5 Ways to Live Your Dreams (When You’re Already Officially a Grown-Up)

UPDATED: June 7, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 15, 2016

What are you going to do this year? Piano? Basketball? What’s next? I was fortunate because my mom always posed this question about my dreams and aspirations as I was growing up.

Related: How Far Can Your Dreams Take You?

One of our sons, Patrick, is in his freshman year of college. We spent the last couple of years exploring his dreams and ideas. What kind of career do you want? What problems do you want to solve? What school will give you the experience you need?

When we were younger, being asked What do you want to do next? or What do you want to be when you grow up? was a normal and natural part of life. But what if you’re already grown up?

No one has asked me those questions lately. Have you been asked?

When we become “official” grown-ups, it seems questions about our dreams and plans often stop.

If you don’t ask yourself these questions, no one will.

It’s up to you.

I often talk with my clients about how to start change at work or in life, or in my words, start a wave. A common question I am asked is What if I don’t know what my wave or direction is?

It’s OK. You aren’t alone.

Often we don’t know what we want next in our lives because we haven’t been asked or we haven’t thought about this question in a very long time.

Here are some thoughts for getting started on what is next for you, for knowing what your “wave” is and the impact you want to have in your world:

1. Forget New Year’s resolutions.

While they may have their time and place, this isn’t about what you can do better. We aren’t talking about exercising more or being more organized. We are thinking about this differently—from the outside in.

Related: Rohn: 4 Tips for Setting Powerful Goals

2. What impact do you want to have in your world?

Your “world” may be your family, your neighborhood, your community or the bigger world. You decide. This question isn’t self-focused, but on the outward way you want to affect others or the issues you care about.

I have met Wave Makers who started a small, local nonprofit; created a book club to help empty nesters adjust to a new chapter in life; became entrepreneurs by starting a small company on Etsy; have created large, multimillion-dollar businesses from the ground up. I’ve met business leaders who realized their most important role was developing others, and I’ve met men who banded together to help families in poverty with home repairs.

It’s not the size or scale that matters the most, but your desire to have an impact around you.

3. Dream big. Start small and start now.

This is my mantra. This combination is so powerful because if we dream big, it can feel like too much. Yet almost everything great started with a small decision or action that didn’t seem significant or courageous at the time.

In my research, changes often had simple beginnings over a cup of coffee and great conversation, trying something new to see what worked, or giving the unexpected a chance.

It’s so important to ask yourself, What can I do now Not after you leave your current job, make more money, the kids are in school or you get out of college. This week. Today. Now.

4. Experiment and explore

Last week a participant approached me after a workshop. With frustration, he shared that while he had ideas for the impact he wanted to have, he was uncertain which was the right one for him and how to get started. I encouraged him to try a few things now to see what he learned and then assess where it takes him.

Try a small-scale home improvement business on the side before you leave your job in sales. Spend the day with someone in your dream job and see how it feels. Start writing a blog before you commit to a book.

I have and continue to have times of uncertainty, but experimentation can give you the confidence and assurance on where to focus.  Remember, this isn’t a test with one right answer. Try, learn and adjust your course.

5. The time will pass anyway.

I graduated from college 15 years ago—I can’t change careers now.
It’s been 10 years since I was in the workforce. I’m so behind. How can I get back in now?
If only I had realized being an architect was my dream when I started college.

Rhonda had a lifelong dream of being a pastor. But she hadn’t finished college and being a busy mom had been her career for many years. As her last child left for college, she realized her dream wasn’t going away. At 50, she went back to college to finish her undergraduate degree and her applications for seminary are next.

Two years after completing her degree, Mary realized that her successful science career hadn’t replaced her dream of being a nurse. In the midst of wedding plans and business travel, she decided it was time to course correct. She is returning to school and changing lots of plans to make it happen.

The time will pass anyway. You may as well be where you want to be as it does.

It’s OK if you aren’t sure what your dream, your wave or your next thing is. What’s important is taking the time to ask yourself the right questions and then think:

What’s the change I want to see in my life and my world?

And keep asking. Because if you don’t—no one else will.

Related: John C. Maxwell: 5 Reasons Why Dreams Don’t Take Flight

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times,NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at PattiBJohnson.com.