The Five Ps: Breaking Down Big Dreams Into Little Steps

One of my most loyal readers, a person named Brad who first emailed me about The Simple Dollar about a week after it launched, sent me an email this week that really struck a chord with me. Here’s the key part.

Ever since I was a little kid, all I’ve wanted to do was play professional golf. I can’t dream of a better life than playing golf for a living, or even working in some way professionally in a way connected to golf.

Right now I work in an office and the closest I get to this is playing a couple of rounds each weekend. During the week, I’m too busy to hit the greens.

This makes me depressed. I hear you talking about reaching your dreams and I’m happy for you, but then I look around my office and I see mine slipping away and I get sad.

All right, a confession.

I fail at writing. A lot.

I’ve been writing in my personal journal every single day since 1991. When I started digging into my writing passion (writing in a little leatherbound journal my grandmother got me for Christmas 1990 when I was only twelve years old), I read that one should write at least 1,000 words each day. So I have. Since January 1991. Every. Single. Day. At this point, I’ve been writing 1,000 or more words a day for the majority of my life – and it’s usually more words. Way more.

In high school, I entered essay competitions and other contests and did middling at best. I probably would have given up then, feeling much the same way our friend here feels like giving up, if it hadn’t been for the constant and often subtle encouragement by my high school English teacher. Randy, if you’re out there reading this, I wouldn’t be writing for a living right now if it wasn’t for you.

I kept it up in college and in my early professional life. I wrote two full novels and a pile of short stories. I had a few glimmers of success with it, even going so far as to get what I considered to be a very strong bite from a publisher in 2003, but most of it was a pile of rejection letters. Failure, over and over again.

I kept writing. Why? I loved it. I still love it with every ounce of my being. I love writing short stories. I love writing essays. I love making words flow together. I love how they transfer meaning to someone else, to people I’ve never met and will likely never meet.

Finally, after seventeen years of this, I’m finally seeing a little bit of success with writing. Why is this happening? There are a lot of reasons: I intentionally write very conversationally, which works well on the internet; I’m writing about a topic that’s near to people’s hearts; and I have a lot of great readers who help me out and inspire me over and over again.

There’s another piece, too. I practice. I’ve written and edited so many things over the years that now the actual art of taking an idea and turning it into a written piece fits on me like a familiar glove. It’s only because of that familiarity that I’m able to write so much for The Simple Dollar – two original columns a day – plus freelance stuff elsewhere. Because of that practice, I am now pretty fast at brainstorming, separating the bad ideas from the good, organizing a good idea into a series of logical points, and fleshing out those points into a written piece.

Great. But that doesn’t help me with my dream.
But it does! There are a ton of lessons in that story that can help anyone with any dream that they want to achieve. Let’s walk through them and see how they fit into my story, into Brad’s story … and into your story as well.

Every single morning, when I wake up and lift my feet out of bed, two things cross my mind. The first one usually is a thought related to my wife and my kids – my immediate focus is on getting everyone up, getting them dressed, making sure they’ve eaten something nutritious, and getting them started on their day.

The second thought, though, always revolves around writing. I think about crafting sentences and pulling together ideas. I think about the written word in all of its varieties.

I yearn to write. There are times when I am almost magnetically pulled to a keyboard or to a pad of paper – there’s an idea floating in my head and I have to start recording it.

That’s what passion is. It’s the things in your life that you’re drawn to over and over again. It’s the things that you can scarcely go a day without doing – or at least wanting to.

Brad’s golfing is a perfect example. Every day when he goes home, he yearns to golf and it tears him up not to be able to act on that passion. He has that first piece in hand – he knows dead-on what he’s passionate about.

I have another friend who is incredibly passionate about chess. His home is littered with chess boards, magazines, and books. I finally saw how deep his passion went when I discovered a chess set in his bathroom so he could work through problems while doing his business.

What if you don’t know what you’re passionate about. Not long ago, I listed in great detail seven steps to finding what you’re truly passionate about. Here they are in a nutshell (but that whole article is well worth reading):

1. Maximize your health
2. Ask questions
3. Ignore what’s “cool”
4. Dabble in everything
5. When something piques your interest, try it again – and again
6. Associate with people who share this burgeoning interest of yours
7. Don’t keep pushing it if the passion dries up quickly

Keep doing those steps and you’ll find your passion – or it will find you.

