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Wishing and Willing – Awakening your Dreams through Strengths!

written by John Yeager 11 January 2009

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

We must will good habits, we must will improved skills – we just cannot wish them to happen.
Peter Greer, former Head – Montclair Kimberley Academy

Mr Peabody and the Wayback Machine

The Wayback Machine

I was positively struck by Sean Doyle’s recent PPND post entitled What Do You Wish For. He claims, “wishes tell us something about what it means to be human. They frame for us our vision of what is important.” What are the foundations that help people awaken their dreams to make them a reality? Unfortunately, wishing has become magical thinking for so many people who have high expectations, but haven’t developed a strong will to develop a vision and a plan, and subsequently, are not able to cash in on the rewards of their aspirations.

Scene from It's a Wonderful Life

Scenes from
It's a Wonderful Life

One of the reasons so many people enjoy the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, is the portrayal of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) as having formed a “strength of will” throughout his life. We pull for the person who has excellence of character, one who succeeds in acting as a person of virtue would act, as a matter of effort. Eventually the strength becomes second nature, and becomes effortless. This differs from those who have not had a robust “strengths inoculation,” a case where they know what should be done, but haven’t fully developed the prerequisite strengths. They want to act as a person of virtue would act, but are unsuccessful in the effort.


Aristotle claimed that a person’s “will” is developed through establishing habits – “brave people became brave by doing brave things.” Virtue is developed through action. This has great implications for young people who are in the throws of developing their “will” through the modeling, dialogue and consequences of life experiences. A compelling example about wishing and willing comes from a story by Peter Greer, the former headmaster of The Montclair Kimberley Academy. He speaks about a young boy’s Little League experience:

The boy was not known for being a good hitter. In fact, he didn’t swing the bat at all and would consequently be called out on strikes every time he came to home plate. It was agonizing for his mother and father to listen to angry parents saying awful things about their wonderful son – all because he couldn’t hit the ball. At the end of the season, the team was playing in an important game and the boy came to the plate in a critical situation with teammates on base and the team behind a couple of runs. True to form, the bat didn’t leave his shoulder for three pitches. After the game the dejected son said to his proud and caring father: “Dad, I really wish I could hit.” The father was elated and said, “Yes. I will find you the best help available. We will work on it every day. We will make you a hitter.” His son’s reply was, “But, Dad, I don’t want to work at it. I just want to hit.” He had not yet learned the difference between wishing and willing. Dr. Greer affirms that we must will good habits, we must will improved skills – we just cannot wish them to happen.

Generation Me Book CoverI am fascinated how young people view the world today – their expectations, ambitions, and how they plan to achieve them. Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me, a book about the Under-35 generation, states that “GenMe also holds on to dreams more fiercely, and in a way that makes you wonder how we will react if we don’t achieve our lofty goals.” She talks about an increase in cynicism and entitlement from past generations.

Kali Trzesniewski and her colleagues at The University of Western Ontario, however, suggest that it is not about a generation that has been spoiled. It is that “GenMe has been raised thinking we were special and getting lots from Mom and Dad, but when we hit young adulthood we face an enormous mismatch between what we expect and what we actually get.” This comes as a culture shock to many young people after leaving the nest and can influence the process of realizing their dreams. Employers who are aware of this shift, can then play to the strengths of their young employees to help them navigate the next steps of their journeys.

I don’t wish to generalize GenerationMe or any other cohort, and how they have made and will make their marks on the world. As a baby boomer growing up in the 50’s and 60’s my wishes helped to frame my visions and plans to get it done! It was founded on a strong nurturing of my “will” by caregivers, teachers, and other important people. It is essential that we carry on that legacy by innoculating young people with the “strengths habit” so that their dreams can awaken and come alive!



Trzesniewski, K. H., Donnellan, M. B., and Robins, R. W. (2008). Do today’s young people really think they are so extraordinary? An examination of secular changes in narcissism and self enhancement. Psychological Science, 19, 181-188.

Twenge, J.M. (2007). Generation Me – Why Today’s Young American Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York: Free Press.

Yeager, J, Buxton, J., Baltzell, A., & Bzdell, W. (2001). Character and Coaching: Building Virtue in Athletic Programs. Port Chester, NY: National Professional Resources-Dude Publishing.


