Provision #445: Dream Bigger Dreams

Laser Provision

“Dream bigger dreams” may sound like a coaching mantra, but if you think this Provision is just another self-help pep rally, then you better read on. Dreaming bigger dreams is not something we can make ourselves do. We can, however, make them more likely by attending to our basic needs and identifying our positive core. That’s why Appreciative Inquiry spends so much time in the discovery phase of its process. The more strength we discover, the bigger and better our dreams are likely to be.

LifeTrek Provision

On our way back from New Zealand, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit my 92-year-old uncle who is in failing health and has relocated his residence to a nursing home. He had a kidney stone removed in the past few days and he was still in a weakened condition from that operation. As a result, his body was even more frail than it was just a few weeks ago, when we saw him just before leaving for New Zealand.

His mind is nevertheless as sharp as ever, which makes talking with him a joy. He has always prided himself on remembering the details of his experiences over the years, which include every graduation and wedding in my nuclear family, including my own children, since my mother graduated from high school in 1942. It will be unusual and sad to have one of those special rites of passage without him, when that day comes.

Now that he is dealing with increasingly difficult and challenging health problems, his dreams have been reduced to one day at a time. He never complains and makes no demands, at least not when we are around, but you can tell that his physical impairment has him focused on the bottom tier of what Abraham Maslow called the human “hierarchy of needs.” In this hierarchy and understanding, first described by Maslow in a 1943 paper Click, physiological needs such as breathing, drinking, eating, voiding, sleeping, temperature regulation, and hygiene must be met before attention can be given to any of the other human needs.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, physiological needs are at the bottom of a pyramid with 5 or 6 levels. The bottom four levels all represent “deficiency needs,” or needs that drive human behavior in their absence. If we don’t have enough food, for example, we are driven to find food with increasing levels of desperation.

The other three levels of deficiency needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, beyond the physiological, are the tiers that relate to safety, love / belonging, and self-esteem. Beyond basic survival needs of the human organism, safety and security come next. These include concerns such as physical safety, employment, financial security, family safety, health protection, and even moral security in the sense that people are driven to change morally compromising environments.

In addition to safety and security, people also have the need to love and to be loved. The traditional family unit is but one expression of this need. From our most intimate partnerships to professional and recreational associations, people seek connection with other people in order to avoid loneliness, social anxiety, and depression.

The final tier relates to self-esteem and self-respect. Beyond the issue of morally compromising environments is the issue of living and working in a way that generates both self-respect and the respect of others. The flow studies of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi make it clear that people can meet this need in any activity, regardless of the value society places on that activity. From service workers to business and political leaders, people experience flow when they take pride in both the process and the outcome of doing what they do.

Like my 92-year-old uncle, if you ask someone to tell you their dreams when their deficiency needs are not fully met, they will immediately respond in terms of meeting that need: “I want to feel better.” “I want better housing.” “I want a job.” “I want a partner or mate.” “I want to be employee-of-the-month or to achieve professional recognition.” You can probably come up with your own statements based upon your own unmet deficiency needs. When these needs go wanting, it’s hard to think about or to dream of anything else.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) takes a cue from this model when it makes discovering the positive core of organizations and people the starting point for transformational change processes. Focusing on the deficits is a crippling and disabling condition that defines and constrains people’s dreams. Discovering and appreciating the positive core, on the other hand, stimulates people to go beyond their condition and to dream bigger dreams.

We see this all the time in our coaching work with individuals and organizations. When people first show up for coaching, we ask them to identify their goals for the coaching process. The laundry list is usually related to one or more those unmet deficiency needs: “I want to lose weight.” “I want to move up the ladder.” “I want to find my ideal mate.” “I want finish my dissertation.” “I want tenure.”

So too when it comes to organizations. Strategic planning always identifies goals to be met, and the goals people come up usually start with the most obvious of requirements and concerns: “We want to improve productivity.” “We want to meet standards.” “We want to reduce overhead.” The mantras of Total Quality Management and Continuous Improvement are so ubiquitous as to be familiar to just about anyone involved in management operations.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Einstein, it’s impossible to meet these deficiencies by working them through on the same level at which they were created. That’s why, as coaches, we spend so much time with individuals and organizations to identify the things that are working well, that people love to do, and that give life to the human spirit and to organizational cultures. By acknowledging and appreciating competencies even and perhaps especially when the deficiency needs are not fully met, people dream bigger dreams and come up with better strategies in both life and work.

