At the beginning of every great story, before anything exciting happens, we see something that looks a lot like normal life. Long before the protagonist slays a dragon or the heroine embarks on a quest, we see her in some unsuspecting place, dreaming of something more.
In Beauty and the Beast (my personal favorite Disney classic), Belle sings of wanting more than “this provincial life.” In Star Wars, Luke can’t wait to escape the boredom of a farmer’s life. And in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy sings about life “somewhere over the rainbow.”
It’s easy to dismiss such people when we meet them in everyday life as dreamers or even downright crazy. But are they really? I used to get up early on Saturday mornings and write essays that I would then save on my computer and share with no one. I dreamed of publishing my stories somewhere, but for years, they never left the comfort of my living room.
I'm not alone in this, this dreaming of another life. This is the preoccupation of George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life and the fixation of Walter Mitty. It's the reason we sometimes daydream or stay up late watching movies. Our lives are haunted by the ghosts of what might have been.
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Here's the good news, though. This is where a story always starts — with an unrealized dream. A hope deferred. A life un-lived. Before a chain of events sets the hero on a course to his destiny, there is a sense that there should be more to life than this. But hopefully, that's not where the story ends.
At an important moment, everything begins to make sense. This is what storytellers call the “inciting incident,” the moment when the character's perspective changes and the tale of an average person living an average life becomes one of mythic proportions.
But something has to happen for any of this to take place: The character must choose to enter the story. Belle goes to find her father. Luke leaves home with Obi-Wan. Dorothy gets swept up in a tornado. In any great narrative, there is a moment when a character decides to be more than a bystander. That's really when a story begins — with the decision to act.
This choice, though, is often preceded by a feeling of discontent. Which is why when people are called to some great task, they know it. They recognize the prompting to do something significant, something bigger than themselves, and then respond.
Why? Because they have been waiting for it their whole lives.
Frustration prepares you for your purpose
My friend Ben Arment says every dream begins with frustration, and I think that's true. But that frustration must be funneled into awareness that leads to action; otherwise, it becomes bitterness.
You must be willing to do something, to step out into the unknown and see what happens. Until you make this choice, you'll continue feeling frustrated, seeing other people succeed and chalking it up to luck or some unfair advantage. You'll be jealous and critical and wonder, why not me? And in doing this, you will deceive yourself.
Because the truth is some do get lucky, and others have been born into privilege. But what are those things to you? You are still called. Chances come to us all, but only those who are ready recognize them.
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So before you know what your calling is, you must believe you are called to something, even if you don't know what it is yet. That nagging sense that everything is not as it should be, that you were meant for more than the status quo, is an important clue. And what you do with that is essential to how your story unfolds.
What this means is you don’t need some big plan. You just need to be a little dissatisfied with the way things are, to possess a premonition that something is amiss and you may hold the key to fixing it.
You don’t need some big lucky break or a golden opportunity. You don’t even need to “just know” what you're supposed to do. You just need the willingness to begin. Only then can you dedicate yourself to the work required of you, and only then will you know what it’s worth.
Without this awareness, you won’t be able to recognize the opportunities that come. And they always come to those with open eyes.
Action is required
So what do this mean practically?
First, you must acknowledge the story that you're in and recognize that your gift is needed. The world will not be made right until you see things as they really are.
Then, embrace the frustration that you feel and decide to do something about it. Committing to a course of action is essential to getting unstuck.
Finally, you must act, paying attention to the lessons you'll learn along the way and stay flexible enough to change course as you discover new information.
All of this, of course, is predicated on doing something. Every great story begins with awareness but leads to action. You must enter the tale that is unfolding around you and choose to become a part of it. Otherwise, you're just another dreamer, staring out into an open field or singing some sad song about a rainbow.
And stories are rarely made by those who only dream.
When was the last time you did something instead of dream about it? What did that reveal to you about the story you're living? Share in the comments.