Bullish Life: Some Dreams Are Stupid

We shouldn’t tell them that, of course. If your kid is struggling with subtraction, it would be terribly mean to tell her that after that, there are fractions, and then later, algebra, and that the thing she’s struggling with right now is something any unemployed, shiftless adult can do. When you’re six, persevering in learning subtraction is character-building. You don’t let on to a kid how small a thing she’s accomplishing, and how many larger things will need to get done after that. But kids are idiots. That’s why nature made them so adorable, because otherwise we would find their total incompetence repellent.

Placing too much importance on long-held dreams — as though childhood is some place of deep primal truth rather than of turbulence, mistakes, awkwardness, and confusion — is stunting and illogical.

Remember Randy Pausch? Before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2008, he gave a moving Last Lecture (also turned into a little book that he, um, dictated while riding a stationary bike, and that, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, contains an entire chapter on the value of clichés), in which he declared that the meaning of life is “fulfilling childhood dreams.”

I read this book, and it was terrible. (I’m not the only one who thinks so.) Here’s one example of Pausch’s childhood dreams: Being Captain Kirk. (Or a bird! Or a plane! I’m Abraham Lincoln AND a ballerina!) Pausch later declares this dream fulfilled because he … met William Shatner. Which is SO not the same thing.

Sure, meeting William Shater is cool. But that’s what makes your life worthwhile? The dude is an actor.

Look, when you develop a terminal illness, you don’t suddenly know the meaning of life. Maybe a few people have revelations. But most are just the same people, except they feel like shit and people keep poking at them, and soon they’re so full of drugs that they can barely think and thus are, in fact, much less likely than before to have a good grasp of the meaning of life. I’m pretty sure a lot of people’s last thoughts are like, “This blanket is too warm” or “OHGOD MY LIVER.” So, you might as well think about this stuff now, before you develop a terminal illness and all the sudden people put you on the spot to be really profound.

Some “Dreams” Are Better Left As Dreams

Some “dreams” are better left in the realm of fantasy, hobby, or once-in-a-lifetime experience. For instance — for me — modeling. I wrote about my brief, straggling “career” as a low-rent model in Bullish Life: What Modeling Taught Me and Bullish: What I Learned About Business From Being a Low-Rent Model. But my point here is that modeling had vastly diminishing returns. The other models I knew reported much the same thing: The first photoshoot was so exhilarating! You’re a model now, baby! And then you can’t wait to see the photos! You show them to everyone!

After six months of this, you do a shoot and someone sends you a CD of 300 photos of yourself and you don’t even look at them. You get tired of seeing your own damn face. Le shrug. I also got tired of people touching me and of being cold due to being constantly underdressed. I discovered that I am really bad at keeping my eyes open in direct sunlight. (I’m also too short and have two expressions, max, if you are willing to count “vacant stare” as one of them.) I was constantly annoyed that you were supposed to show up at 9am and then no one even started putting makeup on you until 11. So inefficient! No respect for my time! People are also very patronizing to models (for instance, assuming that you will not be able to tell time off of a clock with hands!)

A lot of dreams are not as good in reality. Tell people you want to be a lady astronaut and everyone thinks you’re amazing. What some of them are thinking is: Wow, I’m glad someone’s holding up the banner of indefatigable womanhood, because me … I just don’t have it. To be an astronaut, you have to train in a zero-gravity tunnel that makes virtually everyone develop vertigo and throw up. As someone who was once crippled by Meniere’s Disease, which is a thing where the fluids in your inner ear get fucked up and you feel like someone’s violently spinning you in a chair well past the point that you want to die, the idea of anyone doing this voluntarily is anathema. Furthermore, as an astronaut, you will also enjoy celibacy, near-zero privacy, dehydrated food, and access to basically none of the things you like. Your hair will always be standing on end, you never shower (just wet wipes!), and you don’t even want to know the details of going to the bathroom in zero gravity (there’s a kind of vacuum-cleaner involved).

Some dreams suck once you get into the details, and it’s totally fine to change course.

Fully-Formed Adults Have More Complicated and Nuanced Sets of Evolving Goals

See how that subject heading was not short and snappy at all? Yes, that’s how a well thought-out life mission tends to look.

