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Some crazy dreams do come true when you persevere!

A short story about a real Sky Ladder

A couple of years ago I saw a Netflix documentary about fireworks artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s Sky Ladder. To say that it moved me is a huge understatement. The final scene of the documentary inspired this short story. It speaks about the fact that some crazy dreams do come true when you persevere. And it also speaks about what those who stay by your side during the process go through while you try to fulfill your dreams. I never interviewed Qiang’s wife or anyone else involved in the project so, although the facts about the story are true, everything else is the result of my own imagination. It this were a movie, you’d read a note at the beginning that says “this is a work of fiction based on a true story.”

You may not know (or care) but I’m originally, a fiction writer. Poetry, short stories and novels have been my passion since I was very young. I decided to share some of my short stories in the Red Shoe Movement blog because I believe in the power of fiction to help us see the world through someone else’s eyes and experiences. It helps us discover aspects of ourselves and of humanity that we don’t normally access through non-fiction, and much less through the conversations we have at work. Our workplaces and professional lives could use a little more of the delightfulness we derive from reading short stories and novels. The kind of reading you probably allow yourself to “indulge in” only over your Summer vacation. Well, that’s about to change. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Why is it so hard to make your dreams come true

Introducing a short story in your work day!

Sky Ladder

She had put up with his dream for over twenty years. This outrageous dream of creating a ladder that would connect the Earth with the Universe as some kind of symbolic gesture. Of all the impossible projects Cai Guo-Qiang had ever concocted —most of which he had brought to life, she had to admit— this was by far the most absurd.

She had been there all along. Supporting him while discovering gunpowder as his artistic medium and while he used it to expand the Great Wall of China in a dragon-like pattern across the dunes in the Gobi Desert.  Because that’s what he did. He created art with fireworks. Big, large-scale, unbelievably humbling fireworks.

She stood by him when they left China for Japan and when they moved permanently to New York. She raised his kids and dealt with his ever-increasing fame. His career retrospective at the Guggenheim and his role as director in the visual and special effects in the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Summer Olympics.

But no success was ever enough. Satisfying enough. Grandiose enough. It was the Sky Ladder that kept him awake at night when everything else was going fine. She wished he’d give up. He had already achieved so much. He had attempted this feat several times before and she had witnessed how each failure had crushed him. She didn’t think she could take one more failed attempt. Not when so much money and time was going into every one of these efforts.

Make your dreams come true through perseverance

But now Cai’s grandmother was approaching 100 and he wouldn’t let go of his obsession. As if igniting this ladder would create a path for her to walk up to Heaven.

She was tired of being okay with everything. Of being by his side come what may. She felt she had earned the right to say enough. But he was unstoppable. Nothing she could say would deter him from his dream.

He continued searching for the perfect location and paradoxically, decided that it would be his small childhood fishing town. He brought experts from all over the world to direct the project. But the village people would build this sixteen hundred feet-long ladder, which would be carried up by a massive hot air balloon.

Cai worked day and night with the energy of a teenager. Nobody could match his intensity. She knew that. She saw his exhaustion and his resistance to give into it. To even show it for fear of bringing the others down. He kept at this ridiculous idea for months and months. Telling everyone this time it would work. It had to. It was the last chance he had to fulfill his promise to his grandma, who had heard him talk about this project since Cai was a kid.

And so, the day came. Or more specifically, dawn came. He had decided to light up his ladder in the wee hours of a Summer day to avoid being penalized by the Chinese government. In the night sky, the white, hot air balloon climbed slowly carrying with it the long, thin ladder over the water. Cai lit a match and slowly, each rung caught fire creating an opening in the dark sky. The small group of family and friends who had gathered to witness this miracle was spellbound as the magnificent ladder, most of them had worked on for months, climbed into space. A ladder made of fire just as Cai had dreamed for so many years.

She held her breath. Her heart beat so fast she thought it might drop to the ground. The silence around them was only made louder by the crackling sound of the explosions above them.

Then she saw Cai climb the ladder. This immaterial ladder that was being drawn out of the darkness for a few moments until the fire consumed it. There he was, climbing into space freeing his soul. The soul he had been attempting to liberate ever since he started using gunpowder as his artistic medium.

