Dreaming about the future is bad for your career

Carl Sagan once said,

Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.

I write a great deal about the future: the future of tools, the techniques we use to harness them, and the way the world will wag just over the next sunrise. I do so because I think this is helpful, and cracking open people’s minds to let those ideas seep in can have immense impact on them, and by extension, on the organizations where they spend their energies. But all too often, companies seem closed to those imaginings. Why?

One reason is that companies don’t really like dreaming and dreamers. Dan Pontefract relates the tale of his recent encounter with a friend, “Aaron”, a person with great ideas who gets knocked on his performance reviews for dreaming:

I asked how things were going in his role. (He works for a rather large organization.) That’s the precise moment his ear-to-ear smile shifted to a glum, forlorn frown.

“Dan,” my friend questioned me with a palpable display of meekness.

“Why is it I get penalized for dreaming on my performance review?”

It was at this moment I wished our lattes might have been mistaken for Irish Coffees.

“I’ve got ideas and thoughts for the future of this company — and for our customers — and yet my performance review stinks,” he explained further. “I’m told to focus on my presentations and my deliverables, but I never get rewarded for my ideas.”

He then added:

“I’m punished for dreaming.”

My heart sank.

Aaron is gifted. He’s a dreamer. He’s an innovator. He’s a thinker. It was clear to me his role if not career growth is being stunted and his ideas are being ignored. I can’t begin to fathom what fantastic and positive contributions he would make to his company if only he were permitted to dream; if only a portion of his performance development plan (ie. his objectives) were re-engineered to dream.

Dan goes on to make this a cautionary tale for business leaders. But I believe the issue isn’t just managers and leaders: it’s everybody. People are afraid of creativity in general, and especially in times of stress, where traditional approaches to problem are strongly favored, even when they don’t work.

And creative people are uniformly considered unsuitable leaders unless they couple that with high degrees of charisma, as I detailed in The cultural bias against creatives as leaders. In fact, this bias has been suggested as the root cause of why so many leaders fail, and why groups seem to resist change. We continue to select for leaders that are uncreative, who strongly favor tradition over innovation, and who inspire a culture that follows that lead.

The answer? Alas, I am not sure that there is one. Being a dreamer may be something like ‘following your passion’. As Cal Newport has observed, following your passion may be terrible job advice. In his thinking, passion has to be earned, over time:

Different people are looking for different things in their work, but in general, if you study people with compelling careers, they enjoy some combination of the following traits: autonomy, respect, competence, creativity, and/or a sense of impact. In other words, if you want to feel passionate about your livelihood, don’t seek the perfect job, instead seek to get more of these traits in the job you already have.

The problem, of course, is that these traits are rare and valuable. Just because you really want a job that allows you to autonomously tackle respected creative projects doesn’t mean that someone will hand it to you.

These rare and valuable traits require that you have rare and valuable skills to offer in return, and building these skills requires time and deliberate effort. If you’re unfulfilled in your current position, therefore, start by asking how you can become more valuable.

So, before you can get a job where you get to dream about the future, you need to sharpen your skills and share a lot of dreams that matter to others. Share your dreams, hone them, but don’t be surprised if you are sidelined because of them. You may need to intentionally take on the techniques of charisma to be considered a leader if you lead with ideas instead of traditionalism.

Sagan is right, that we rely on those who can imagine new worlds, devices, tools, or practices, but many of those dreamers pay a high price, and many of those dreams never see the light of day.