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KevinT 11 January 2009 - 8:54 am

Very well said; thanks for this gift of thought. All of us –not just young people –can benefit from this message, especially in the age of “The Secret.” I surely ‘wish’ sometimes that I could have what I want by the “secret” of really really really wishing it to be so. But, most of us have lives of true justice: We get only what we’ve earned through hard work, discipline, perseverance, fortitude, self regulation, resilience, courage, etc. A fortunate few are also anointed by fate with more than we’ve earned; an unfortunate few have fate deal them less than they have earned… Positive emotion and attitude helps us get up and try again, accepting the gifts of our life as it is now, but only for now…
A belief that our wishes will come true if we just wish hard enough is a sure path to an unhappy life for all but those whom the Gods choose to grace with unjust riches….
Indeed, Pos pysch seemingly teaches that most of the attributes of personality are themselves in great measure the result of “work”…and the joy turns out to be in the wrk –not the achievement itself…

John Yeager 11 January 2009 - 9:11 am

Kevin: Thanks for your thoughts. Circumstances can provide us with only so much, but it is the effort of hard work that contributes to making the dream come alive. Paying attention to living the “process” can be a very potent prescription for happiness. Sometimes when people get to achieving the “product,” they go into a sub-clinical “downer” afterwards, because they no longer have the goal to shoot for.


Kathryn Britton 11 January 2009 - 9:57 am


I think you are right to avoid summing up the generation of people who are young today. Any generation is shaped by the reality it faces — both trials and opportunities. “The Greatest Generation” got that way by living through tumultuous times that demanded a lot of them.

I’ve been reading biographies of Lincoln. A decade or so before he was elected president, he apparently felt that the founding fathers of the United States had used up the real opportunities for greatness. What an irony!


John Yeager 11 January 2009 - 10:15 am

Kathryn: I agree. Little did Lincoln know then, that his “willful” committment during the “tumultuous” times of the 1860’s would yield his greatness!

An emphasis on inter-generalational associations seems to be a pre-requisite to understand the past, present and future. The boomers and the millenials (X’s and Y’s) can learn so much from each other by trying to live in their skin.


Sean Doyle 11 January 2009 - 2:07 pm

Hi John, Thank you for this important follow up to my last article! When I first had the idea, I was a little worried that I might leave people with the sense that I was saying that wishing was enough by itself.

Wishes can be beautiful in their own right, and hearing the wishes of others can help connect us to one another. For these reasons, wishes have value in and of themselves, and contribute to our feeling of being alive.

But by themselves, with out action, planning, persistence, courage, etc., it is unlikely that our wishes will ever materialize. Thank you for highlighting these essential next steps for making our wishes a tangible reality!

So what to do then when my (then 7 year old) daughter wishes for us to feed the poor people? That is a big one. For the past 6 years, we have done something that helps move a little in this direction – and it has been extremely rewarding as a parent and as a one of the 6 billion+ people sharing a planet. Every summer we take the kids to rural parts of Central America to live with a family and do what we can. It might be bringing 400lbs of books to help start a library, or just helping paint fences at an orphanage. I am sure that these experiences have helped shape what my daughter has wished for. But it is my hope (my wish?) that we are also laying a ground work for her and her brother and sister to see that they can make a difference and connect to others, while also building in them the resilience to work to attain their biggest wishes.

Thanks again John,


John Yeager 11 January 2009 - 5:31 pm

Sean: What a wonderful instructive experience you provide for your children with your yearly trip to Central America.
Maybe, what you do is provide “realistic wishing” for your children – an opportunity to build hope so they can make a difference one person at a time (Sorry to sound cliche). It is about relationships and they can see the difference they make in other’s lives.


Scott 12 January 2009 - 7:58 am

Thanks for the excellent article. It is a shame this couldn’t be posted for more mainstream consumption because we need the message of focusing on strengths rather than unfocused wishing to foster the best in people. Even the use of strengths has to be disciplined. As William Durant the historian said, commenting on Aristotle that “excellence is not an act but a habit.” If Malcolm Gladwell’s research in Outliers is correct, we need 10,000 hours of practice to come near to expertise.
As for the generational difference, I’ve discovered in corporations that using strengths in a disciplined way transcends generations. Some individuals, no matter their age, “get it” and focus their strengths to obtain their “wishes.” The turning point will be finding the right information, motivation, and rewards to turn “wishers” into strengths-users.

