I spent ten years working with low income women and youth before I made the decision to relocate to Cleveland and work with homeless veterans. As a case manager for a veteran’s re-employment program, I was assigned to the largest men’s shelter downtown.
There were nearly 400 men there most nights. And sadly, a good number of them were military veterans.
Are you asking the right question?
One of the questions I used to ask students in my job skills class was this:
If you had access to the training and any money you needed, what would you be when you grow up?
How would you contribute to the world?
I asked this question to my first group of veterans in my job skills class. One man, who looked about forty years old, began to get tears in his eyes when it was his turn to respond.
I’m fifty years old. No one ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. he said.
I told Steve* he could have some time to think about it as I continued around the room.
When just surviving today is the priority
These men had all volunteered and served their country, many of them had seen combat. They returned to find they didn’t fit into society any longer. The horror they had witnessed, and in some cases been ordered to participate in, had a deep hold on them.
Without treatment, they grew restless, frustrated, bored, angry, and in some cases abusive and self-destructive. They couldn’t see a way out over all the obstacles.
But what I discovered is almost every one of those men wanted more. They wanted to step into their place in society. I used to arrive at the shelter on Monday evenings and within minutes, there were a line of men, waiting to talk to me and find out how I could help them.
They wanted to dream big.
But they were stuck, just trying to survive one day at a time. All they could see in front of them were obstacles.
Many of them had chronic illnesses including respiratory issues and mental health issues, such as PTSD. Many were recovering from years of substance abuse to dull their memories and pain. Some had been to prison, served their time, only to find society still held a grudge.
There was not time or resources for planning. They had so much on their plate, connecting themselves to resources was nearly impossible.
They needed a way to look beyond the obstacles and see their true potential.
Stepping stones can get you to your big dream
When it was Steve’s turn again that first day in class, he admitted he’d always wanted to be a chef. We created a plan where he would wash dishes in a restaurant with a goal of working his way up to prep chef and then attending culinary school.
As a result of that plan, a dish washing job which would have seemed to most like a frustrating, dead-end job, now became merely a stepping stone to his dream career. Steve got his dish washing job within two weeks.
He could tolerate it because he knew it was temporary. He knew his destination.
Over the years I’ve found this to be true for myself and for a lot of other people. You will be amazed at what you can tolerate if you know it’s temporary and if you see it as a stepping stone to your big dream.
After just a few weeks in that dish washing job, Steve was smiling every day in class. He was excited to tell us about what he was learning and the people he was meeting.
Steve moved into transitional housing not long after getting his job. Within a year, he got promoted to prep chef and I took him to buy his uniforms.
It was a proud day for both of us.
I ran into Steve right before I left Cleveland. He was still working as a prep chef but the restaurant owner encouraged him to go to culinary school and he was enrolled for the fall semester.
His life had completely changed in just a year and a half.
All because he was able to dream big.
How to dream big no matter what obstacles are in your way
If you feel like you have more to offer the world than what you’re doing right now, it’s time to dream big.
Close your eyes and picture what you’d like to be doing. Don’t let yourself worry about money, time, kids, bills, or health issues that might stand in your way.
What would you do if all those obstacles were gone?
Maybe it’s not a job or career, maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is write it down. Describe how it would feel to be doing that thing.
That’s your big dream.
Can you see yourself? Can you imagine how life could be different once you get to your big dream?
Now create your path
Now, this part is harder. Just like I did with Steve, you need to think about what you need to do to get from where you are now to that big dream. Make a list.
Maybe you need education, training, or to learn how to better use technology. If you don’t know what’s required for you to accomplish your dream, do some research and find out.
Think about how other people get started. Steve knew he couldn’t just walk into a restaurant and be a chef. There are steps he had to do first and those steps take some time. Figure out where you need to start and then what you need to do to start there. Steve couldn’t start culinary school right away, his priority was a job so he could get housing and pay his bills. Survival.
The dish washing job helped him do that and it helped him gain experience and learn more about the inner workings of the restaurant industry. Every day he went to that dish washing job, he was learning and gaining experience.
If you can’t find someone to pay you while you learn the skills that are required, volunteer in exchange for learning the skills you need. Work another job if money and survival is a pressing priority for you.
Start small and create a path of stepping stones to get you to your big dream.
Just like Steve, before you know it, you’ll look up from that path and find you’re close than you ever thought you could be!