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From College Dropout to Successful Businessman

Daydreams and mindfulness together can lead to realistic success.

Trevor* dropped out of a top tier college after his freshman year. "I just didn't like the atmosphere," he said. "The courses were fine. But the partying and drinking seemed so...meaningless to me." In particular he did not like going out and drinking with the sole purpose of getting drunk. "I did that a few times in high school, and I really didn't think it was fun. I'd rather go out and have a beer or two and just hang out with a buddy."

"It wasn't me," he said, finally.

His parents were supportive, although neither they nor Trevor knew exactly what he would do next. But they trusted that Trevor would find his way, in part because he had a capacity unusual in someone his age. He knew how to daydream mindfully.

What does this mean?

Daydreaming mindfully means allowing ourselves to explore our inner world without feeling that we have to act on all of our thoughts, fantasies or images, while still remaining tuned into the realities of the present moment. It means understanding that the internal movie screen is a path to knowing ourselves, a way to find out who we are and what we want from ourselves and the world we live in. My colleague on the PT site, Amy Fries, has written an interesting discussion about whether we have to choose between being mindful, or being in the present moment, and daydreaming. Are these opposite activities? But to my mind, as I explained in my own book on daydreaming, they are actually part of the same process.

Jonah Lehrer has written some wonderful books and articles on the subject of the mind (see references at the bottom of this post). In one article he quotes Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist who studies daydreams: "The point is that it's not enough to just daydream. Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative insight." Lehrer says that the goal is "to pay attention to your daydreams, and to detect those moments when your daydreams lead to a useful idea."

We daydream first to lose ourselves, to escape from whatever is happening inside and outside of our bodies at a given moment on a given day, and then to find ourselves.

To go back to Trevor*: He knew that the high pressure partying at his school "wasn't him." But what was? He was a smart young man with a great love of the out of doors. His parents told him that he could certainly take some time off, but that he had to come up with a plan for what he would be doing during that time. They also told him that he would need to find a way to make some money. "We will pay for food and clothing and housing, as long as you live with us," they said. "But you will have to pay for your own entertainment and other activities."

Although those limits irritated Trevor at the time, he admitted later that he had actually found them helpful. "I had to be realistic," he said. "I was not from a wealthy family. I would have to pay my way in the world. And I had to find myself within the limits of reality."

Imagining (daydreaming about) a wide variety of possible activities and careers, Trevor began searching for a job. "I was totally disillusioned," he said. "There was nothing interesting for a boy with no college education." He found work in a pizza shop, but hated being stuck inside with the hot ovens going all day. "The one good thing about it was that I had plenty of time to daydream."

His daydreams were often about being outside. Since he had to combine the wish with the reality of the need for some sort of work, he began to think about farming. "I had always been interested in the idea of organic farming, although I really didn't know what it was," he said. He found a position with a couple who hired young people like himself and provided housing, food and a small stipend in exchange for hard labor. Although the work was amazingly difficult, Trevor was thrilled to be outside, working on the land, and sharing dreams about the future of organic farming, when they weren't too tired, with his bosses and co-workers.

Interestingly, the combination of the hard work, long hours, and intense conversations led him in a new direction. "I saw how hard it was to work the land," he said. "And I got interested in the economics of farming. I'd always been interested in numbers, but had never thought they had a place in real life. Now I saw that they did."

Having (at his parents' insistence) taken a leave of absence from school rather than formally quitting, Trevor now decided to go back to that college, which had a specialty in agricultural economics. "I had a goal," he said. "I knew myself better, and I knew what direction I wanted to head in. I didn't have to hang out with the kids who were drinking themselves blind. I could stay in and study if I wanted; or I could hang out with some of the grad students, who were a little saner - most of the time," he said with a grin.

But Trevor's future was not yet decided. Trevor was still unclear about what he wanted to do. Because he had to get some sort of a job, he looked at a broad range of possibilities, and finally found an entry level position with a global business that focused on environmental issues. The job was boring and he felt underutilized, but his parents encouraged him to stay in the work for a year "just to have the experience of a first job!" he said.

Paying attention to his daydreams and to the reality of his job, Trevor gradually began to move in another direction. "I did my very boring work well, and my bosses liked me and clearly wanted me to stay in the company. I had lots of frustrating days. But with their help and my own ideas, I began to find ways to do some of the things I liked. For just one example, after awhile I started going out on site visits with some of the senior managers. Then I lobbied to become a site manager. And from there I started making some suggestions about how the jobs I was supervising could be handled better..."

Trevor eventually went back to graduate school at night while he continued working days. And today he has a successful business (despite the current economy) that combines many of his daydreams with his knowledge of his own needs and the demands of reality. But he hasn't stopped yet. "I have more daydreams. We'll just have to see where they take me."

*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect identity and confidentiality


Jonah Lehrer is author of many books, including Proust was a Neuroscientist. His most recent is Imagine: How Creativity Works, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (March 19, 2012)

Jonathan D. Cohen (Editor), Jonathan W. Schooler (Editor) Scientific Approaches to Consciousness (Carnegie Mellon Symposia on Cognition Series) Psychology Press (1996)

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