This is one of the many areas where coaching and Appreciative Inquiry follow parallel paths in both their philosophy and their methodology. We are not following the pain and fixing the problems as much as we are following the passion and finding the possibilities. It is how we handle the discovery process that distinguishes our approach and elevates our results. By engaging every stakeholder and acknowledging every resource, by asking open questions and discovering great stories, we enable people to release their negative accounts and to embrace their positive ambitions.

Once this happens, it’s not long before those initial, deficiency-based goals and objectives are replaced by much larger competency-based ones. Instead of incremental progress we dare to dream dreams of making heretofore unimaginable quantum leaps forward.

Those who wanted to lose weight dare to dream of dreaming of running a marathon or climbing a mountain. Those who wanted to move up the ladder dare to dream of owning the company. Those wanted to find their ideal mate dare to dream of finding their mate in a context of common interest and concern. Those who wanted to finish their dissertation dare to dream of making a larger contribution while those who wanted tenure dare to dream of becoming global leaders in their areas of expertise.

It works the same way in organizations, corporations, communities, teams, schools, churches, clubs, and any other social context. A thorough, strengths-based discovery process will shift the conversation from Continuous Improvement to radical innovation. Instead of trying to do the best we can with limited resources and limited talent, we dare to dream of outdoing ourselves with sufficient resources and surprising talent. Once again, our dreams become bigger than had heretofore been thought possible.

The amazing thing is that this all happens naturally, in both individuals and organizations, once those deficiency needs are addressed. People don’t have to be told to dream bigger dreams, as if that were even possible. People want to dream bigger dreams once they have discovered a solid foundation of positive affect on which to stand.

Maslow spoke of this in terms of self-actualization. Once the physiological, safety, love / belonging, and esteem needs are met, Maslow understood people as turning to growth needs for their continued stimulation, evolution, and motivation. On this basis, some have suggested a sixth tier, at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for transcendence or spirituality. Whereas self-actualization relates to acceptance, spontaneity, creativity, objectivity, community, contribution, and inspiration as ends in themselves, transcendence recognizes these growth needs as being best met when the entire human experience is directed outside itself.

What Maslow may not have fully appreciated is that self-actualization and self-transcendence are not impossible pursuits for people even when deficiency needs are not fully met. Although there is obviously a critical threshold below which the human organism cannot go, there is much room above that level for the discovery and appreciation of the positive core to work its magic and to inspire greatness.

That’s the big picture we need to work with if we hope to move from taking small steps to giant leaps forward. Such was the experience, for example, of a giant telecommunications company after engaging in an AI process. “The process generated better results than seeking out and solving problems,” observed the President. “That’s because it enabled us to combine a positive culture with all the challenges we face today. It gave us an empowering sense of hope and a way of approaching problems from the other side.”

If we want to dream bigger dreams, then it behooves us to pay attention to these core dynamics. Deficiency needs may take priority, since they represent the squeaky wheels of life. When the body is breaking down or the business is going bankrupt, it is hard to think about anything else. But approaching such needs head on is not always and may not even usually be the best strategy. Continually focusing on our problems can foster a negative culture and a paralyzing sense of hopelessness. It can make things worse rather than better.

Approaching such needs from “the other side” is a better way to go. We saw this in my uncle recovering from surgery. Even in his weakened state, he was able to identify positive resources for comfort, recovery, and strength. He celebrated technologies that made possible noninvasive surgery, attendants who acted as though they had known him their entire life, as well as family and friends who reached out in love.

My uncle’s basic needs may not be fully met right now, but that was not his only focus. By acknowledging and appreciating the silver lining around the cloud of his poor health, he was able to pick himself beyond the limits of his capacity. He was able to transcend his condition and to crack a smile even in adversity.

When physically healthy people experience transcendence the results can be even more dramatic and impactful. Best practices become the rule rather than the exception, and stretch goals become consistently achievable. We dream bigger dreams because we believe we can accomplish them. The more resources, strength, competency, and mastery we claim, the more positive stories we tell, the more excited we become about the possibilities for making life great.

Coaching Inquiries: How are your dreams impacted and constrained by your unmet deficiency needs? What positive resources can you identify that might enable you to dream bigger dreams? What growth needs are stirring inside you and clamoring for attention? How can you give them the priority they deserve to set you and what you care about on the path of transcendence?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..

Thank you for the great poem ‘Change.’ It was a great inspiration to me!

Where’s the bison? Who sells it in Las Vegas, Nevada? (Ed. Note: The bison ranchers I work with are local to me, in southeast Virginia. You can, however, purchase bison at many markets and you can also search for bison purveyors over the Internet. Click

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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