The astonishing power of clarity

It is only when you are able to see your dreams clearly, can you expect them to become real

Man going on a right track

"Give to us clear vision that we may know where to stand
and what to stand for."

—Peter Marshall

In the summer of 2007, Mike Hyatt and several other friends joined me in Ireland for a few days of golf. Mike has been in publishing since he was in college and has done just about everything in the industry at one time or another. He’s been an author, an agent, a publisher, and even a publishing house founder. Mike is an exceptional leader. Until recently, he was the president and CEO of Thomas Nelson, Inc.

I enjoy playing golf. Though I’m not much better than average as a golfer, I love being on beautiful courses, and I like the exercise. But I also believe that golf outings are great times to build relationships and to do some business. Early one morning in Ireland as I was talking to Mike, I showed him the working outline for my book Put Your Dream to the Test. After reading through it, he immediately said, “John, you have to include a chapter on the importance of a clear vision. If you don’t have clarity, you don’t have anything.” And then he began telling me a story from his experience.

Opportunity of a lifetime

Man relaxing with a laptop on the beach
Going away from your usual surroundings can help you get some clear perspectives

In July 2000, Mike’s boss at Thomas Nelson suddenly resigned. At that time, Mike was the associate publisher of Nelson Books, the trade book division of the company, and he was invited to take his former boss’s job as publisher. "I knew our division was in bad shape,” Mike explains. “But I didn’t know how bad things really were until I became the publisher. I took a deep breath and began to assess reality." Here’s what Mike discovered:

  • His was the least profitable of fourteen divisions in the company.
    In fact, his division had actually lost money the previous year. People in the other divisions were mumbling about how his division was negatively impacting the entire company.
  • Revenue growth for the division had been flat for three years. In addition, they had just lost their single biggest author to a competing publishing company, making future revenue growth even less likely.
  • His division was the least efficient user of working capital at Thomas Nelson. As a percentage of revenue, inventory and royalty advances were the highest in the company, but they provided virtually no return to shareholders.
  • Everyone in the division was exhausted. The division was publishing 125 new titles a year with only ten employees. Everyone was overworked, and the quality of the work showed it.

Mike says, "Things could not have been worse. However, as the new divisional executive, I recognized that things could not have been better for me. It was a great career opportunity. If I turned the division around, I would be a hero. If I didn’t, that would be okay too. After all, the division was a mess when I inherited it. I couldn’t lose."

At that point, most executives would have launched into a major strategy session to dig the organization out of the hole it was in. Not Mike. Through the years, he had learned that when people think about the how too soon, they hurt their potential. It actually inhibits their dreaming and blocks them from thinking as big as they can. He knows that the accomplishment of a dream depends on the clarity of the vision.

What you need is a vision that is so big that it is compelling," explains Mike, "not only to others, but to you. If it’s not compelling, you won’t have the motivation to stay the course, and you won’t be able to recruit others to help you. Both vision and strategy are important, but there is a priority to them. Vision always comes first. Always. If you have a clear vision, you will eventually attract the right strategy. If you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you. I have seen this over and over again in my professional life and personal life.

"If you have a clear vision, you will eventually attract the right strategy.
If you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you."

Mike Hyatt

So what did Mike do to get a clear picture of what he wanted accomplish?

“The first thing I did was to go on a private retreat” Mike says, “I had one objective in mind. I wanted to get crystal clear on my vision. What did I want to see happen? What would the division look like in three years? I didn’t care about strategy; I was only concerned with vision. If I had been strategic before I was visionary, I might have said, ‘Well, I don’t see how we can accomplish much. The situation is so dire. We don’t have many resources to work with. Let’s just try to break even this next year. Maybe we can reduce our working capital by selling off a little obsolete inventory. And maybe we can sign a few new authors and get a little revenue growth.

“Do you think anyone would have gotten excited about this? Would this vision have attracted the right authors? Would it have retained the right employees? Would it have secured additional corporate resources? I don’t think so. The problem is that people get stuck on the how. They don’t see how they could accomplish more, so they throttle back their vision, convinced that they must be realistic. And what they expect becomes their new reality.”

