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Envisioning Success Is Your Best First Step to Making Your Dreams a Reality

This is an excerpt from Pete Canalichio’s TEDx talk at Georgia State University.

Did you ever have a dream that was so big you felt it could never be achieved?

If you answered yes, then I know how you feel. I’ve had those dreams. While not every dream I’ve had has come true, along the way I have discovered a powerful approach of picturing my dreams that has helped me achieve most of them. I want to share with you my approach so that you too can begin to see your dreams become reality.

One day, during my junior year in high school, my dad came home with a brochure. It was about a special school in Annapolis, Md., designed to train young men and women to become Navy and Marine Corps officers. While I had never heard of the school, there was something about it that drew me in. It promised to push me in ways I could not imagine. The school was looking for well-rounded, self-motivated high achievers who could take intense pressure. I didn’t know if I could cut it. In fact, I didn’t even know if I deserved to go, but by the time I finished reading the brochure, I knew I wanted to attend the United States Naval Academy more than anything.

I began to picture myself as a midshipman at Navy. That’s right, I said picture. I was standing in T Court raising my hand and swearing “to defend and uphold the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” With that singular image in my mind, the things I needed to do started manifesting themselves. The Naval Academy required academic excellence. Fortunately, I had good grades. However, the Academy was looking for a lot more than just grades. They wanted leaders who demonstrated excellence in a variety of ways. With limited extracurricular activities, I knew I was never going to get in if I didn’t step up. Fear of not getting accepted became my greatest motivator.

One of the requirements was a physical fitness test. Keeping the picture in my mind, I began exercising with purpose — pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups and a run for time. I joined the Key club and started participating with earnest. I tried out for a play and while I only had a small part, I had fun learning everyone’s lines. I sang in my church choir and praised God with my best voice. Through my efforts, I began getting opportunities. I became Mayor of my city for the day. Later, I was selected to represent my school at Boys State. As I kept my mind focused on attending the Naval Academy, I found I was having fun participating in a bunch of cool activities. And while it would be devastating if I didn’t get in, I knew I would be better off for my efforts.

Then one day in February, my senior year, a letter arrived. I was nervous to open it. My mind began to race and my palms got sweaty. What if it said I wasn’t accepted? Could I handle the rejection? I said a prayer and opened the letter. The Academy invited me to become a member of the Brigade of Midshipman. I was ecstatic. I remember doing cartwheels, jumping, hooting and hollering. I did it! I did it! I was in.

Since that day, I’ve had other big dreams. With each dream, I would picture what I wanted, and I would visualize myself in that place. The visualization gave me the clarity I needed, along with the ambition and courage to risk possible failure. As the saying goes, “you can’t make a basket if you never take the shot.” I knew that sometimes I would miss the shot, and while the failure might dampen my spirit, I would be better for trying, and I would be okay. Remarkably, my visualization has enabled me to reach many of my goals. One of those goals was becoming a Navy pilot.

Upon graduation from the Academy, I was sent to flight training in Pensacola, Fla. Two years after earning my wings, I was a qualified P3 Orion Patrol Plane Commander leading a crew of 12. I remember one Saturday night, we were over the ocean at 3,000 feet tracking a submarine. After eight hours of flying, we had completed our mission and were ready to head home. As we prepared to leave, base command called and told us our relief would be delayed and to extend as long as possible. I thought, “What’s an extra 30 minutes going to matter, anyway?” With four engines, we routinely saved gas in the P3 by shutting down the left outboard engine and flew on the remaining three. This unexpected order would require we shutdown the right outboard engine. Before shutting it down, we checked the operating engines to ensure they were running smoothly. The left inboard engine was good, but the right one was acting erratically. My training took over. With a bona fide emergency, I immediately aborted the mission. Rather than shutting down the second engine, I called for us to restart the left outboard engine. When it was up and running, I turned my focus to the right inboard engine. The oil pressure was going crazy. This type of emergency required we shut down the engine. A few seconds after we pulled the shutdown handle, a bright red fire warning light illuminated the pitch-black cockpit and a loud warning horn went off. Honk!! It scared the hell out of us. A crewmember in the back screamed, “Sir, we have flames shooting out the back.”

With over 800 hours of flight time, this was the first real engine fire I had ever witnessed. We initiated the emergency shutdown checklist for an engine fire and on the third step, set a circuit breaker, shutting off oil to the engine. Shortly after, the fire went out. We collectively breathed a sigh of relief, finished the checklist and declared an emergency. I turned the plane homeward, pushed up the power on 1, 2 and 4, and began a climb. Twenty seconds later, the fire warning light and horn came back on. “Dear God,” I prayed silently, “please don’t let me die tonight.” An instant later, the aft observer shouted, “LT Canalichio, number 3 is on fire with flames shooting out the back again!” My worst fears were confirmed.

There was no procedure in our manual for a scenario like ours. My dream that night was to bring my plane and crew home safely. I was terrified, but had to keep it together to give my crew the best chance of survival. I quickly pictured being home with my family, and then got about finding a way to extinguish the flames. With my power up, I dove the plane towards the water. I knew if the fire didn’t go out, I would have to ditch the plane. As the plane descended through 1,200 feet, our speed reached 265 knots. The aft observer call out, “Fire out on number 3!” On that news, cheers erupt throughout the plane. By the time we landed, I had been flying for 11 straight hours. I was so exhausted that when I finally got home, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. The next morning I hugged my family and told them what happened.

So, let me ask you. Do you have a dream to go after something big? Something bold? Something that seems almost impossible to accomplish? Then I say, picture that accomplishment in your mind. Visualize what you will be doing and with whom. The visualization will give you the focus to know what to do and the determination to make it happen.

Never let go of that dream. Not only will you achieve it, but you will also serve as an inspiration for dozens, if not hundreds of others, who dare to dream of achieving theirs. In the words of Walt Disney, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Hear the full TEDx.