Life’s Little Nudges

It’s important to have dreams. As children, we all had dreams; sadly, for many of us, they remain unfulfilled as adults. Think back to some of your dreams you had as a kid. How many of them have come to pass? How many of them have you chased after? How many have ended up in scrap heap of lost ambition? Why do we lose our ability to dream? Why do we stop chasing them?

These are questions with which I have been wrestling for the better part of the last year. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I can’t remember why, but my lofty goal as a 12-year-old was to build a fully operational Varitech fighter plane from the Macross Robotech cartoon series. I ended up building software products for a living, which is not quite the same, but at least you can squint and call it close. That’s what I tell myself to help make myself feel better for not yet having my own Skull Squadron fighter plane.

Fokker

I rushed through school, ready to conquer the world and build immense fortunes. I attacked school work, and sought to “achieve,” but upon reflection, I realize now that the actions I took were more a product of my environment (i.e. extremely competitive schooling), rather than really and truly understanding what I wanted in life.

Like many of us, as I got older, my tastes and desires changed. Where I ended up had as much to do with chance and luck as it did with specific deliberate action. The meta-point being that life’s script is largely a result of a series of deliberate, as well as random, interactions over many years.

There are random interactions in everyone’s day that can and will make a difference in the dreams which are ultimately fulfilled, as well as influencing the scope of the dreams pursued. Many of these random interactions are due to other people. Dreams, then, are pursued not as a quest solely by the individual, but rather the individual with help from others.

With this in mind, I pivoted from thinking about unfulfilled dreams to thinking about the random interactions which have had an impact in shaping my life.

baby-hand

So much of who I am, today, is a result of my successes and failures, which, as I see it, have been governed by both my own efforts, as well as by luck. The challenges I place in front of myself, whether they be work or personal, are a result of my coming to understand that I thrive on big challenges of the mind and body. I seek out opportunities to do things which others have said are hard. In my life, I have been fortunate that a series of people, when given the opportunity to influence outcomes in my life, or create an opportunity for me, have taken small actions to nudge me in a positive direction. Those nudges became the foundation of my own dream fulfillment.

At this point, I want and pause to ask you, the reader: what small action could you take today which could positively impact a life? What little nudge could you provide to another person which would have lasting impact in shaping their life’s script? What foundational element can you provide to another person who is on a dream path?

These actions don’t have to be huge gestures. If I had to guess, the people who come front of mind during my own thought exercise probably were not even consciously aware of the scope of what they were doing for my life. Regardless of their consciousness or not, they were creating moments which had the potential for positive outcomes. My effort in those endeavors, plus the luck in having each opportunity, became the governor of the result of my life’s script.

Luck can work both ways. When the outcome is positive, the experience can build a person up. When the outcome is negative, an individual can decide whether they are willing to put themselves in a position again to have another run at that (or similar) experience, or if they will abandon it outright. Repetition builds experience. Experience is the basis for the preparation which allows for the best possible outcomes in those repetitions.

Positive outcomes embolden the soul to believe they are capable of so much more, thus expanding of what the individual believes they are capable.

As an individual, you have the ability to help create these opportunities for others by giving little nudges to the lives you choose to impact. The luck of the draw for those lives comes into play when you decide whether or not you are going to put forth the effort to create those nudges, and for which person.

Nudges create the opportunities where luck, grit, preparation, and experience build upon themselves with compounding results. In essence, it creates more opportunities for that preparation to be pitted against effort and experience, meaning that with each little nudge, an individual is in a position to create more positive life outcomes. Positive life outcomes are the required element for dream fulfillment.

The more success a person has in their endeavors, the larger, more wild, and more diverse the set of life outcomes they can imagine. In short, they can dream bigger dreams.

The surprising realization I had was how much power to enable dreams lies within an individual caring enough to create opportunities for others to experience success. You have way more power to improve and embolden lives than you know.

Which brings us back to dreams. The great comedian Jim Carey spoke eloquently on this topic during his amazing commencement speech to the class of 2014 from the Maharishi University of Management. “Fear is going to be a player in your life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about the pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here, in the decisions we make in this moment…So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach, and ridiculous to expect.” Without dreams, practicality can reduce your life script to a version of your life that can, at best, be described as benign, and at worst be described as tragic and wasted.

Don’t put off your own dreams; learn to recognize when someone is giving you a nudge and grab hold of the opportunity. Change isn’t easy. You have to want it. If you don’t, life will happen to you, not for you. That is why these nudges matter so much. What dream do you have that might need a nudge to achieve? Have you asked for it? Do you have the proper mindset to allow you to recognize a nudge?

Don’t miss opportunities to help others dream; find a small way to improve someone else’s life today. Everyone has the ability to reshape how they approach their life so that they can provide life’s little nudges for others. What small thing can you do for someone to nudge them in the pursuit of their dreams?

I wasn’t sure how to end this piece until I realized that an example might help. When I was on the Harvard-Westlake football team, it was because they didn’t cut anyone. I was very small, but I put out the effort to be on the field, though there was little risk in mistaking me for a starter. As a senior I was 5 feet 7 inches, and weighed 125 pounds.

One of our assistant coaches, Jim Brink (sadly deceased, without my ever being able to really thank him for this) took it upon himself to find ways to allow me to contribute. One day during special teams practice, I ran on the field to volunteer as the opposing punt return team. Long story short, I ended up blocking a few punts in practice. Coach Brink could have just let that go unnoticed. Why pay attention to the tiny kid who has no hope of contributing on a down that matters? Instead, he asked one simple question: can you do that in a game?

Fast forward to the game that week. We were playing Oak Park, and for an early punt, the “punt block” formation was called. This meant that during a down that really mattered, it was my show. Go on the field and block the punt. I won’t ever know how I missed the first one. I all but took the punter’s shoe off and did his nails for him. However, on the second one, I got it. Imagine for a moment that you are the scrub on the team. You were the only senior sent down to play the sophomores in a scrimmage. Now, you did something great, in a game, that resulted in a touchdown. I did it 4 more times that year, twice in one game, setting a school record along the way. At one point during a late season game, when I came on the field, the opposing punt team started yelling “21 is on the field! 21 is on the field!” From getting sent to scrimmage the sophomores to being scouted from game tape is a world of confidence difference in a young man.

There is no question that this small act by Coach Brink – give the scrub a chance to do something in a game that he has shown he can do in practice – gave me a nudge. I seized the opportunity, but was lucky to have it. That small act set this young man on a path to believe that there was no athletic achievement too big. Looking back 25 years, that act was foundational to my being the mutli-time Ironman finisher I am today, to having competed in the hardest multi-day endurance mountain bike race on the planet, and continuously seeking out new challenges for my mind and body. One small Life Nudge. Don’t ever be confused about the lasting, sizable, positive impact you can have by finding one small way to nudge someone on their life path. Nor should you ever think that your life requires some big thing for a lasting change. Seize the small opportunities and make them great.

Part of my sabbatical will be making sure that once a week I recount a way in which I selfless tried to contribute positively to someone else, no matter how small a thing. If you have stories of Life Nudges provide to or for you, please share them in the comments.


Also published on Medium.