HARALD KATZENSCHLÄGER: Dream development takes you far outside your comfort zone (Interview)
Published by on December 30th 2013

Christmas time is the time to make resolutions for the upcoming year. But why? Why aren’t we asking ourselves each and every day what we want to do in life? What our purpose is? I had the honour to talk about this with my long time friend and mentor Harald Katzenschläger, self-acclaimed dream developer and co-founder of DreamAcademia. 10 years ago he quit his dream job and started to change his life. In 2007 he founded DreamAcademia together with Hermann Gams, with the aim of inspiring people to go for their biggest dreams and the vision of a society in which everybody does exactly what he/she loves to do.

Around christmas time, chances are high to find Harald dressed up as Santa, sharing out sweets and asking people for their dreams. I met up with him at Sektor 5 Coworking-Spaces in Vienna to talk about dream development techniques, how to stay consistent during the process and about what it means to leave all securities behind just to help other people follow their heart and intution.


DD: We’re at the end of the year. Time for resolutions. What is your advice when it comes to resolutions?

HK: End of the year? End of what? When I look at my life, there’s two points of view. It has a beginning when I’m born and an end when I pass away. In between I can do whatever I want in life. Do you need an end of the year to start something new? I don’t think so. I feel that everything has a start and an end. It depends only on yourself. Let’s be honest: The majority of resolutions will never be  implemented. It’s just a nice ritual. Like saying “How are you?” – “Thank’s I’m fine”. That’s nice. But it has no meaning at all.

DD: What is your advice then?

HK: The book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” from Bronnie Ware was a bestseller in 2011. Imagine yourself in the moment before you pass away and think about what would be your top five regrets. Luckily you still have time to change the course of your life, so start to do things that will let you look back with a feeling of contentment and peace. It’s a great exercise to find out what has true meaning in your life.

Another advice would be to take a look around and find happy people. When you see happy people, ask them what they do. For me this would be the most logical thing to orient myself. But this classic resolutions like 5kg less or 1000 Euros more, if you’re really honest and ask yourself, if that makes you happier I think you will come to the result that it’s maybe just the carrot in front of the donkey, that we always run after and think that we will be happier when we’re there.

DD: If somebody decides to find his inner dreams or to start with the dream development process, which techniques would you recommend?

HK: One practical advice would be: Take a white book. An empty white book. Imagine that this is your life. Start by writing down things that are important for you. Start with the craziest vision you could think of. Imagine you have all supporters in the world. All resources in the world. What if you had your personal Santa Claus and can ask him for whatever you want? No matter if it’s realistic. That’s hard enough for a start. We didn’t drink that in with our mother’s milk. It’s the opposite. We grew up in a situation of shortage. “That isn’t. That can’t be. That doesn’t work”. In all areas. And suddenly you turn the switch. That’s a huge challenge, believe me.

Another technique I suggest is to write down 39 dreams. Make a list of dreams and you will see that it will carry you away your whole life. You must learn to question the things on this list. Keep asking yourself if you just made it to impress the neighbours or if your true dreams and wishes are written on there. No matter what, it will help you question yourself. By writing down 39 dreams you guarantee a certain amount of detail that will afford thinking deep. Start drawing pictures in your head, start to visualize your dreams by cutting or printing out pictures. Glue them on your wall. Start smelling, tasting and touching the things in your mind.

Talk about it. But be careful to whom you talk about it. Because when you start this process, you will always find people who will tell you that things are not possible. And soon your surrounding environment starts to hold you back. That’s normal. If you develop yourself further, you will start developing a new environment. You need people around you, who believe in you. For people who are not in that process, it’s better to hold you back because it’s easier to hold you back than to start questioning their own lives and dreams. That’s why it’s hard to start this process out of your normal environment, you will start asking yourself: “Why am I doing that? Why am I asking myself these questions?”. This can be painful . Because you leave things out without really knowing what will be the benefit.

Also be careful of the words you use. These words can become reality way faster than you prefer. So be careful to use positive pictures and take care of each and every little word that you use. You will realize that it’s very important to think about your dream in all details. How do you feel when you get up in the morning? Who surrounds you? How does the air smell? Don’t just scratch the surface.

DD: Do you have an example for that?

HK: Yes. It was new year’s eve 2005/06 when I sat down and thought: I want to thank all people that are important in my life. So I wrote 100 postcards in the first part of the night and just wrote down thank you, no matter if I knew the people personally or not. Some of them didn’t even know that they had an impact on my life. In the second part of the night I wrote down what I want to do in the future and with whom I want to do it. And I remember reading it, I thought: Where are those people? I know none of them. How should I do those things? How should I earn money with those things? I had no clue.

When I look at my life today, I’m doing exactly what I wrote down on this piece of paper. Everyday, I meet people that are like the ones that I imagined back then. And once you realize that this really works, you realize what your real power is. That you can have an impact. That you can do anything. And then again it’s of big importance to find out which things are really important for you. And once you found them, my biggest advice is: START.

