Bullish Life: Some Dreams Are Stupid

The author dreamed of being Madonna, circa "Papa Don't Preach."

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.”

(See Bullish: Extreme Advance Planning for Very Smart Women and Bullish: How to Age with Panache.)

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.

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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.