Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘s legacy is one of the most inspiring contemporary examples of the transformational power in devoting one’s time, energy, and talents to the pursuit of a dream— and the extraordinary impact such actions can have when they become communal efforts to improve lives and positively change our world.
In a season when our nation was defined by the built-up tension of broken and unfulfilled dreams, Dr. King gave voice and imagery to a dream shared by millions of Americans—challenging and encouraging an entire nation to envision a better future, and to come together to fulfill the American promise of liberty and equality for all its people. His example demonstrates the power that dreams can have to pull us forward, to take inspired action and improve our lives.
A recently published article discussed a longitudinal study exploring the role of aspirations in shaping one’s achievements and wellbeing later in life. The study surveyed 17,000 children, ten times, from 1958 until present day and vividly demonstrated that participants with higher aspirations, as children, achieved better outcomes in adulthood. It also showed that as participants’ lives unfolded, the level of expectations demonstrated by parents and teachers had more influence on their future achievements than either IQ or family socioeconomic status.
Based on the study’s findings, how can we as parents, teachers and mentors set children up for success and high achievement?
We can teach them to:
- Believe in big dreams. High achievers in the study, regardless of socioeconomic status, were supported by adults who modeled a willingness to dream big. Children learn to dream big—or small—by watching and listening to the grown-ups in their sphere. We have the ability to influence kids’ willingness to set ambitious goals and expectations for themselves—and to demonstrate that we believe in their abilities to achieve big goals.
- Paint the picture. Visualization techniques have long been used by high achievers in business, academia, sports, and entertainment to improve performance and reach their goals. Kids are remarkably gifted with the power of imagination and can begin to use visualization at an early age to imagine just about anything, including their futures. The use of drawing and descriptive picture books are great tools for young children to begin the practice of visualizing what their life might look like if they pursued their dreams. For preadolescents and teens, more structured visualization practices like the creation of vision boards, goal cards, or journaling can be helpful tools—keeping their big goals top-of-mind and bolstering both confidence and resilience as they make their way.
- Chart the course. While young people clearly benefit by being encouraged to reach for big dreams, in order for them to take action to pursue lofty goals—they also need to see that there’s a realistic path to successfully achieve them. With some guidance on how to set and track their goals, we can help them break down their big goals into smaller, actionable steps and milestones. Setting and tracking realistic goals and strategies honor big dreams as potential realities, while clarifying the sacrifices and challenges that will be necessary to attain them.
The beauty of a longitudinal study is that it may begin with the observation of the impact of big dreams on children, but then it follows the stories. It observes first-hand how the quality and size of people’s dreams—dreams that began when they were young— continue to weave a clear thematic thread through their entire life. This illustrates why it’s important for all of us to pay attention to the size and quality of our own dreams, while being mindful of how our words and actions are shaping the dreams of others.