Rick Sperling – Creating Something Out of Nothing . . . But a Dream


I have always been most humbled and most inspired by a certain kind of leadership.  These leaders get me energized.  They make me think anything is possible.  They make me start to think about what I could do that I’m not doing.  I’ve seen these leaders in the political sphere, as well as the domains of business and of social change.  And last night, along with my family I watched just such a leader in the field of the arts and of social change.  His name is Rick Sperling, and he founded the Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit.

Rick created something out of nothing.

At the newly renovated Detroit Film Theater inside the nearly, completely renovated Detroit Institute of Arts, Rick’s troupe of 40 or so Detroit high school students completely wowed that packed theater with their performance of Rick’s original musical, Now That I Can Dance.  15 years ago Rick had the vision of young people in Detroit having a place to perform musically and theatrically at a world-class level, and now quite simply they do it.  They have performed internationally, played at the White House, and now year after year recruit and train and graduate wonderfully talented young people. It started with the dream, continued with impoverished sacrifice and extraordinary passion, and then spread to hundreds of people whose fires of hope were lit by Rick’s enthusiasm.

What could you create out of nothing?

Perhaps you have a big dream like Rick’s. Will you end up 70 or 80 years old and wonder, “what would’ve happened if I gave it a try?”  So why not give it a try?  Perhaps you have simpler vision.  You think your department could work much better.  You see yourself changing the life of a child as a big brother or big sister.  You’ve thought about adoption.  You have an idea for a company, a book, or writing a song (at the center of Rick’s historical musical is the wonder of a 19-year-old girl who wrote a song in two days time which became Motown’s first number one single).

A dream or vision is a serious thing.  If there is one in your soul, protect it, play with it (or pray with it), give it just a little room to breathe.  Perhaps wonder most of all: am I here to create the reality of the vision, or is it possible that the vision is here to create the true reality of me?

Rick Sperling invites us all to ask questions that would really lead us to

Lead with our best selves,


  • Dan, Thanks for highlighting the vision, passion, leadership, and hard work of Rick Sperling, who has served as an inspiration to me and to hundreds of others who work in arts, culture, education, and community development throughout Michigan. His Mosaic Youth Theater has enriched the lives of countless young people who are making positive contributions throughout the country. What a legacy he’s left so far…and this amazing young guy still has many years ahead of him to continue to do great things. Ken

    • I’ve known Rick for a few years and agree with Ken. I would like to add that Rick personifies what’s “right” in Detroit. Through his leadership he inspires the best in others. With more big dreamers like Rick, this community will flourish. Bravo, Rick — and to you too, Dan, for bringing this exemplary person to our attention!

  • For more examples please read “There Are No Shortcuts” by Rafe Esquith. Also, his latest. “Teaching Like Your Hair’s On Fire”.

    Leadership in the same vein – kids from the poorer part of the social spectrum performing Shakespeare all over the world.

  • Dan, sometimes when my BHAGs get pushed around by realities – my dreams seem to cross the grain of life instead of going with it,and what results is not beautiful. As a result, I find myself turning corners from time to time, adjusting and ending up in a different direction. I had a boss who got in my face about dreaming on behalf of the university that I love. She had a good point; how much can the tail wag the dog, really – not disrespect to Peter Senge. A conversation resulted from her point, and we realized that we had opposite ways of approaching our goals. She set a goal, then applied everything at her disposal to move toward that goal. in the case of power and influence, she was a behavioralist – applying rewward and sanction to motivate people to the pre-determined goal. She was correct in sugggesting that I am, on the contrary, a constructionalist. I look at that I’m given, and look for the goal that emerged from those resources and their innate potential.

    After three years pushing quite passionately in a particular direction, I find now that it’s time to back off, retreat, reflect, look in my blind spots – that is, listen to other people.

    This can seem like cowardice.

    Abraham Heschel said in 1963, “The most valuable insights into the human situation have been gained not through patient introspection or systematic scrutiny, but rather through surprise and shock of dramatic failures.”

    I admire Rick Sperling, especially his tenacity regarding his BHAG. I admire Roy Hoelscher, who has served Capuchin soup Kitchen for more than 40 years, feeding the hungry day after week after year. And Fr. Gerry Albright is at UDM for fifty or so.

    But perhaps some of us – perhaps even many of us – are called to Heschel’s fate, to learn deeply through what appears to be shocking failure. The humanity we gain, if we remain courageous, provides an admittedly crooked path to service, but one of great potential different from the Sperlings and Hoelschers and Albrights of our blessed city.

    • John,

      I’ve read your message three times now, and I’m not sure I get the central thrust of it, so this reply is a bit of a gamble!

      I think your vision is to end homelessness, no? That is indeed a Big Hairy Audacious Goal or BHAG as you point out. Have you relinquished the goal? Or perhaps courageously detached your ego from that goal, while still holding to the goal? Senge whom you reference would say hold onto the goal, especially in tough times (the “admittedly crooked path to service”). It will change you – that’s the Heschel point, no? – but that doesn’t mean you aren’t still changing the world, my friend. If you hold to that goal and also keep interrogating reality (including your inner reality) dynamism will result. You are an extraordinary person with a mammoth goal (ELIMINATING the vast and complicated personal issues of homelessness is much different than Rick’s creating a PARTICULAR solution that attracts latent talent).
      Hope I haven’t butchered your point. — Dan Mulhern

  • Dan, thanks for writing about my neighbor (two-doors down) Rick Sperling. He has been a personal inspiration for years.

    Steve Tobocman
    House Majority Floor Leader
    State Representative, 12th District – Detroit

  • Hi Dan-

    Just wanted to say thank you for this-

    “A dream or vision is a serious thing. If there is one in your soul, protect it, play with it (or pray with it), give it just a little room to breathe. Perhaps wonder most of all: am I here to create the reality of the vision, or is it possible that the vision is here to create the true reality of me?”

    After a very rough string of days where I was thrown into a leadership position that was filled with incredible turmoil, I popped over here and read that- and it took me right out of my ego and put me back to looking at the bigger picture, that of the vision, instead of just the intense focus on the self.

    It was a much needed respite from the storm, and it came at just the right time.

    Thank you for being here.

    • Cathleen,

      Glad you found perspective and solace in this line. I am always amazed at the paradoxical dimension to wisdom. I think this notion of vision is paradoxical. We pursue and serve it, yet oddly it creates us in the process.

      Jennifer and I were talking about this idea, whose truth she was acknowledging. I asked, in case it wasn’t clear already, “do you really find this to be true?” She replied, “Are you kidding? Character is totally born out of the tough stuff and identifying what you will fight for or be criticized about.”

      In the swirling turmoil, you’re in good company. Stay focused on the good and you’ll have the long term protection, the best kind of all: a sense of inner peace and solidity!

      — Dan Mulhern

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