To Toil: Perchance to Dream

fuseliAt the end of 2013 when I was in a difficult and high stress position running the business sales team for a large technology company, I had the strangest dream.

It was London 2012 and my dream persona had just won a swimming bronze medal during the Summer Olympics. I awoke, however, not with euphoria, but rather to the groggy realization that even in my personally architected fantasy world the best I could muster was a third place finish. I knew then that my work was numbing my spirit.

A couple of months later, having taken a sabbatical from my job, I had another vivid dream, also set in London but in this dream the Church of England had just named me Archbishop of Canterbury (despite my not even being Anglican!). A few weeks of rest and perspective had nurtured my healthy self-esteem once again to full blossom.

Dreams can tell us much. In English we use the same word “dream” to mean both subconscious sleep images and also conscious aspirations. In either definition, tapping into them is a powerful personal and professional tool, though perhaps not in the way most people think. For instance, a common question modern sales teams ask business customers is “what keeps you awake at night?” It is a well-meaning question but an undistinguished one. Through it we are saying, tell me what concerns you have and I will show you how my product or service will address them. Let me interpret your dreams.

How different in the Biblical book of Daniel, when King Nebuchadnezzar has a perplexing dream and calls together his Chaldean magicians and sorcerers for answers. They ask the king to relate his dream to them so they can interpret for him (“what keeps you awake at night?”). But the Babylonian ruler would have none of that; anyone can make up an interpretation once they hear the dream, if they are truly gifted, he decreed, they should be able to tell him exactly what he dreamt: “if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation you will be torn limb from limb and your houses will be made a rubbish heap.” Stern stuff. Yet among my customers and colleagues there have been Nebuchadnezzars yearning to marvel at someone possessing the gift to ascertain and resolve their own unuttered dreams. In essence telling them, rather than asking them, what keeps them up at nights, and getting it right.

I haven’t always gotten it right. Once when a product was performing poorly our salespeople across the country were quitting. The traditional corporate response was to pay better and reinforce how important their contributions were to the corporation. However, most regional salespeople dream of building a career for themselves and their families within their home communities, so their professional credibility with local customers was far more important to them than the company’s health or even their short term compensation. They needed the product fixed. Our response tapped into our own corporate dreams, not the dreams of our salesforce. We had failed to discern that.

Nick Bottom, the comical weaver/actor wakes from his enchanted sleep in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to say “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”  But of course, Shakespeare had the wit to say precisely what the dream was and its telling became one of his most popular plays. If we have the wit to discern the dreams of those around us it can be just as magical. But that wit is an exceptional combination of intuition, empathy, intelligence and quiet. That is the real “rare vision” few of us get to experience.

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