I remember at the end of that new year’s eve, at 7:30 in the morning, I went to the garden, cleaned it up and burned everything I thought I wouldn’t need anymore. My wife looked out of the window and asked me, if I’m crazy. But for me that was symbolic. It meant: “Do something. Don’t wait. Start now.”.


DD: What advice do you have on keeping up the consistency?

HK: Keeping up the consistency? Puhh. I think that has much to do with the fact that what you do is not in your comfort zone. You must bring to your mind that developing dreams never happens inside your comfort zone. There simply is no comfort zone. And if you want to develop yourself, you will quickly realize that there are things that are not always warm, always nice, always good. You will enter a completely different state of mind. But that’s exactly the point on which you learn to develop yourself. The point where you learn to know yourself and others better. The biggest challenge might be to say “No” to many things, just to say “Yes” to that one bigger thing. In this process you will often be confronted with a lack of understanding by the people surrounding you. When I was in that situation back then, I tried to find arguments and evidence for what I was doing. I soon realized that it’s better to focus on the goal. The closer you get to your goal the more exciting it gets to those people and there will be a time when they get back to you and start asking questions on how you achieved things. A very interesting process.

In general consider surrounding yourself with people who already did some steps along the way and gained experience. Don’t surround yourself with people who share your insecurity. It’s better to meet up with one experienced mentor than with 10 insecure and unexperienced people. Experienced people will ask you the right questions. Frederic Pistono shortly said in a talk: “You need to surround yourself only with people who believe in you. It’s not for the fact that they believe in you, but for the fact that you start believing in yourself.”

DD: Do you have any rituals that help you keeping up your own consistency?

HK: I like getting up early in the morning to remind myself that I can make a decision each and every day. That I can make a decision to change something, that I can do something or simply do nothing. I have two healthy hands and feet and a passport that takes me wherever I want to go. Who else has such privilegues? I think to make us aware of this is one of the most important things in life. I can go for whatever I want to go, every single day of my life. Even if the price might be high. For me that’s an immense quality of freedom. When I feel this freedom to create, to reflect, to develop, to listen, that’s just incredible. So incredible, that sometimes I need to force myself to do something normal, like cooking and then concentrate on not cutting my fingers off because my thoughts wander away.

DD: What is the “Why?” behind your work?

HK: It’s funny, it was exactly 8 years from now when I had a real down, I’d say a deep mid-life crisis. I had just quit my dream job, traveled around the world with my wife and my two daughters (1 1/2 and 3 at that time) and then I came back to reality. Into a reality that I felt I can’t go on anymore. In this phase it progressed so far that I imagined what it would be like being ill, just for the reason that being ill means that one doesn’t need to function in our system. What helped me at that time was to think about some important questions: What would I love to do? How does my life ideally look like without thinking of anything that was told me before?

And I felt how those feelings challenged me, because normally, nobody challenges you to aks yourself these questions. And then you ask them to yourself and you realize how difficult it is to start this process. Because in this process, after every 2-3 steps you take, your mind comes back and says: You can’t do that, it’s not realistic. And then you overcome those thoughts, and after a while you realize, that whatever you ever imagined, chances are high that some years later you look at your life from a bird’s view and you realize that many of the things you do are exactly the things that your mind once told you are totally unrealistic. The art behind that is having the attentiveness to realize: This is exactly what I dreamed some time ago. Once you realize that, you will feel a deep thankfulness. And you get better in it every day. And of course there are bad days involved in this process, days of doubts, but the feeling of luck that you can do what your heart tells you to do will help you overcome the bad days.

For me, the next step was that I found out: If I can do that, everybody can do that. That’s what I truly believe in. It’s deep inside of each and everyone of us and once you realize it, you will realize that you can take the messages of the ad industry of what we need to give to each other, what lists we need to write, what goals we need to set and so on, you realize that you can take these messages and throw them into the garbage.

And that’s why I do what I do – help people develop their inner dreams.


DD: What is your wish from Santa?

HK: I think it’s that wish to even more delete the things that are on the list, deep inside my brain. And to get even more confidence to do what I’m here for. I can’t really describe this. It’s like a flock of birds. You can say it just flies. But it’s way more than that. And altough you know that you’re on the right path, you think you’re crazy. You have the feeling of not fitting in. What we do is so far away from everything normal. It doesn’t fit into any format. In our society we learn to measure things, things are bigger, more beautiful etc.

But what we do is far away from normal. And often I start asking myself why I’m doing that. It leads to downs that you can’t even imagine (tears in his eyes). Why can’t I be a little bit more normal. Why can’t I just adapt a little bit to the norm? But in the moment when these questions come to my mind, I know that I don’t want to do that. What for? I feel that there’s a completely different way of doing things. And then I remind myself of the positive sides of my work. Because when you go through the downs, you go through even higher ups. That way, you experience the entire spectrum of life. It’s not mainstream boredom, a life without real emotions, it’s much much more. It needs just a little confidence. No matter if I’m sharing cookies as Santa or just stand at the river and stare onto the water, it needs so less. But in our performance-oriented society, it’s different values that count. Most of the time, those things that are important in life are the things that you can’t sell that well. And if they don’t bring any profit, why should you do them? In such situations you find yourself thinking: Why do I do what I do if it doesn’t bring me any profit?