She was desolate, left alone on this earth.  Without the man who had given her purpose, the man who had taught her that there were no impossible dreams. Just dreams that had not been made possible yet. She put her hand over her mouth and wept with a grief she had never known. Her body trembled. She felt weak at the knees.

And then Cai put an arm around her.

 

Sky ladder in process of burning- Can Guo-Quiang studio.

Some crazy dreams do come true when you persevere

Nothing more inspiring than reading some of the crazy dreams that came true for you through perseverance and the support of those who love you. I know I could use a lot of that inspiration in my daily life. So, would you please leave me your comments on the story you just read and/or examples of your own dreams-come-true? I’m excited to read them!

 

Overcoming Adversity with a Smile: Using your Own Inspirational Story

Overcoming Adversity

Overcoming Adversity

Leaders are always looking for inspiring stories to share with their audiences. Sometimes that inspirational story comes in the shape of an acquaintance or a public person who reached his/her goals by overcoming adversity and others it’s about the leader’s own journey. I have used both kinds of narrative as storytelling is always a big part of getting my message across.

But regardless of the topic I’m presenting on, the inescapable truth is that English is my second language. So on many occasions, language itself becomes the topic of the presentation giving me the chance to either turn it into an inspirational story about my overcoming diversity or, allow it to be an obstacle in communicating the message.

As hard as it is to examine your own language abilities in front of hundreds of strangers, I choose to turn my grammatical foibles into an inspirational story. Something that makes me real to the audience and reveals a vulnerable side of me that makes me relatable as a leader while it leverages my background.  I here share one of my main language struggles as an example of an effective strategy that you might want to try in your next presentation.

I’ve been an English language learner since I was 6-years-old in my native Argentina. I studied the language in an academic environment, thus my almost perfect fluency. “Almost” being the operative word here.

When I began my career as a writer and public speaker in the U.S., I decided to publicly acknowledge that I am prepositionally challenged. That’s right. On and in – two apparently innocuous monosyllables—have been at the forefront of my ongoing tango with English.

My friend and personal editor, Susan Landon, has had the biggest belly laughs and hair pulling episodes while editing my blogs, columns, books and anything else I throw her way. To help you fully appreciate my grammatical handicap here is one of our hilarious exchanges.

I had sent Susan an Op-Ed I was working on, which I had originally entitled: “Black Woman on the Golf Course.” (Admittedly, I had previously checked via phone with her that it was “on the golf course.”) My subject line, however, read: “Black woman in the golf course.”

Susan – It’s ON the golf course!!!!

Me – Sorry, wrong subject line but the title is correct. Did you notice I used your favorite word “eschew”?

Susan – Yes, I noticed “eschew” and I wondered where ON (not IN) earth that came from!! You are really stretching your wings. 🙂

Me – You are such a great influence in me!

Susan – It’s: influence ON me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can’t catch a break.

In my defense (and the defense of many second language learners!) there’s little rhyme or reason for the grammatical rules of these two little devils. You wait in line at the store but you’re online on the Internet. Someone is on your side but in your mind. They are on your team but in your heart. Something is on TV, on the radio and on a website, but it’s in a book. It’s in Manhattan but  on Long Island.  Come on!

I have repeatedly studied to no avail the many rules that regulate prepositions in an attempt to discover the patterns that elude me. So, I decided to settle for the second best thing besides speaking prepositionally-perfect English: Knowing that being a frequent user of both Spanish and English delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, makes me better at multitasking, and allows me to be keenly aware of what’s important and what’s not at every moment.

Inspiring Stories

Inspiring Stories

A while back, in an interview with the New York Times,  Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuro- scientist who has spent 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind, said that, according to her research, 5 to 6 year-olds who are bilingual “manifest a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.” How does that work?  Dr. Bialystok explains: “There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what’s relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”

After reading this interview, I felt a little bit better about my failures and realized that the smartest way to deal with this would be to make fun of myself, (use it as an “overcoming adversity inspirational story”) and let everyone in on the joke, by asking the audience for help when I stumble upon a set of options that I can’t resolve (“Do you say in your shoes or on your shoes,” I’ve asked in the middle of a keynote speech.)

This strategy has served me well. It never fails to lighten up the mood in the room and it reminds everyone that no matter the obstacles they face, overcoming adversity is part of what makes a leader, a leader.