Throughout my teens I was often reminded that I would never reach my dreams unless I continued improving in every aspect of my being. There was no room to regress into know-it-all mode or into some sort of arrogance that I already had everything it took to succeed. The truth was that as a teenager I wasn’t even close—even though I was tall and could jump high. I still had a lot to learn before I could become the professional basketball player I wanted to be. And I definitely had a lot to learn to become the husband and father I wanted to be. Even today, after 23 years of marriage and with two kids of my own, I am still learning how to be a better husband and dad. And that’s the key.
Remaining teachable means that you never really “arrive” in any important aspect of your life. While you can certainly reach a point where you are highly skilled and highly confident in your ability to produce great results, the moment you think you have everything you need is the moment you begin to falter.
Life is so unpredictable because we can never control every force around us. Our environment is constantly changing. Just when you think you have a grip on your future, something shifts. Maybe a parent gets sick, or maybe you sustain a severe injury and can no longer play your sport. Or maybe you didn’t receive the scholarship for which you worked so hard, and you’re going to have to find a job to pay for college.
Or like a businessman named Erik Wahl (1), maybe a recession forces you to rethink your dream in another career. Erik co-owned a successful business for nearly ten years, only to have it crumble after the 2000 recession. With a wife and three kids under the age of four, and very little money in the bank, he didn’t have the luxury of spending six months relaxing on the beach and hoping the next step came to him.
On a whim he went to an art supply store and picked up some paints, a few brushes and a couple of canvases. At the very least, he thought that painting would give him an outlet that would help reduce his stress. He’d always had an interest in art but he had no training whatsoever. In fact, the last time he had tried to paint something, his elementary teacher insisted that art was not his thing. But something inside him was still fascinated with painting.
Over the next few days, Erik’s little stress-reducer started to become something much bigger. He found himself spending more and more time painting and studying new techniques and the history of the medium. He was soon hooked on art, and he poured all his energies into becoming a great artist.
Do you know what he’s doing today, 12 years later? He’s not running a business. He’s a highly sought-after graffiti artist who can paint a perfect likeness of a well known face in about three minutes, upside down, before a live audience.
Do you know who his audiences are? Businesses, like the one he used to own, that are looking for ways to become more creative. If you were to ask Erik today if he wishes he had his old career back, he’d laugh. He knows that the unexpected path he followed ultimately led him to his dream job. But he would have never discovered it had he not remained teachable and continued to learn.
Britain’s great Prime Minister Winston Churchill explained it best when he said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” If you want to reach your dreams and sustain them for the rest of your life, the only thing you should know for sure is that you will never know everything you need to know. There will always be more opportunity for growth, sometimes where you least expect it, sometimes where you’ve been looking all along.
Be teachable. And stay that way.
(1) Erik Wahl, Unthink. Crown Business, 2013.