Mike was very wise. You have to identify the target before you try to hit it. You have to know what the landscape looks like before you can paint a picture of it to others. You have to see the dream with clarity before you can try to achieve it.

If you don’t clearly see your dream—or if you get bogged down in real or imaginary restrictions—you limit yourself. If you’re going to dream, you might as well dream big. And that’s what Mike did. During his retreat, he worked on a vision statement—something he would find compelling. After all, if he couldn’t get excited about it, nobody else in his division would either. He gave himself permission to envision the perfect future. Then he wrote down a clear picture of his dream.

This is what he wrote:

Vision Statement

Nelson Books is the world’s largest, most respected provider of inspirational books.

  1. We have ten franchise authors whose new books sell at least 100,000 copies in the first 12 months.
  2. We have ten emerging authors whose new books sell at least 50,000 copies in the first 12 months.
  3. We are publishing 60 new titles a year.
  4. Authors are soliciting other authors on our behalf because they are so excited to be working with us.
  5. The top agents routinely bring us their best authors and proposals because of our reputation for success.
  6. We place at least four books a year on the New York Times bestsellers list.
  7. We consistently have more books on the Christian bestsellers list than our competitors.
  8. We consistently exceed our budget in revenue and margin contribution.
  9. Our employees consistently max out their bonus plans.
  10. We are the fastest-growing, most profitable division in our company.

Mike’s picture of the future was highly specific. That’s the way to bring clarity to a dream!

When Mike returned to the office, he called a meeting with his entire staff. The first thing he did was to describe the current situation; he was brutally honest and didn’t pull any punches. Then he shared his dream. And he described it in as much detail as he could.

Because his vision was clear, his people could see it. Because it was compelling, most of them found it compelling too. He could sense their excitement, and most people quickly got on board. But simply casting vision for everyone else wasn’t enough. Mike knew he needed to keep the vision clear in his mind continually, so he read his vision statement every day. He thought about it all the time. He prayed about it. And he dreamed about it.

People began asking him, “How in the world are you going to accomplish this?” At first, his answer was, “I’m not sure, but I am confident it is going to happen. Just watch.” And as he kept himself focused on the vision, a strategy began to emerge. But still his main focus wasn’t on the strategy. It was on the dream. Mike says, “I spent way more time—probably ten to one—focused on the what rather than the how.”

Mike expected the transformation of the division to take at least three years. Amazingly, he and his team achieved an almost complete turnaround in a mere eighteen months. By then, they had exceeded almost every aspect of the vision.

“This didn’t happen because we had a great business strategy,” declares Mike.” It happened because we had a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve. That’s where it started, and that’s where you have to start if you want to experience a different reality than the one you have now. You have to get clear on what you want.” Since 2002, Nelson Books has consistently been the fastest growing, most profitable division at Thomas Nelson, Inc. It’s been the home of most of the company’s most successful authors, producing one bestseller after another. That was no accident. And it was no accident that Mike was promoted from head of that division to president and later CEO of the entire organization.

Is your dream in focus?

Man with binoculars searching for clear vision
A clear and compelling dream has rescued many a struggling organization

Do you clearly see your dream? A clear and compelling dream has rescued many a struggling organization. Dreams have given meaning and significance to the lives of many an individual. Everything Mike said about clear dreams resonated deeply with me. Every time in my life that I accomplished anything significant, the dream was very clear to me beforehand. I knew what I was striving for.

If you want to accomplish a dream, you will be able to do so only when you can see it clearly. You must define it before you can pursue it. Most people don’t do that. Their dream remains a dream—something fuzzy and unspecific. As a result, they never achieve it.

1. A clear dream makes a general idea very specific

When I ask people to describe their dream, many of them stammer and stumble, trying to put into words a vague notion they’ve nurtured but never defined. A dream that isn’t clear won’t help you get anywhere. What do you want to accomplish? What do you want to experience? What do you want to contribute? Who do you want to become?