I like watching basketball players practice. I’ve watched bad coaches lead practices, mediocre coaches lead practices, and good coaches lead practice.

At first, I thought that basketball practice was about intense scrimmages. I thought that the best way to coach would be to have your team run complete plays over and over again with the coach pointing out flaws and correcting them. In essence, I thought practice would be much like a game with the coach shouting instructions.


The best basketball team I’ve ever seen would have two and a half hour practices – and only scrimmage for ten minutes or so at the very end. Most of the practice was filled with very repetitive drills. They’d sprint from one end of the court to the other to do a layup. They’d run the same exact screen a hundred times. They’d all shoot fifty free throws. They’d do endurance sprints. In other words, the intense part of their practices were nothing like playing a game of basketball – they were instead a bunch of focused little pieces on specific attributes of playing basketball.

I got the opportunity to ask the coach why this was and he made it very simple: these kids would play basketball for fun all the time anyway, so scrimmages were kind of a waste of time. Instead, it was much more important to work on very specific fundamentals.

In other words, practice isn’t just about doing something over and over again. It’s about focusing in on very specific elements and techniques, hammering them in over and over again, and then seeking out feedback on that technique.

Not long ago on the New York Times Freakonomics blog, Stephen Dubner wrote about the value of using deliberate practice to make oneself very good at a particular skill. He broke such practice down into three pieces:

1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome.
2. Set specific goals.
3. Get good, prompt feedback, and use it.

When writing, I do this by writing on a bunch of different topics. I write articles and guest postings on all sorts of topics. I write short stories. I try mixing up what I do and taking on new things. In order to get feedback on this stuff, I post it online in various places – sometimes as guest posts on blogs, sometimes on community sites where I’ll get comments. This lets me know pretty quickly whether I’m writing well – or I need to work on something.

Alternately, I’ll just take one little piece of a post for The Simple Dollar and polish it, honing a truly great paragraph. This moves me from working on just content creation into working on editing, another piece of the writer’s toolkit.

With my golfing friend, instead of going home each night and lamenting that he doesn’t have the time or cash to go golfing, he should go to a park or a field somewhere where there is a lot of open grass and practice specific shots. Lay a hula hoop on the ground, then back away fifty yards and practice hitting chip shots into that hula hoop for an hour nonstop. Do that every night and your chip shots will get better and better.

The key here is to not “practice” the whole of what you’re doing. The key is to practice specific elements. Focus wholly on the areas where you’re weakest and drill in on them. Do some intense work on just one specific element of what you’re trying to accomplish.

After that, have fun and notice how that practice helped you become more complete in the area you’re passionate about.

Many people know what their passion is and how to practice to get better, but they are content with merely doing so every once in a while. They sit back and get complacent with what they know, only practicing every once in a while for a specific purpose.

For some, that’s enough. My mother-in-law is a very good piano player who can play stunningly well by ear; she also knows quite well how to practice to go from being very good to great. But the persistence isn’t there – she doesn’t sit down at the piano and practice chords over and over again or try banging through highly complex pieces or try mastering some of the more common techniques through repetition.

Persistence is the repetition of practice, and if anything, it’s the most important P. The gap that separates the very good from the great is the repetition of deliberate practice and the ability to keep at it no matter what.

It’s easy to echo countless stories and anecdotes about this. I like the story about Abraham Lincoln – during his adult life he was fired from his job, failed as an independent businessman, had a nervous breakdown, lost elections to the state legislature, state Speaker of the House, the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Senate again, and the Vice Presidency before finally becoming President. There were countless times he should have or could have quit, but he didn’t, and by persisting, he made an indelible mark on history.

I write thirteen articles for The Simple Dollar every single week. I’ve written at least 1,000 words every day for seventeen years. Sometimes, I won’t write anything at all that sets anyone on fire. At other times, I’ll write so much good stuff that it’s running out of my ears. But I don’t give up on those bad weeks – I keep at it because I know that when I stop being persistent about it, that’s when things will start to fall apart.

In Brad’s situation, he needs to stop by the park and practice some aspect of his game every single night. By making it an essential part of his day, something he must do without fail, he will put in the huge number of hours he needs to get better.