DD: But isn’t that what makes a real dreamer? To follow your dream, no matter which obstacles appear along the way?

HK: Definately. But at the same time it’s a huge challenge. Because you often find yourself in a situation of failure. But you nee to stand up again and keep on going. And make yourself aware of the fact that you are in a very privileged situation. Make yourself aware of the fact that you drink clean water, wear clothes and people don’t wear weapons on the street. That’s the challenge.

When I look around me, for example in a supermarket, I rarely see happy faces, though we apparently have everything we need. And when I see that, it motivates me to never be satisfied with the status quo. That would feel as if I would deny myself.

Another risk is that people will think: He’s always happy, he must have a great life. They don’t see the downsides, the hard work, the bad moments. Then you hear things like: “It must be great to live your life”. And you think to yourself: I doubt that. The problem is, that we tend to hide the negative sides in our society. So if somebody feels really bad, he just sees the people who are seemingly happy and thinks everyone is happy while he’s the only person who has a down. We need to develop that confidence that it’s OK to have bad moments during the development of our dreams. Think about how Jeff Bezos must have felt when he was cooking Burgers at Mc Donald’s. Do you think he had the awareness he has today back then? I think this fear of such moments comes from how we were raised. Most of us were not taught to take much risk in life.

DD: How do you recognize that somebody is really bent on achieving his dream?

HK: What I find very exciting is, that the dreams of people who come to us often break within a few moments, after you ask a few in-depth questions. After that, the process of questioning begins. What do I really want to do in life? Is this dream really what I want to do or only a thing I wanted to do to get love and respect? And then the magic happens. They feel the clearliness. Because when you start thinking about what you really want to do in life, you often start to feel fear. Because it means to take a big step in life. But once they take this step, you can see it in their eyes. You can simply see it. You can feel if somebody is really dying for his dream.

DD: Often people tend to use money as an excuse for not fully commiting to their dreams…

HK: My advice for that is to reflect about the thoughts that are linked with money in your brain. How did you learn to know the energy of money? Which situations did you experience around money? When I thought about this 10 years ago, I would have been happy to make it for one, maybe 1-1/2 years. If somebody would have told me that at the end of the year 2013 I would only just make it. That I’d quit my building loan, my life insurance and finally give my house in pawn. I would have never believed him. But I feel that this basic trust in life nurtures. It’s like releasing from everything that seemed to give you security. And if you then see what can happen without much money. What you think how much money you need at the beginning and how much you really need at the end. For people who work on their dreams with full passion and commitment, money is never an issue. It’s just an excuse that you sometimes use when times are not so good. It’s an excellent excuse in our modern society. What would Mandela have said? Or Gandhi? Did they say: I can’t do it, I don’t have a budget?


It’s just our rational thinking that tells us that money is the issue when times are not easy. Innovation often starts with a lack of resources. It makes you find new ways that need way less effort. You learn to save resources, make more sustainable decisions and act more efficient. And that is actually very positive, it will help you later on. If you managed to reach your goals with less resources, you will be able to achieve big things if you once have the resources. And you will still make sustainable decisions and be efficient. I see this pattern of behaviour often with people who have dreams that impact on many more people than just themselves. When I see their shining eyes and how they take one step after another and stand up again each and every time. Such people never give up. That’s pure energy.

When I ask myself what keeps me going, it’s the question: “What will I tell my children in 20 years if I don’t start acting now?”. “What are we all waiting for?”. Are we waiting for politics to come up with the solutions? That’s an illusion. To hand this planet over to my children with the knowledge that I did everything I could to make it a better place for them, that’s what drives me.

And it shows me the importance of great mentors that challenge you to go for big. And there are some of them in my life, my wife, my partners, all people that believe in me, maybe my children being the greatest. They teach me to look at things like a child. To think without limits. An ability that has mostly been killed by our system. For me, to know that they believe in what I do is worth more than any money in the world. When I think about that, I am just thankful for what I got to do. And for that feeling, you are ready to accept things that are far outside your comfort zone.

DD: Thanks for the interview.

HK: Your dream works.

More information:

DreamAcademia was founded in 2007 by Harald Katzenschläger and Hermann Gams. Their first project was to help a 12 year old ice hockey player with his dream of attending an international hockey school in Canada. Until today they helped to develop a big number of dreamas, one supporting the leading members of 2013  Solar Decathlon winners Gregor Pils and Andreas Claus Schnetzer from Team Austria. In 2009 they organized the first TEDx-Conference in Austria, TEDxPannonia which will occur for the 4th time in 2014. Currently they work on their vision “Dreamicon Valley”.


Contributed by

Manuel is an entrepreneur and journalist from Vienna, Austria and the CEO of DREAMA.TV. Besides he is running an online video agency and loves stories about inspiring people, projects and products.
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