 1: Allow the plan to reveal itself.

TIP 2: Adopt the mindset that this is an experiment.

TIP 3: Use the big picture to guide you.


Read More


Michael Bungay Stanier’s new book on setting daunting, thrilling, important goals is coming out in January 2022. I hope you’ll read it with me! And I just love all the other stuff he puts out into the world like his Year of Living Brilliantly and newsletter.


There’s another research backed goal setting technique that is wonderful called WOOP. I’ve used it myself and have used it with both students and teachers. It’s a great addition or alternative to the ideas here.


Are you still reading? I think this is the longest blog post I’ve written so far. A gold star for you! If you are truly a glutton for punishment, follow along on our Gap Year adventures by joining my private Facebook Group where I’m blogging as we go. Message me on Facebook and I’ll add you!


Going Further

Would you like support realizing an impossible dream? Let’s talk. Send me an email at irene@irenesalter.com and tell me about this dream of yours and what kind of help you are looking for.


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