You know what your passion is. You know what you need to do to get better. Set aside some time right now to get better, every single day. It’s a tough choice, but it’s the one you need to make to pull your dreams closer one baby step at a time.

About once a week, I’ll get an email from a disheartened writer. They read The Simple Dollar, thought that they could do the same, then sat down to crank out their own blog. The desire to write burned inside of them, they knew exactly what needed to be done to develop and produce good articles, and they understood the need to write every single day.

What they found out is that after two or three months, their site still only received a handful of visitors. They’d write to me wondering what was wrong, expressing some serious disillusionment. Usually, it didn’t matter what I wrote back to them – they’d usually abandon blogging, often with the sense that it was a scam or something or that the system was rigged against them.

There is no scam. They lacked patience.

Take Brad’s golfing passion, for example. Let’s imagine Brad gets the memo and starts practicing every day at the park for an hour. He practices his chip shots, his putts, and even his iron play from the rough. He hits the same shots over and over again and begins to get a real feel for his game.

Then he goes out on the course and hits an 88. He’s devastated. That was the same score he shot before he even started practicing! He tosses this stupid practice thing in the dumpster and gives up.

Patience, Brad. Look at Tiger Woods. He’s the best golfer in the world and can hit below 70 with stunning regularity, but even he hits a 74 every once in a while. The last time you shot an 88, it was on a day where you were naturally playing a bit above average. Now, when you shoot an 88, it’s an average day. All of that practice managed to shave a consistent stroke or two off of your score, but you’re judging that progress based on one round – and that’s not nearly enough.

In my own life, I went through periods where I was ready to give up the writing dream. I’d write every day, but I’d feel like I was, if anything, getting worse as a writer. I’d see no success in getting anything published – all I’d see were rejections. It often took everything I had to keep going, but I knew that if I stopped, the dream I had of being a writer would never happen. So I kept plugging away.

A while back, I noted nine techniques for developing patience:

Figure out what your actual destination is.
Make a “Plan B,” too.
Take the other side’s perspective.
Break down big goals into tiny ones.
Wait. Just a little.
Recognize that there are some things that you simply can’t control.
Think about the things that make you react on impulse.
Recognize when you do act on impulse.
Forget the results, enjoy the process.

Whenever you feel like you’re about to give up on your dreams even after investing a lot of passion and effort into them, look at these techniques. After all,

all you need is just a little patience.

Passion, practice, persistence, and patience will make you very, very good at something, but true greatness requires even more. It requires learning from others and also sharing what you know.

Every truly great person got there by participating in a wider community. They either brought something to the table that hadn’t existed before or helped someone else stand on the shoulders of giants. They changed the game, not just for themselves, but for others as well.

For me, this means interacting with other writers. It means participating in interviews. It means mentoring new bloggers. It means sharing what I know freely and also learning what others can teach me along the way.

For Brad, the possibilities of participation are nearly endless. He can teach others how to play golf. He can participate in community events, like organizing charity tournaments at the local public golf course. He can get kids interested in the game he cares so much about. He can use his passion and practice and persistence and patience as tools to not only make himself better, but bring something of value into the lives of others as well.

Don’t know where to start? You can begin by participating in general community events and meeting as many people as you can. You’d be shocked how many opportunities there are to share your passions with others, and from there the word can only spread outward.

It is only through that kind of participation that doors will open and you’ll be able to truly live your dream. Your passion, your improved skills, and your desire to share what you have with the world will make you stand out, and when things fall into place and the right opportunity comes around, you’ll be ready and waiting.

Starting on a Big Dream Right Now
Those five elements are all you need to start in on your dream right now.

Passion. Find it and know it.
Practice. Break your passion down into pieces and deliberately work on the elements.
Persistence. Practice as much as you can on an extremely regular basis, like clockwork.
Patience. Don’t expect to be great in a day, a month, or even a year.
Participation. Find new ways to get involved and share what you know.

Today, my friend, is a great day to get started.

Many thanks to Images of American Political History for helping me find public domain images for this post. For those curious, Passion was represented by Thomas Paine, Practice was represented by Benjamin Franklin, Persistence was represented by Douglas MacArthur, Patience was represented by Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Participation was represented by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The life stories of all of these people taught me valuable lessons about achieving my dreams.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.