You had to be living in a cave the past few weeks not to hear the hype over the Mega Millions lottery which, after several non-winning drawings, reached the stratospheric total of over $640 million. Despite the odds of 176 million to 1 of winning (as USA Today pointed out, you were nine times more likely to die from a TV set falling on your head) millions of tickets were purchased by dreamers who believed that hope was worth at least $1. The furor should die down now as the Friday drawing identified three winners who, at least in theory, will be living the dream for the rest of their lives.

Most people who lost the lottery this week will tear up their tickets, say “oh well” and head back to work on Monday morning as usual. But you don’t have to. Maybe it’s time to start living the dream (or at least snippets of the dream) even if you didn’t “win.”

A rather trite career-counseling question (which I have never found particularly helpful) is to ask someone “If money, time or talent were no limit what would you do?” In theory this question is supposed to reveal their hidden passions or dreams. In reality, I find that people either answer this in a superficial way, or they often select careers that aren’t realistic and therefore quickly reach a dead end. Some people freeze on this question and can only answer that they don’t know.

But the recent lottery mania caused me to rethink that old question and put a new twist on it. With most lotteries, you can dream about winning a million dollars—a nice sum of money, but after taxes you probably have enough to pay off a mortgage, buy a fancy car, and take some relatives on exotic vacations. Not exactly quit-your-job kind of money, unless you're a great investor.

So on March 20, when I first noticed the MegaMillions jackpot had reached $240 million, I decided to try an experiment. Since a few days remained before the next drawing, I bought a ticket and begin planning how I would spend my money. Not just idly fantasizing, but actually taking time to write one paragraph a day outlining how I would spend the money and the rest of my life. And I decided to ask a few clients to do this as well and send me their paragraphs each day. Little did I know that the experiment would end up lasting 10 days because the jackpot kept growing, and everyone wanted to keep writing.

I simply sent them an email which read: "Pretend you have won this lottery. What are you going to do? How will you spend the money? Think about this each day and write me one paragraph summarizing your ideas." The paragraphs arrived every morning for 10 days, a long-enough period of time to produce increasingly thoughtful and insightful ideas.

And here’s what I found: the first few days were remarkably similar across all clients. Not surprisingly, the initial fantasies revolved around “escape” and included such things as quitting their jobs, paying off their mortgages and student loans, buying a new car, buying a new house (with swimming pools, exercise rooms, movie theatres, etc.), heading to an exotic vacation location with family or friends, spending weeks at a luxurious spa, etc.

On the second day, they started mentioning “donating some money to charities”, helping out friends or relatives with their financial needs, paying for college for siblings, funding their parentsretirement, etc. Many still planned to buy a home in a vacation/resort town and live permanently on vacation. And some had a clearer picture of the type of car or house they would buy and the specific vacations they would take.

But after the second day, perhaps as the amount of money finally started to sink in, the responses became more specific and tied to personal values. Some began to focus on causes important to them (not just generic "charity” donations). They began to quantify the millions they would give to their college or university for scholarships or special projects related to their interests. One person wanted to set up an endowment in his late father’s name. Several wanted buildings named after themselves or relatives. Others identified diseases they wanted to eradicate through research funds (cancer and Alzheimer’s were mentioned several times, often tied to personal family stories). Others spoke of giving money for community causes, even funding holiday celebrations that were cancelled last year due to city budget cuts.

Somewhere in the process, many realized that they weren’t really suited to just sitting on a beach and drinking margaritas forever: they began to think about what would give their lives meaning. Some revealed a desire to learn: they would become a lifetime student, going to self-development seminars, retreats, taking classes, etc. Others planned to develop new talents or skills: having all the time in the world to learn a musical instrument, fly a plane, learn to sail, become a professional golfer, etc.

Finally, value-driven career ideas began to creep in. One person described the think tank she would develop to deal with world poverty. Another wanted to start a free legal clinic focusing on civil rights causes. One wanted to develop a free school to teach low-income individuals how to manage and invest their money, and ultimately offer business start-up funds to promising entrepreneurial ideas. Another wanted to franchise low-cost daycare centers to be located in underserved urban and rural areas.

At the end when, unfortunately, no one in the group won anything, I asked them to write a final paragraph about what they learned about themselves and their values, and how they could incorporate their new “winning” (with apologies to Charlie Sheen) mindset into their life. And here’s the final value of the exercise: many learned they didn’t have to wait for the monetary windfall to start living their new lives. They were able to identify small ways they could begin to incorporate their dreams today. Some spoke of changing their wills to better reflect their values: they may not have millions of dollars to give to their alma mater, but they can donate a percentage of their estate and who knows what that might be worth by the time they die? Others talked about getting involved directly in a cause, such as curing Alzheimer’s, and dedicating time to it by participating in 5K runs or other fund-raising activities. One person who fantasized about studying piano for hours on end decided to sign up for once-a-week lessons.

So … are you intrigued? Want to try the Lottery Experiment? It's easy and fun. Commit to one week. Think about how you would spend a $200 million jackpot. Then write a paragraph each day, explaining what you’re going to do with your money and your life. And if you’d like support or feedback as you do this, go to my Facebook page and post your paragraphs. You can send them each day as you develop them or just post your final one. And then tell me how you plan to incorporate your dreams into your life. It won’t even cost you $1 for a ticket.

And if you discover a previously hidden dream you can start today? Well, that's truly "winning."

©2012 Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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