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Never Dream Alone

An interview with Hilde Helsen

“I believe there is a dream in each of us. I also believe that each of us can realise this dream with the support of others… And if more people realised their dreams, the world would be a better place.”

We all have dreams, but we often lack the confidence to make them a reality. To overcome this hurdle, Hilde Helsen has developed a four-step model for achieving any aspiration. Published in Dutch in 2018 and translated into English in 2019, Dreamers who do combines her professional experience with insights from inspirational figures.

As well as an author, Hilde is a Materials Science Engineer, public speaker, coach and entrepreneur. In January 2013 she founded TRAJECTUM, an organisation that supports individuals and companies through periods of transition and change.

I’ve read that you were one of the first female engineers to reach a top position at a multinational company in Belgium. What obstacles did you face on this career path and what ultimately enabled you to be successful?

The first obstacle I faced was at the company where I did my thesis work. I thought it was good there, but they were not planning to recruit female engineers in production, which was my dream. So, how do you get into the system?

I ended up working for ExxonMobil, where it was not so difficult to ask that question to begin with. But, like many other female engineers today, I realised that I was quite alone. So, I created a female engineering association to find a tribe; it’s good to be amongst others when facing major obstacles.

What is the core message of Dreamers who do? How does this message align with your personal and professional philosophy?

They fully coincide, because I believe there is a dream in each of us. I also believe that each of us can realise this dream with the support of others. I’m also convinced that — and I’ve seen this so many times — people achieve their dreams when they are within circles of safety, at ease to promote and support each other. And if more people realised their dreams, the world would be a better place. In fact, I have been doing this in all my roles — even since I was a child. Now that I’ve started putting it into words, I’m able to spread the message.

In the book, you outline a practical model that anyone can follow to reach their dreams. Which of the four stages, if any, is the most important?

I think they’re all very important. But when I’m taking the stage or the podium, I’ll often put emphasis on ‘let love rule’: the fact that no single dream is realised alone and we need each other. This applies to both individual and collective dreams. Helping to realise others’ dreams is the most beautiful human activity.

‘Let love rule’ is interwoven through all the steps, and of course you need every step. A dream comes from your inner drive; like Lenny Kravitz says, it’s the dream that lives inside of you, so give it words and then make it tangible. It’s also like painting — it can change over the years.

That’s a really interesting point. I think what most people struggle with when setting goals or envisioning their dreams is the fear that, if they don’t achieve it, they’ll be disappointed. But I think we have to be more flexible and appreciate that circumstances change and our values evolve, so we need to adapt.

That is the perfect essence of the first step of dreaming. In that dream, I invite you to develop your inner compass, which gives you your anchor and guidance. From the outside, people look at my career and say, ‘She’s been an engineer in a factory and now she’s running her own consultancy and coaching company’, but it all comes from the same inner drive.

You delivered a presentation, also entitled ‘DREAMERS who DO’, at a TEDxFlanders conference in 2019. Did this Ted Talk change your perception of the book, in terms of the scope and impact of your ideas?

It’s amazing; when the book came out — at first in Dutch, then in French and finally in English — I got letters from readers. They wrote, not about me, not about the book, but about themselves. The first one was from an 18-year-old and later I got a letter from someone who was 80. I thought ‘Wow, that’s what I wanted to do!’

Of course, when you’re preparing a TEDx Talk, you have to be concise and think, what is the message I want to spread? When you experience it in a room full of people (in pre-pandemic times), you see that you have an impact. I want to inspire people to act. It’s not about me, it’s not about my story, it’s not about the stories in the book; it’s about what it says to you.

It’s all about influencing others. So, what was the best bit of feedback you got from that talk?

This immediate action. I hear from people who took notes and people who say, ‘I read your book, Hilde, and I’m working on my dream!’ Or leaders who realise, ‘Huh, I have a vision for my organisation, but it’s in my head’. So, the important thing is to talk about it, to make it tangible so that others can build it with you.

These are nice points of feedback; I’m always enthusiastic when someone says they’re working on a dream. Also, with the pandemic, a lot of people decided that they were in jobs that were only okay, so they took that step and really went for their dreams. It’s nice because they’re more anchored and more balanced. We can all change — there are so many more challenges, so many things that we can do better. If you think something isn’t possible, it will be different if you take action. Why not? It can be changed!

In that TEDx Talk, you mention being a disrupter in the industry. You said that you started out as a chemical engineer, but didn’t like having to follow rules in order to reach your goals. That’s really interesting, because you often have to change the system from within — especially as a female engineer coming into a male-dominated environment. So, what kind of attitude or mindset do you think is crucial for facing such opposition and becoming a disrupter, in any industry? Is there one core attribute that you think works well?

With hindsight, I realise that I was educated in a family where we were supported to change things and taught to say our point in a connective way. So, I would say listen to what you feel — listen to the emotion because that tells you something — then speak up. You might need some support with how you share it, which shows the importance of connective communication. But don’t suppress your feeling of unease if you think something isn’t correct, because the limits will always shift. It’s better to talk early, even if you just say, ‘I think something is off here, I can’t name it yet’ and stop it there.

If you don’t find support in your organisation, you will find it outside. Sometimes — and this is one of the key messages of ‘let love rule’ — this support comes from an unexpected quarter. For example, at the beginning of my career I had enormous support from my secretary; she entered my office one day and said, ‘I have to tell you something Hilde: you’re like an elephant in a porcelain shop (or however we say it in Dutch), but please don’t change!’ It’s important for me to tell you this because, in the beginning, I wasn’t conscious of how different I was. But, thanks to what she said, I also felt supported.

Can you offer 3 key takeaways from Dreamers who do?

First of all, not one single dream is realised alone. We often celebrate successful entrepreneurs, but they’ve never done it alone.

Second, there is always help — and sometimes this help comes from an unexpected quarter. The idea is to start imagining your dream and sharing it so that people can help.

The third one is to watch your words. This mainly applies to dreams or ambitions that other people formulate; listen with your heart, don’t judge. Because, before you know it, you’ve killed a dream — and that person will only realise it years later.

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