In other words, what does success look like for you? If you don’t define it, you won’t be able to achieve it. It sounds overly simple, but a primary reason that most people don’t get what they want is that they don’t know what they want. They haven’t defined their dream in clear and compelling detail. As actor and author Ben Stein asserts:

“The indispensable first step to getting the things you
want out of life is this: decide what you want.”

Deciding what you want requires you to be specific and make your goals measurable. For example, take a look at these vague notions put into more specific form:

I want to lose weight
I will weigh 185 pounds by June 1st

I need to treat employees better
I will honor someone at every Monday staff meeting

I want to get out of debt
I will payoff all credit card balances by December 31st

I’d like to learn a language
I will study Chinese one hour a day this year

I ought to get in shape
I will swim for an hour every day

I need to improve my leadership
I will read one leadership book every month.

A dream doesn’t have to be ephemeral. Even a really audacious one can be concrete. In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy made a big dream concrete when he said, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon.” Albert Siepert, former deputy director of launch operations at the Kennedy Space Center, stated, “The reason that NASA has succeeded is because NASA had a clear-cut goal, and expressed its goal”

When you first begin to wonder about your potential and brainstorm your future, it’s good to let yourself go and think big. But when it’s time to start making your dream come true, you need to get specific.

Being specific doesn’t necessarily mean having every little detail thought out before you move forward. That would be a mistake. The big idea needs to be clear. The rest unfolds as you move forward, and you make adjustments as you go. But you should try to be as specific as you can about the overarching dream.

For years I have encouraged leaders to add value to their employees, build them up, and motivate them to help them succeed.

Adding value to people is a natural gift for me. But it’s not for many people, and I could see that some struggled with it. Because I longed to help others in this area, I realized I needed to be specific on the subject and write about it. The result was a book I wrote with Les Parrott titled 25 Ways to Win with People: How to Make Others Feel Like a Million Bucks. It explains practices to help people add value to others. Now I’m not just encouraging people to add value; I’m helping them actually do it.

2. A clear dream doesn’t become clear without effort

It doesn’t take much effort to let your mind drift and dream. However, it takes great effort to set your mind to the task of developing a clear and compelling dream. Mike Hyatt says that when he took his retreat to get a clear vision for his division, he went to a solitary place with just a pen and journal. He began the process by describing in writing the current reality he was facing. He was brutally honest, writing down everything he didn’t like. Only then did he write out in detail what he wanted to see happen in the future—not just as a vague dream of success or improvement. He even wrote it in the present tense to make the dream more concrete and credible. Take the effort to bring clarity to your dream using your own tools and method. If you’re like Mike, you can go away to a cabin with nothing but pen and paper. I, on the other hand, need starters to get me thinking in the right direction. Maybe they can help you as well. Here are some essentials I bring to the task of clarifying my dream ...

» Questions. For me the whole process begins with questions I must ask myself. The dream is always rooted in the dreamer, in his or her experiences, circumstances, talents, and opportunities. I ask:

  • What am I feeling? —What are my emotions telling me?
  • What am I sensing? —What is my intuition telling me?
  • What am I seeing? —What is happening around me?
  • What am I hearing? —What are others saying?
  • What am I thinking? —What do my intellect and common sense say?

If I can get a good sense of where I am, what I know, and what I want, I’m on my way to clarifying my dream.

» Resources. I rarely try to think, create, or dream in a vacuum. I’m a firm believer in tools that can help me. Sometimes that means reading a book, listening to a message on CD, watching a movie, or reading quotations. Other times it means having a photograph or an object in front of me to help me dream. More than once I’ve kept a photograph on the desk in my office for a year or longer to help me see a dream more clearly.

» Experiences. Years ago when my dream was to build an influential church in America, I reinforced and clarified that vision by visiting congregations around the country that were already influential. I have also traveled to historic areas and visited the home of one of my heroes to inspire me. Such experiences help me dream bigger and with greater clarity.

