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Recently, after I described the way I was approaching a project and its “ultimate goal”, a colleague laughed, and called me a dreamer. Then, of course, I had a song-fragment running through my head, but could not remember anything other than a bit of melody and the (not quite correct) lyrics: “Dreamer, you ain’t nothing but a dreamer”.

After a relatively brief period of intense frustration, I gave up and searched for the song online. Obviously, the answer came immediately and triggered a whole slew of memories of the song, the band, and other songs by the same band – sometimes including lyrics.

The song in question, of course, is “Dreamer” (, by Supertramp – #TIL that the band’s highest sales were in Canada, for some reason. I know I made my contribution, but only bought two or three albums...

But why was I being called a dreamer?

Well, I was describing the approach I was taking, but looking at it in the context of how this was a step toward the long-term goal for how things “should” be in a perfect world. While my next few steps were purely practical, the ultimate target was notional and (to be fair) rather unlikely in any realistic timeframe.

But that got me thinking about goal-setting, inspiration, and leadership. I always like to understand what I am doing in the broader context, or as a piece of a larger puzzle. Many people think in terms of heroic leaders or iconic figures who drive the course of history, but this view ignores the broader context in which these figures exist.

While people certainly influence events in ways small and large, it’s clearly more a case of the right person at the right time in the right place, than an inherent feature of a given person. Would Einstein still have been a genius if he had lived fifty years earlier? Yes, but would he still have been a pivotal figure, and would he have been able to develop his theory of relativity? Probably not, for a number of reasons. Science was asking different questions a half-century earlier, and our experimental capabilities were less advanced. Also, the development of the atomic bomb was of global importance, so the contributions of everyone involved was magnified. In another time or place, Einstein might simply have become one of an uncountable number of unsung figures doing research which is important but not well known, or chasing down theories which would not be testable until decades later. (I know that we’re still experimentally confirming some of Einstein’s theories, but several of them were confirmed during his lifetime)

Getting back to dreaming, though, I usually visualize things in terms of the direction we want to go. Pick a target, then move toward that target – I often use the analogy of “tacking” ( in sailing, which consists of taking a zig-zag path that allows progress even when the wind is contrary. Keeping a long-term end goal in mind makes it easier to keep everything in perspective and not be distracted by the variability of short-term challenges.

If you select your target well, it’s usually easy to identify the next few steps in that direction, and then adapt to situations when planning each following step. And we’re not sailing, so the journey is sometimes more important than the destination – if our goal is a good one, any progress we make in that direction will have value.

This is all at least somewhat consistent with Agile project management, and most other forms of goal-setting. Rather than trying to build a specific “thing”, focus on what you are trying to accomplish.

Are we trying to build a “rocket”, with a preconceived notion of what we will end up with?

... or designing a vehicle to fill a particular set of requirements?

If you have a clear goal, then the next steps are usually easier to figure out and prioritize, and you can re-assess regularly to adjust course. Also, a “dream” or “vision” is something that can inspire you, and help you to inspire others.

So, yes, I guess I am a dreamer, but I like to think I’m pretty practical as well.



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