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Collective Dreaming

We live in an individualistic culture that tends to understand dreams and ambitions as solitary. We tell stories about the triumph of the individual genius, and when we fail, we tend to feel that we have failed alone.

Collective dreaming has a lot more power to get things done. When there are more of us, sharing the same goals, figuring out the same trajectories, there’s more scope for success. More minds on the case. More hands to the plough. More resources and potential. Whether we’re talking about community projects, social movements, or small collaborations, we can get more done when we dream together.

Of course collective dreaming comes at a price. You have to be willing to give up the allure of personal, standout success. If you win as a team, you may not be personally famous. A little realism about the odds of being personally famous by working alone can help a lot here. Collective dreaming means being willing to compromise a bit on your vision. Even if you’re working with people who are very much aligned to your view, they won’t always be perfectly in synch with you with all things. Patience and flexibility are essential. Sometimes it means letting go of a large part of your vision so as to make a small piece of it actually happen. We live in a culture that encourages us to nurture our private dreams and not sacrifice parts of them for a common aim. Even when that means the dream goes nowhere. We can see hanging on to the exact dream as heroic, even when it gets nothing done.

Working together doesn’t automatically make something a force for good. That our dreams are shared does not necessarily make them wise, feasible, or virtuous. We can amplify each other’s worst ideas when we work together. We can build bubbles of unreality, believing ourselves to be better, more important, more influential than we really are. We can enable each other in doing horrible things. Our shared dreams may be other people’s shared nightmares. The validation of being part of something can give us the confidence to be despicable. When enough people sign up to such projects, they can become cultural norms. Nazi groups also share dreams.

The only way to measure our collective dreaming is by giving it a lot of thought. Watching for the risk that we’re talking each other into unrealistic expectations or belief. Watching for what we validate in each other, for whether we seek power over each other, and how we envisage people who are outside our little collective. Those intent on justifying atrocious behaviour are generally good at finding ways to do that, and we need to watch for them in our collectives. Getting involved with a collective dream doesn’t have to mean continuing to think it’s a good idea or dedicating to seeing it through. Like the notion of the heroic lone genius, the notion of group loyalty to the bitter end can prove to be deeply unhelpful in practice.