» People. When I dream, I think about people who have already been where I want to go. For three years I made appointments with leaders who were already doing what I dreamed of so that I could gain insight from them. Those interactions gave me confidence, inspired me to dream bigger, and sharpened the picture of my dream. Listening to people share the details of their journey can sometimes help you discover the details of yours. If you have already discovered a process for bringing clarity to your dream, then use that. If you haven’t, try mine. Or do as Mike Hyatt did. But however you approach the task, remember this: it’s usually a process. A clear picture of a dream may come to you all at once, in lightning bolt fashion, but for most people it doesn’t work that way. Most people need to keep working at it, clarifying it, redrawing it. If the process is difficult, that’s no reason to give up. In fact, if it’s too easy, maybe you’re not dreaming big enough. Just keep working at it because a clear dream is worth fighting for.

3. A clear dream affirms your purpose

Bringing your dream into focus should confirm the sense that you are going in the right direction, and it should strengthen your sense of purpose. I’ve found this to be true in my life. In my effort to clarify my dream, I discovered that the more clearly I saw my dream, the more clearly I was able to see my purpose. That is true, I believe, because a person’s dream and purpose are intertwined. God designs us to want to do what we are most capable of doing. Because of this, when I visited churches that were making an impact, something resonated within me. I felt that I belonged in such places. And when I interviewed the successful leaders in these churches, I sensed that I could become one too. In a way, it was an odd situation. I was fanning the flames of my imagination, making me dream even bigger, and at the same time it confirmed the reality that I was on the right track. I could see a picture of my dream, and I could see myself in the picture!

In my effort to clarify my dream, I discovered that the more clearly I saw my dream, the more clearly I was able to see my purpose

When your dream and your purpose are aligned, you know it. That was true for filmmaker Steven Spielberg. When he was in high school, he dreamed of directing movies. “I want to be a director,” he told his father, Arnold.

“Well,” his father told him, “if you want to be a director, you’ve got to start at the bottom; you’ve got to be a gofer and work your way up.” “No, Dad,” the younger Spielberg replied “The first picture I do, I’m going to be a director,” And he was.

“That blew my mind,” his father says. “That takes guts.” Arnold Spielberg was so impressed with his son’s ambition and confidence, he bankrolled Steven’s first feature film, Firelight, a science fiction thriller that premiered at a little movie house in Phoenix, Arizona. During the making of the film, the young Spielberg told his collaborators, “I want to be the Cecil B. DeMille of science fiction.” That’s not a bad description of what he has become, having produced or directed Jurassic Park, Men in Black, Transformers, ET, Minority Report, Back to the Future, Gremlins, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and other science fiction films. Spielberg’s dream was clear, and the power of that clarity helped him achieve it.

As you put your dream to the test and seek to bring clarity to it, having your dream and purpose aligned will change your life. Why? Because it will make clear why you’re here on this earth. If you don’t sense that alignment and strengthening of purpose, you might need to make sure your dream is really your dream.

4. A clear dream determines your priorities

Man thinking to choose between opposite directions
Once you are clear about your dream, making other choices becomes easier

The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won the Academy Award for best picture in 1957, is considered by many to be one of the finest films ever made. The lead character, Colonel Nicholson, portrayed by Alec Guinness is a study in misplaced priorities. Nicholson is an admirable man and tough leader who is taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II and finds himself the highest ranking officer in a Burmese prison camp. His Japanese captors try to coerce him into leading his fellow prisoners in the building of a railway bridge. In the beginning, Nicholson resists heroically, but in time he relents and begins the building project. Eventually he takes so much pride in the work his men are doing in the construction of the bridge that he loses sight of his real goal—defeating the Japanese and winning the war.

At the end of the movie, there is a moment when Nicholson actually starts to guard the bridge from attack by an Allied officer who has set charges to blow it up. But in a flash of insight during his dying breath, he says, “What have I done?” His last act is to detonate the explosives and blow up the bridge. It’s easy to get so caught up in the day-to-day process of life that you lose sight of the big picture. However, when your dream is clearly in sight, it helps you get your priorities straight.

Even though I’ve taught this truth for years, there are times when I need to be reminded of it. That was the case in December 2007 when I went to the hospital because I was experiencing some dizziness. After two days of tests, I learned that I had an irregular heartbeat. Dr. Crandall, my new cardiologist, visited me in my hospital room to talk to me about my health. I knew what he was going to say. I hadn’t been watching my diet for quite some time. So in an effort to show him that I knew what was coming, I said, “Dr. Crandall, I know I need to do some weight management.”

