Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice weekly here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.
“Following your dreams” seems to be the current American religion.
(See posts by other authors on TheGloss: My Sister Gave Up Her Dreams, and Sometimes I Hate Her For It, and I Gave Up My Dream, and I’d Do It Again.)
What the fuck are “dreams,” anyway? And why are they so sacred in our culture, while “goals” — like everything else in the world — are subject to criticism and revision? Think about this: If someone says, “One of my goals is owning a house / farming alpacas / getting an MBA,” you might ask, “Oh, why?” Upon reflection, your friend might adjust or abandon her goals for new ones. That’s cool. But if someone says “My dream is to be an actress!”, it’s totally taboo to question that, as though “taking away someone’s dream” makes you an evil cat that sits on children’s chests and steals their breath in the middle of the night.
As far as I can tell, “dreams” are mostly vague, unrealistic, often quite selfish goals. Not all of them, of course: Martin Luther King had a dream that his children could one day live in a nation where they would be judged not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character. But having a dream to be a ballerina is not the same thing. Most people’s dreams are dumb.
Or, at least, most people’s dreams are provisional. Based on fleeting whims and momentary circumstances. After all, where do “dreams” come from, anyway?
The Origin of These Vaunted “Dreams”
Growing up in a privileged nation, most of us were assured on numerous occasions that we could be whatever we wanted to be. And then adults would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, in response to which we would try out answers and gauge responses: A firefighter! A firetruck! A doctor! A dancer!
It’s like asking a child who’s never been to — nay, even seen pictures of — Disneyworld what he wants to do when he gets there. He doesn’t know! See Mickey Mouse? A slide? Is there a slide? Cupcake? Nap!
Whatever this child says is wrong. There’s stuff there that’s way better than a slide! His answer was based on totally inadequate information and perspective. That’s what most childhood dreams — and many young adult dreams — are as well.
Your childhood dreams did not take into account that you would grow up to like sex and alcohol, and get satisfaction out of, say, good project management. And that you might like painting, for instance, but not enough to want to be poor. And that you would make decisions based on a need for companionship and possibly your biological clock. And that retiring well might be more important than exactly what kind of job you do during your forties and fifties.
When a three-year old says she wants to grow up to be a bird, we all laugh, but when a twelve-year-old says she wants to be a singer, OHMYGOD HOW DARE YOU MALIGN HER DREAMS!
That’s what we’re defending?
Kids cannot articulate — or conceive of — life goals like “living both ethically and with verve.”
Kids don’t think about the various stages of adult development wherein the narcissistic look-at-me pursuits you may enjoy at 24 can seem silly at 34, or wherein you would simply want different things at different stages of life. They can’t imagine wanting to craft some weird sort of career out of doing a little of three different things so you can have the time and freedom to swim in the ocean whenever you want. Kids sometimes declare that they will be astronauts and have six kids and lots of horses, because kids don’t realize that kids and horses do not appreciate when you leave them for a four-year space mission. Kids are idiots.