Every so often we have a grand idea, or dream of doing something bigger than our selves. Just the thought of it generates a chain of “What if…?”. We are even inspired by the image of what that dream looks like at its fulfillment. But for some reason(s), many of us don’t pursue our dreams.
In May of 1831, a German engineer by the name of John Augustus Roebling immigrated from Prussia to the United States of America. His intent–opportunities and a brighter future. He sought to establish a German colony in the U.S. while simultaneously pursuing his passion as an engineering professional.
Following a short stint at farming, John found his way toward designing bridges. The journey began around 1837 when he propositioned a suspension bridge designer named Charles Ellet Jr. requesting to help design a bridge in Pennsylvania. In his note, John outlined:
The study of suspension bridges formed for the last few years of my residence in Europe my favourite occupation … Let but a single bridge of the kind be put up in Philadelphia, exhibiting all the beautiful forms of the system to full advantage, and it needs no prophecy to foretell the effect which the novel and useful features will produce upon the intelligent minds of the Americans.
John soon found himself designing and constructing suspension bridges. After 20 years of building bridges, and on one day while overlooking the East River between Brooklyn and New York, John Roebling was inspired. He had a big dream to build a big bridge that would connect the two cities.
In 1867, John received approval from the New York State Legislature and with his son, Washington Roebling, began work on the bridge. Just two years into the project, John suffered a physical injury which resulted in tetanus and later his death. John’s 32-year old son Washington, also an engineer, assumed the lead. John Roebling’s death was not to be the last obstacle toward achieving the dream. The next obstacle surfaced just one year later.
Work in the caissons (bridge foundations) below the water level caused many workers to experience decompression sickness, or the bends. Washington was not immune. When a fire broke out in one of the caissons, Washington was on site directing the team in suppressing the fire. During that extended time below water level he suffered a paralyzing decompression injury. This injury was so severe it left him bed ridden for the remainder of the project.
This too was not the end of the dream however. Not to be deterred, Washington continued to oversee the project from an apartment overlooking the work site. His wife, Emily Roebling, became critical to this adjustment. In addition to providing daily care for Washington, she took it upon herself to gain an education in mathematics and bridge construction. Over the next 10-11 years Emily assumed a chief engineer role as well as became a conduit of information flow between Washington and the on-site engineers.
In May of 1883, John Augustus Roebling’s dream became a reality. Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge was complete! At that time it was the longest steel wire suspension bridge in the world. Today it spans nearly 6,000 feet long, 85 feet wide and 276 feet above sea level. The Brooklyn Bridge is a National Historic Landmark and considered one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 19th century.
On any given day the Brooklyn Bridge supports 125,000 vehicles, 4,000 pedestrians, and 3,000 cyclists. But beyond routine crossings, the bridge has become a critical thoroughfare, especially during those emergency times when the subway system is suspended. For example, during the blackouts of 1965, 1977 and 2003, and following the attacks of 9/11, the bridge became a primary evacuation route for the citizens of Manhattan. John Roebling’s note to Charles Ellet Jr. indicates he knew the bridge, his dream, would have this tremendous an impact.
Realizing Your Dream
So what about your big dream? Do you have a bridge for it to be realized? If not, here are four foundations for your bridge:
1. ACTION: Get going, own that dream. Sometimes the hardest part of pursuing something big is just getting started. Although the dream may seem overwhelming and far from reach, realize you don’t have to have everything sorted out prior to beginning the journey. And once you do get started, don’t let excuses or distractions get in the way (i.e. too busy at work, other projects, not enough free time, planning for a wedding, etc.). Nolan Bushnell, inventor of the Atari game system said it best, “Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.”
“…you don’t have to have everything sorted out prior to beginning the journey.”
2. COURAGE: Chasing big dreams takes courage, the courage to take risks and manage fear. If there was no risk of failure, it wouldn’t be a big dream. For the Roebling’s, designing and constructing the world’s largest steel wire suspension bridge was a huge risk. What if the bridge hadn’t been able to support the 150,000 people and 1,800 vehicles which crossed it that first day? Additionally, when the bridge was built, aerodynamics had yet to be evaluated and bridges had not been tested for operation in wind tunnels. That in mind and a fear of the bridge collapsing caused Washington to construct the Brooklyn Bridge and truss system six times stronger than he thought it needed to be. You too will have to take risks in pursuit of your dream. Have the courage to take those risks and manage the fear to get you through. Nelson Mandela explained it best with, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
3. TEAMWORK: Share your dream or vision with others (partners, family, etc.). First, because it will take more than just you to bring it to fruition. Second, teamwork will allow for accountability and encouragement. Third, the more team members can see the dream the better they can contribute to the goal. Emily Roebling was a great example of this foundation as she encouraged John, cared for him and assumed a chief engineering role.
4. DETERMINATION: The ability to stay the course and overcome challenges is the difference between derailment and reaching the goal line. Watch out for those naysayers who for a variety of reasons (jealousy, lack of vision or ignorance) will attempt to discount your dream or discourage you from achieving the result. Fend them off with knowledge and information, and through maintaining a positive perspective. Determination is also vital to overcoming challenges which are a certainty with any big dream. Many challenges were encountered during construction of the Brooklyn Bridge that could have derailed the dream: the death of John Roebling, the injury to Washington Roebling and his inability to work at the site, and the death of 20+ construction workers, just to name a few. As Vince Lombardi once said, “the difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack in will.”
“Your next big dream is only a bridge away and could impact generations to come!”
I’m convinced many of us don’t pursue our dreams because they seem overwhelming, there may be distractions, there’s risk of failure and challenges surely await. But don’t let that deter you. Your next big dream is only a bridge away and could impact generations to come! Remember the four foundations to your bridge: take ACTION, have COURAGE, approach your dream with TEAMWORK and pursue it with DETERMINATION.