• Michelle Sterling

Who is left when the dreams fade away?


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It started out innocently enough. My intention was to fix the mirrored sliding doors on the antique cabinet I’ve repurposed as my office bookshelves. Two of the doors were installed upside down in a move, and I had finally figured out a way to right them, without disassembling the entire cabinet.


The first step naturally involved removing all of the books from the shelves. Simple enough. Plus, I’d already determined this activity to be a prerequisite for another priority task: the need to sort through and donate any books that no longer align with the work I'm finding myself focused on these days.


I'm not sure how many of you have ever heard of, or tried out, the Kon Mari method. It rose to popularity a few years ago. There was even a Netflix show. (of course) The gist of this method is to pay attention to the energy of things when cleaning out a space. So you pick up an item and pay attention to the vibe that hits you. If it "sparks joy" it stays. If not, it gets relegated to a different pile. I've used it with great success in some areas of my home. But I do have to admit that if I ever truly followed the principles when cleaning out my closet, I wouldn't be left with much more than a few formal gowns and pajamas to wear. Definitely no underwear. So, it has its limits.

All that being said, it's important to note that none of this was on my mind as I crawled up and down the ladder, gathering armfuls of books and placing them in random stacks on the floor of my office.

Then something unexpected happened.

I found myself sitting on the floor in front of my now emptied shelves. Surrounded by books like an unwilling participant at the center of one of those trust circles, in a puddle of my own tears. This is actually where I am right now, as I'm writing this: Curled up amidst the swirling energy emanating from all of the words and ideas and hopes represented by the books surrounding me. Searching for my footing. Scared to let go.

I don't know why it's hitting me so hard this time; I've moved these books so many times before. A friend said to me recently that there are many layers of goodbye before you reach the real ending. The final goodbye is where the knowing lives.

And maybe that's part of it. Sitting here taking it all in, the titles read like headlines from different volumes of my life and my life's work. Books fueling aspirations, creating identity and taking me from who I am, to who I might become, if only for this insight. All these books. All these voices. Thought leaders, business gurus, corporate visionaries... If I let them all go, what am I left with? Who will I be if not for these dreams they have planted in me?

It might help to know that I'm going through a bit of a reinvention, a recalibration of sorts right now. I've experienced a couple of these shifts in my life, and they always land me somewhere interesting. This time around I'm considering where I want to focus my work efforts. I'm asking myself different questions. I'm seeking my own knowing.


Sitting here on the floor looking at all these titles staring back at me, I find myself struck by the language used in many of them. "Win." "Succeed." "Revolutionary." So much combative language focused on what amounts to all the ways one might find, master, and defeat the game of life at work. It feels like a lot. A lot of ideas, and a lot of pressure quite frankly. And most importantly: it definitely doesn't feel like me.

What I am realizing is that I've spent a good deal of my life absorbing what others think is good for me, and then integrating those perspectives into my leadership work as an ideal. You know, all those things I should do to become a good and acceptable human being. Some of it has indeed been helpful. But looking at it all now, it feels more scolding. Disempowering. Self-righteous. Definitely not a vibe I want to perpetuate.

And that, my friends, is the funny thing that happens when you pay attention to the energy of things. So often it can seem like we're all working so hard to just keep it all together. But the truth is that the best bits show up when we let it all go -- when we allow ourselves to open up and observe what's around us, and release what we no longer need. When we let go of the need to find validation or self-worth outside of ourselves and instead tune in to that more knowing voice inside ourselves. Even when that voice says "Trust." "Wait." "Believe." At face value the idea simple. But in practice, I realize it's not always that easy.


As I allow myself to let go of dreams not yet complete, and never to be realized, I'm left with an aching hollow in the center of my chest. It's as if I've happened upon the love of my life in an intimate embrace with another and in that split moment, I’m hit with the full realization we were never really meant to be. It hurts. It leaves an emptiness, a hopelessness, a longing. It can cause you to question everything. But as with most that ails us in life, it’s in the passing of time you find yourself able to feel again. Wanting to feel again.


And so it is with dreams. We realize some; we mourn others; and we keep going. We keep dreaming because that is our nature: to envision and hope for a better tomorrow. For new experiences, new adventures and a life lived fully, with meaning and connection and yes, even more dreams.

Who is left when the dreams fade away? I'm left. I'm here. With all of my hope in the knowing that time will carry new dreams my way.

My experience clearing my shelves was more profound than most of my tidying up experiences, thankfully. I'm not sure when the new dream will show up to spur me to my next iteration. But I will be boxing up what no longer aligns with my values, removing the titles that shout at me to live a life on other's terms, to prioritize other's priorities. And I know that my shelves, my office, and my life will be better for it.