How Do You Know When To Let Your Dreams Go?

I spent most of January 2014 walking. Alone. The reasons for this were two-fold:

1) I’d just had invasive double back surgery and walking was the best rehab.

2) Walking alone gave me time to think. I needed a clear head to contemplate my next move because for the first time in 20 years, I was no longer one hundred percent certain of my future. That scared me.

This wasn’t the first time I found myself walking alone for hours and hours at a time: the first was in 1996 through 1999. I had moved home from university with severe stomach issues which had prevented me from not just playing football, but living a healthy life. I was in incredible pain and discomfort and walking was about all I could do.

I was living in this state of total physical limbo. Mentally, though, I was always 100% sure of what I was going to do. I walked then not to figure out the what, but instead to figure out the how.

This time was different. This time I was lost.

Never once during those three years had I lost focus; I knew that one day I would be a pro football player. I was so obsessed that I would share my dream – daily – with anybody who would indulge me. Knowing that I was going to make it, even if I didn’t know how, was probably the only thing that kept me going back then.

My parents were always realistic, though. They would, periodically, try to get me to come to grips with the possibility that I may never be a pro football player. I hadn’t played college football for three years, and at the time it didn’t look like I was going to make it back. They love me dearly, which is why they felt obligated to try and bring be back down to reality. But I wouldn’t budge. Whenever they tried, I’d fight back, and tell them exactly who I was going to become.

In all honesty, I couldn’t get away from that vision, even if I had wanted to. I had burned it so bright in my mind that it haunted my every second. There was no goal written down, no wish list or dream board, just a picture in my head. I knew where I would end up, right down to the shoes on my feet and the gloves on my hands. My vision was the gas that kept my fire lit. It kept me moving forward even when I had no idea how to reach my destination.

Looking back, the strength and clarity of my vision was my greatest asset. It was what enabled me to make my dream come true. I honestly can’t overstate the power of crafting your vision. It’s the most successful piece of any puzzle, because if you have the vision, you can figure out the rest with drive and some luck.

Against all odds, I made it back to college football and was drafted to the Toronto Argonauts in 2001. Humiliatingly, however, I was probably the only first round pick to get cut during training camp. I phoned home to inform my parents, and my dad asked one thing: “Tell me about your vision?” This question would become my litmus test for the remainder of my career.

You see, he learned over the years how strongly I believed in my vision. He understood it was what drove me to make it back, and he knew it could do the same again. After describing in great detail where I was going to be, I was back. That was all I needed.

My father’s test remained consistent throughout the rest of my career. At every crossroad and every obstacle, my dad always asked the same question: “Can you tell me about your vision?” My answer was the same every time, which would remind me to stop wasting time pondering and get back to work on making my vision a reality.

His test worked every single time until January 2014.

I was two months into recovery from double back surgery. I had to get three discs removed from the bottom of my back. I was sidelined the entire previous season. Recovery was debilitating, but it did offer some long-awaited relief from the constant sciatic pain in my left leg.

I’m not going to let my career end this way, I’d tell myself. I’ve come back from far worse.

I started selling myself, and everyone close to me, on yet another comeback. Then, as always, my father threw the real gauntlet down. He asked the only question that he knew mattered: “Angus, tell me about your vision?” For the first time in twenty years, I couldn’t throw back an immediate answer. That scared me.

The problem in January 2014 was that my vision no longer haunted me because I had achieved my dream. For the first time in over twenty years, the picture was fuzzy. My struggle wasn’t with the decision to retire, it was coming to grips with the reality of that decision. It wasn’t what I truly wanted to do anymore, and it was the void that scared me. The absence of any clear vision made me hold on to the old one, instead of breaking out of my comfort zone and finding a new one. Building a new dream was risky and time consuming, and I didn’t know if I was ready to jump into the unknown. When in doubt, we tend to cling to what we know, and it’s that clinging that’s dangerous.

Your vision should pull you; it shouldn’t need to be pulled. You hang on to a vision because it’s shooting you where you want to go. You should never be hanging on to one because it’s slipping away behind you.

My dad could see my struggle. He softly reminded me of a conversation we had after my third professional season. It was the year I finally became a starter, and could see my lifelong vision becoming a reality. I had so much pride in myself for making it and for overcoming every obstacle in my way.

“You’re finally living your vision. What now?” he asked.

My response was easy: “Time to refine and improve it.” I needed to become an even better player, a leader, and eventually a champion. During my career there were always more images to chase, there were more layers to my vision, and they constantly drove me back to work.

We also talked about what I saw around me: my teammates and what I was learning from them. We spoke about the great friends I was making, the education and inspiration I was soaking up, and all the other positives. My experience went way beyond just playing football. We also spoke of warning signs. What negatives was I seeing? What did I learn from my teammates that I wanted to avoid? My dad reminded me that for me, it came down to one thing: playing beyond my vision. I never wanted to play because I didn’t know what else to do, or because I was too scared to move on into the unknown. I never wanted to play for all the wrong reasons.

My dad reminded me how adamant I was about never wanting to become ‘that’ player. I never wanted to play to hold onto what I once wanted. I promised my dad, and myself, that I would never let that be me. It’s easy to say, but how do you know when you’re holding on too long? The same way as always: ask yourself about your vision. Or better yet, have someone who knows you better than yourself ask you. If it’s nostalgia that pops up – you’re holding on, time to let go. I realized that’s where I was: wanting to still be what I used to be. But you know what?

Life goes forwards, not backward. Memories are to be enjoyed, not chased.

That was all it took. One straightforward question from my dad and it was all crystal clear. I was fooling myself and craving the comforts of yesterday. It was time to do what I had done my whole life. I had to build a new tomorrow visually, and for the first time since I could remember, that tomorrow would no longer involve being a football player. It was scary at first, until I realized what it meant: freedom. For the first time since I was a teenager, I had a total blank slate. I wasn’t being pulled anymore, so I had the time and space to create something entirely new.

It was time to let go.

It’s hard to admit, but every mission has a conclusion and the hardest part is realizing when that is. The greatest tragedy of any significant accomplishment is not knowing when it ends. It was hard for me to say goodbye to football, but I knew the time was right. It just took my dad to really help me see that.

We can easily fool ourselves, especially when there are high emotions involved. That’s why you need trusted people around you. People who know what you’re about, and who will always be there to help you through your struggles. They need to be the kind of people who love you enough to challenge you.

Always remember: memories are easy to hold onto, but building a strong vision is much harder because it requires hard work. Spend that time, build it strong, and share it with those who care for you. That’s how you make your dreams come true.

A strong vision is your most powerful tool, I firmly believe that, but never forget to question yourself. Are you moving forward or are you moving backwards? If you’re in any doubt, you can always ask my dad.