John Yeager 12 January 2009 - 9:22 am

Scott: Thanks for your kind words. Like “water over a stone,” deliberate practice delivers habit. Many people get very frustrated without immediate gratification. Hopefully, they can get past the “emotional” piece to get into a “behavioral” schedule, with some mini-successes that fuels continued efforts.


Kathryn Britton 12 January 2009 - 9:55 am

Scott & John,
This is a hard message to internalize — so having it said many different ways increases the number of people who get it.

Here are some other sources —

A post that Caroline Miller wrote last year about the same topic in her discussion of The Secret.

For those of us who learn best from stories, the message of ongoing, long-term effort is a major theme in various young adult novels by Tamora Pierce, such as her series, Protector of the Small.

Another great story that exemplifies effort is the movie, Children of Heaven.


Joan Young 14 January 2009 - 10:23 am

Thanks for the excellent and insightful article. I am a teacher who works with Kindergarten kids all day and then coaches kids from ages 10-18 on all kinds of things from study skills to English, Math, Science, and more. I hope that by writing and sharing with parents the importance of teaching their children that “hard work” is the way to succeed, we can somehow compensate for the messages of “instant success” and gratification that they see in mainstream media. All around us we see messages like “Lose 10 pounds, the easy way! ” and many more that even lead those of us who think we know better to fall into the trap that we can get lucky or envision something and it will come our way. I love Malcolm Gladwell and I think he did an excellent job encouraging the pursuit of hard work and practice in his book. I enjoy your posts and look forward to more. Thank you.

John Yeager 15 January 2009 - 7:49 am

Thanks, Joan. Gladwell’s newest book resonates with the concept of “deliberate” practice in the development of life-long habits. Ted Sizer, in “Horace’s School”, says “having the skills today is a small part of the whole. Being committed to using them consistently tomorrow is the crux of it . . . Habit, obviously, relates to disposition. I have to want to apply these skills. Therefore, I must be convinced of their utility and reasonableness.

Joan: If you are interested, I would like to interview you for a new book I am co-authoring on building strengths in young people. yeagerj@culver.org


Joan Young 16 January 2009 - 2:55 am

Hi John,
I am excited about your book on building strengths! I will email you to chat more about this.

Marisa D 10 November 2009 - 4:38 pm

Hi John,

I’m taking a positive psychology course right now with Sean Doyle as my instructor, and he has directed us to PPND to get more involved with positive psychology.

Thanks for this article-I really enjoyed reading it! I have worked so hard in order to make my dreams one day become a reality. Unfortunately, I see many of my peers who spend a lot of time wishing and not enough time formulating plans to achieve these goals. I also read the book GenMe a few months ago and found it so interesting (I’m 22 years old, which puts me right in the GenMe generation). I remember Twenge talking about the huge focus that school systems had put on improving self-esteem among school aged children as part of the reason for why young people have such a strong sense of entitlement and believe they can reach their goals without the hard work and determination. Do you think that by shifting the focus from self-esteem to self-efficacy in the education of children that it will help to instill a stronger sense of will along with their wishing?

I really look forward to reading more of your articles. Thanks!


Andrea 10 November 2009 - 7:53 pm

I have never actually read the book GenMe but it definitely sounds like a book that would interest me. I am currently observing in my own family, and perhaps in myself, what you said the book is largely about. I have seen one in my own family whos parents handed her whatever she wanted and have not been really preparing her for real life, I am afraid that this is going to negatively impact her. She will not know how to function in the real world because she has never had anyone tell her “no.” I suppose this is one aspect the book talks about, but I could be off base. I know in my own life I had grandparents who took care of me and sheltered me and now that Im really on my own I sometimes become overwhelmed. I was so accustomed to them doing most everything for me, now I have to figure things out on my own as an adult and its scary. I have dreams and I want to achieve them, but just like the little boy who played baseball, I am quickly discovering that my dreams don’t JUST come true I have to work at making them come true. My grandparents are not going to make it happen, I have to make it happen. How do I hold onto my dreams and keep striving for the big dreams without getting disappointed and thinking I cannot ever get to my goal on my own? How do people in my generation get past feeling like everything will be handed to them and get a reality check without squashing their big dreams?


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