“No, you don’t need to do weight management,” he replied, much to my surprise. For a moment I had hope. “You need to do weight loss. John, you’re fat! After you lose a bunch of weight, then you can manage it!” During our fifteen-minute conversation, if he told me once, he told me a dozen times that I was fat. He was making sure he brought great clarity to the picture for me. With my problem in focus and the dream of wanting to remain healthy so that I can continue to spend time with family, my priorities became clear. I would do what it took to reach a healthy weight. That meant changing my priorities and developing a new pattern for living, which would dictate what I did in the future. Until further notice, I would consume no more than sixteen hundred calories a day. And I would exercise for no less than one hour every day. If I wanted to achieve my dream of a long and healthy life, I would have to realign my living according to these priorities.

Nobody can have it all. We like to think we can, but we can’t. If you see your dream clearly—and keep it in front of you continually—it will help you to understand what you must sacrifice and what you must dedicate yourself to in order to keep moving forward.

Only a clear picture of who you are and where you want to go can help you prioritize what you need to do. We all make choices.

The question is, Are you going to make choices that bring you closer to your dream or take you farther away from it? If you don’t know exactly what your dream is, then you won’t be capable of making the right choices.

Clarity of vision creates clarity of priorities

5. A clear dream gives direction and motivation to the team

Boss on a team meeting
As a leader you must effectively communicate your vision to your team

Your big dream will undoubtedly require the participation of other people. If you are part of an organization that has goals or vision, then you must work with other people in order to accomplish them. No matter what, you must be capable of working with a team. That can be done effectively only when you possess a clear picture of what you want to achieve.

Jim Tunney, author and former NFL referee, says that many business organizations fail to accomplish what they set out to do because they don’t clearly define their target. “If employees don’t understand their company’s goals and its game plan,” he notes, “these goals won’t be achieved.” He goes on to point out that the game of football never has unclear objectives. “Its goals are always clearly defined,” asserts Tunney. “At the end of the field is a goal line. Why do we call it a goal line? Because eleven people on the offensive team huddle for a single purpose—to move the ball across it. Everyone has a specific task to do—the quarterback, the wide receiver, each lineman, every player knows exactly what his assignment is. Even the defensive team has its goal—to prevent the offensive team from achieving its goal.”

Pastor, writer, and editor Ed Rowell says, “A dream is a better future in need of an architect who will show others how to make it a reality.” If you are a leader, you must be that architect. You must identify the dream and be able to draw it, not only for your benefit but also for the benefit
of others.

One night I had dinner in Dallas with an architect named John Fleming. He told me, “If you’re an architect, you can’t start building a project until you’ve finished it.” By that, he meant that if you’re the visionary—the leader—you need to know the end before you start leading the team. You have to see it. If you don’t, your team will never be able to fulfill your vision.

As a leader and leadership mentor, I am continually thinking about how to communicate vision to others. If leaders create a fuzzy picture, then people follow in an equally fuzzy way. Lack of clarity hinders initiative, inhibits persistence, and undermines follow-through.

Followers don’t give their best to some thing they don’t understand. People don’t stay on course for something they cannot see. Nobody becomes motivated by something he kinda, sorta believes in

I love the story of how a certain track coach communicated the goal to his runners before a race. Just before the gun sounded, he used to say, “Stay to your left and get back here as soon as you can.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that!

Anytime a team, department, or organization doesn’t see the same clear picture of what it’s trying to accomplish, it is destined to get off course. I faced this reality in 1981 when I became the senior pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church. Although the congregation had experienced growth in the past, it had been stagnant for years. I quickly sensed that the leadership had lost its way. Following my instincts, I asked each member of the board to write the purpose of the church on a three-by-five card. My suspicions were confirmed when I read the cards and found that the seventeen members had written fifteen different answers.

