All people dream, but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind,
Wake in the morning to find that it was vanity.
But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people,
For they dream their dreams with open eyes,
And make them come true.
—T. E. Lawrence
What is a dream? Is it just fluff made out of vapor, an intangible mist of silver or gold, a star in the sky? Is it important? Or a complete waste of time? What about the dreams unrealized, the dreams deferred, the broken ones that never came to fruition? The dreams hidden deep in the recesses of your heart? Did they (do they) serve a purpose? What about the childhood dreams — the far reaching ones that evade and invade and collide with space and time and possibility? Were they just fantasy, a product of playtime and fairytale? Is a dream a vision, and does dreaming make you a visionary? And why do some people dream big and make them come true, while others either don’t or never pursue them?
The realm of dreams, dreamers and dreaming is a complex one to study or understand. What has been seen in reality and history is that the greatest leaders are more often than not the biggest dreamers, that the leader fueled by a dream, coupled with strategy, smart execution and the help of the collective, can birth an incredible substance: an even greater reality than what was before. History also shows us that the biggest-dreamers-turned-greatest-leaders are the ones that have an innate and unwavering belief in their abilities to usher in change, and view the world of possibilities as endless. In this piece, I will explore why some people dream while awake, the vitality of dreaming and the power of dreams in great leadership, and the criticality of others in propelling that dream forward.
Take Joy Mangano: a fierce leader, millionaire entrepreneur, inventor, investor and single mother. As a child, Mangano was always dreaming things up and then creating them. She believed that the world could be better, that she herself could help make it better. At age 12, Mangano tinkered and tampered with her family’s toaster to get it to roast and toast. She recalls, “It kind of blew up.” As a teenager, she created a fluorescent flea collar for cats and dogs to make them more easily visible to cars at night. Her convictions about her abilities–this innate tenacity, grit and her imagination of what is possible–carried over from childhood to adulthood. Her big break came with her invention of The Miracle Mop, a self-wringing mop birthed out of her frustrations with the status housekeeping quo. Despite initial challenges and low sales, she kept courage to her convictions and went on QVC to sell the product herself. In 20 minutes, she sold more than 18,000 units, and was catapulted to success. Since then, Mangano has dreamed up and sold more than $3 billion in products, including Huggable Hangers, Memory Cloud Pillow and My Little Steamer.
On having a dream and carrying it through to completion no matter the obstacles, Mangano states, “I kind of equate it to a woman having a baby. You go into the hospital and you’re having a baby, you can’t say halfway through, ‘I’m not gonna do this anymore!’ You have to have the courage to finish. I view everything in life that way.” Mangano’s success was a product of both her dream (and keeping the dream alive) and her tribe. Family and friends were also instrumental in the financing, creation and sale of The Miracle Mop: the first prototype of the mop was assembled in her father’s auto shop; her best friend called into her QVC appearance to help drum up buzz and curiosity for the product; her company worked 24 hours a day to keep up with eventual explosive demand. Here we see the interplay between, the interweaving of a leader championing her dream and spurring her collective to action. Could one exist without the other and the other?
Rewind to an earlier time in history where the same meshing and interlacing was employed by a great leader who dreamed while awake – a dream that superseded the status quo with the help from a community of believers. He stirred crowds upon crowds upon crowds with his dream of a safe, beautiful world in which “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” After Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, supporters carried forth his legacy, raising a banner for equality and changing the course of history. One man’s vision for the future was a catalytic event that started from a personal place and had a ripple effect, like ignited embers on a forest floor, flames fanned and flying high. He saw with his own eyes and experienced the racial divide and inequality himself, and believed that change was possible. It all started with a dream. Unleashed a social movement of equality and civil rights. Ended in revolutionary strides and shifts in thoughts, perspectives and societal structure (though these chapters of race and American society and economic and prejudicial divide are still being written today).
Fast forward to the present where Brittany Wenger, at 17 years of age invented artificial brain technology that assesses tissue samples for breast cancer with 99% detection accuracy. She dreamed of a better world, and believed that she could one day help “wipe out cancer completely.” A self-taught coder, Wenger spent five years studying neural networks, identifying patterns and connecting the dots between breast cancer and AI. She combed through thousands upon thousands of pages of coding and data, engaged the expertise and research of others and leveraged information available on public domains. Wenger ran 7.6+ million test trials and failed two projects, which lay the foundation for the code behind her now-available Cloud4Cancer app. Her work has been used to diagnose other cancers, including leukemia.
For Wenger (and MLK and Mangano), a dream started from a place that was personal. When her cousin got diagnosed with breast cancer, Wenger saw firsthand the impact that the disease can have on a woman and her family, and wanted to get involved in making the process better for the patient. She quickly learned how difficult diagnosis was. Through research, she found that fine needle aspirates are the least invasive, quickest and cheapest diagnostic procedures that a woman can have. However, because they are wildly inconclusive, many doctors refuse to use them, and only five hospitals in the US employ the procedure. Wenger was ignited to “revive them” and create a tool to aid doctors in diagnosing the patterns. So how did this dreamer become an achiever-doer-leader? Fear or lack of precedent did not dissuade Wenger. Her world of possibilities was expansive, her imagination limitless. She states, “I’ve always felt empowered to pursue [science]. I had a lot of strong female role models. For example, my computer science teacher in high school was a woman. I was really lucky to grow up in that sort of environment.” Her dream was stirred from a personal place, and—inspired by precedent, mentors in the STEM fields and strong women in her life, incited by an unwavering resolve that she could defy expectations—Wenger continued to carry on despite trials and failures.
So what is a dream? Is it a lofty thought or a snowflake in the sky (here today, gone tomorrow)? Is it a waspy or grand idea that forms in the nexus of your mind? Is it important? Is it even necessary? Yes, dreams are vital. More specifically, dreams that arise from a personal place, dreams that are tied to one’s heart, dreams that hold gravity because the dreamer has personal equity in it are essential. When alive, dreams inform vision which inform perspective. And when alive and inspired to action, dreams have the potential to cloak reality. And when others, the collective, the community, the people around you start to see how things could be and frame in their minds how the world could be different…those very dreams might just explode and become reality.