Sure, a few fully self-actualized adults have concise goals that also sound like dreams: Free Tibet! Stop violence against women! Fix as many cleft palates as possible!

Cool. But unless you are utterly single-minded, you are probably going to need a paragraph to lay out your values, the things you need in order to be happy, the things that would be super fucking awesome on top of that, and how you plan to get there.

Futhermore, not only are most dreams chosen sort of capriciously, most dreams are jobs. In real life, most jobs are means to an end. Your vision really should extend beyond a job.

So, probably more than a paragraph.

See Bullish: 5 Ways to Improve Your Life in 5 Minutes for more on writing a mission/vision statement, Bullish: Screw New Years Resolutions — Try Designing Your Career, and Bullish: Maybe You’re Not Actually a Lazy Procrastinator for more on defining your values.

And feel free to abandon your “dreams.”

Send in your questions to bullish@thegloss.com or follow on Twitter @jendziura. See a Bullish archive here.

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    • matbo

      I went into reading this article thinking “meh”. But it totally blew my mind. Thank you. I will keep working at my ADULT dreams now.

    • GentleMatt

      If I may weigh in, the difference between dreams and goals might just be, that dreams are something you achieve while sleeping. You do not actually have to work for them. They are dreams. They will come to you all by themselves, because of your being so special. There is no way to criticise this, because it is not part of reality to begin with. Also, dreams are hardly influenced by your conscious decisions.
      Whereas goals are something you set for yourself, and then have to work real hard to get after. Because there are so many factors to achieving a goal, it is very easy to find flaws and mistakes that can be criticised. Dreams are destiny, goals are a decision.

      What both dreams and goals have in common is, that there is this sort of compulsory elation, you are supposed to feel with them. And for some reason, I have always had a problem with that. I can accept people telling me what to do or what not to do. But forced happiness? Being persuaded to being myself? Really? What’s that all about? For some reason or other, in the past 27 years I have not been able to find a single thing that really makes me happy, and I still have managed to get a decent job and some nice people who are willing to while away some time with me. “I am bored by the things I dream of” was a line in a rather sad song I once wrote, and thanks to this article, I feel kind of good about this fact now.

    • Lindsey

      Thank you for this. I love all of your Bullish articles, but I’m currently taking the very first step (ie, a Calculus class) in changing…the rest of my life (majored in English/French, working as a secretary, now going back to study Engineering). I realized that my dreams of working in publishing sucked when I realized how unstable publishing was. And cheap. And putting up with some awful math classes in order to have a successful, stable career as a project manager with a power company or something? Well that sounds AWESOME.

      A totally boring dream, but a dream nonetheless. An adult dream. And I loved reading this and getting exactly the kind of validation we’re all looking for when we make a huge life change. I’ll be smiling in Calculus class tonight.

    • Mani C. Price

      Goals are dreams with a deadline. End of story. You do it or you don’t do it. That’s the difference.

    • Lo

      Thanks for highlighting the distinction. I have a great many dreams, but no ambitions.

    • Amanda

      I agree that a teenager isn’t the best person to get career advice from, even if that teenager is you. I don’t agree that what we call dreams are just childhood fancies that we forgot to get rid of. (that’s religion.)

    • BG

      I’ve come to this site to read some of Jen’s articles since I’m at somewhat of a crossroads in my life – nearing 30, the “dream” I am currently pursuing, is beginning to scared me as far as will it ever actually happen, and will I have to sacrifice too much (time with my family, having my own family) to reach it.

      The thing is – my dream IS attainable. I’m good. I’m really good. This isn’t ego talked, I truly believe I was meant to be entertaining in the way that I am. So what about people like me, people who have all that it DOES take to achieve those seemingly impossible goals? It’s not so black and white as giving up on that dream, when it actually seems achievable.

    • TK

      You know, some people definetely do have good shots at the really crazy dreams, that’s how we get those people after all. The smarter you are, the better shot you have at those kinds of things it seems. The key is avoiding laziness, unfortunately the simplistic things we tell children kind of hint that it just falls in your lap if you dream hard enough.