The energy of the church was unfocused, and the direction was unclear. Why? Because the leaders of the organization didn’t share a common dream. No wonder they weren’t able to move forward. Over the next six months we hammered out our core values and our common vision. As the dream for our church became clearer, the energy of the leadership increased. And the newly focused and energized leaders carried those qualities to the rest of the congregation. The result was that the congregation tripled in size during the next ten years and made a positive impact on the community, which was our dream.

You must see it to seize it

Woman focussing to shoot the soccer ball
Only those who see their dream are able to seize it. It’s time to bring clarity to your dream, to give it detail

Most people wander through life. They have no clear dream, no clear picture of where they want to go. And even when a great opportunity presents itself to them, they don’t have the ability to see it and build a dream upon it.

In 1866 an amateur geologist noticed some South African children playing with a glistening rock. Intrigued, he asked the children’s mother if he could purchase it. She said it wasn’t worth anything and simply gave it to him. Later when he examined it more closely, his hunch was confirmed: it was a diamond. He calculated its weight at 21 carats.

When others heard of this and other discoveries, a Scottish mineralogist named James Gregory was sent to investigate. He reported that South Africa wasn’t suitable for the occurrence of diamonds. He speculated that the previous discoveries had resulted from ostriches, of all things, eating the gems in distant lands and depositing them in South Africa via their dung. A few days after Gregory’s report was made public, an 83 carat diamond was found in the area that he had visited. It is now known as the Star of South Africa, and it launched the region’s first mining operation in what is today the world’s largest producer of diamonds. And what about Gregory? His name lives on, but not as he might wish. In the diamond industry, when someone exhibits bad judgment, it’s called “pulling a Gregory.”

Among the people who flocked to South Africa during the diamond rush was Cecil Rhodes, a young man from Britain who dreamed of success. He and his brother saw the potential of diamond mining in the area and bought as many claims as they could.

They also purchased an ice-making machine in England, which they brought to Africa so they could sell ice to mine workers suffering in the heat. They used their profits to purchase more mining claims. In the 1880s, Rhodes went on to found De Beers, the largest producer of diamonds in the world.

How would you describe your vision when it comes to your dream? Do you blindly accept the status quo? Or do you look at things with your eyes wide open, seeking greater possibilities? And when you see them, are you serious enough about achieving a dream to actually put it to the test by defining it clearly? Are you willing to describe it in detail, put it on paper, and tell others about it?

If you’re not, then you’re placing yourself at a disadvantage. Only those who see their dream are able to seize their dream. If you can answer the Clarity Question with a yes because you clearly see your dream, then you are greatly increasing the odds that one day you will do more than just see your dream—you will live it!

Only those who see their dream are able to seize their dream

Answer the clarity question: Do I clearly see my dream?

It’s time to bring clarity to your dream, to give it detail. If you have a general idea of your dream, your temptation may be to start creating your strategy. Don’t do it yet. As Mike Hyatt asserted, vision must come first.

  1. Begin by writing a detailed description of your dream. Let your imagination go wild. Write as many elements or pieces of it as you can. Don’t stop until you have more than you think you need.
  2. Now quantify anything you can. Make it measurable. Don’t worry about how you’ll get there yet. Be bold. Be audacious. Dream big!
  3. The next step is to state your dream succinctly in writing. Mike broke down his dream into ten clear, measurable elements. Do something similar with your dream. The number doesn’t matter—it simply needs to match the dream—but try to keep it fairly short.
  4. Don’t expect to be able to do the whole process in one sitting.

For most people that’s not possible. Instead, give it time.

You may want to get away for a retreat to start the process. If you can separate yourself from your usual surroundings or routine for a couple of days, you may be able to get most of the work done. Otherwise, take a day to dream, and then come back to the process for a few hours at a time in subsequent weeks. Don’t forget your goal: make your dream as clear and specific as possible. Then keep it in front of you so that you can see it every day.

P.S. To maintain sanctity of the source, this article follows American English.

This article is an edited excerpt from Put Your Dream To The Test by John Maxwell, Published by Jaico Books ; reproduced with permission.


A version of this was first published in the October 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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