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Follow your dreams (realistically).
This ain't the movies
One of the most oft repeated pieces of advice given to recent college graduates is the admonishment to "Follow your dreams!" Objectively this is wonderful advice. After all, every one of us has a dream, a goal a vision for how things should be or what we want to do with our lives. It doesn't take too much looking to find books, movies, plays and songs about following your dreams despite the costs. However, this is your life we are talking about here. There's no director, no tropes and plot lines to fall back on. You need to follow your dream to keep your spirit alive, but you need to make money to keep the rest of you alive. It is a fine balancing act to nurture and grow a dream while working in a different field, or not working at all for that matter. While I am by no means an expert, here is what I have learned.
Choose your dreams wisely
When I was young my dream was to be a pirate. That's not a metaphor. I dreamt of sailing the high seas and stealing money from wealthy merchants and shooting cannons at mermaids (that's what pirates do right?) I use this example to illustrate an important point, chase your dreams, but choose the dreams worth chasing. Obviously my dream of being a pirate was not something worth pursuing when I thought about it a little more. Lots of people make the same mistake when it comes to following their own dream.
Imagination is a powerful thing and sometimes it gets carried away in creating fantasies for us. We look at what we want to be or do and all we see are the positives. So we invest our time, energy and money chasing something only to catch it and realize we don't really like what we got. That is why it is important to reflect on your goals and aspirations. This reflection can take whatever form you want. Some people meditate, others write or draw or talk to someone. It's okay if your reflection is looking at yourself in the mirror and asking, "What am I doing?" The method is less important than the asking. By continuously evaluating where you are and where you want to end up, you reduce the risk of following a false dream.
Give yourself room to grow
One of the things about reflection that is often overlooked, is that reflection is virtually meaningless in and of itself. In order to gain the most benefit from reflection, your thoughts and ideas need to be a spur to action. Take the ideas you reflect on and use them to shape your life. In this case it means not being afraid to change or modify your dreams after analyzing them.
Sometimes, people feel that modifying their dreams and goals, or changing them all together, consitutes a failure. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, having the courage and wisdom to modify your goals as you go along is a small victory in and of itself. This is harder than it sounds. We naturally get wrapped up in our dreams and aspirations. We devote time and energy to them and in a very real way they become a big part of how we define ourselves. When we change these things we are changing a part of who we are, and that is never easy.
What we need to remember is that change and growth are natural parts of life. Few of us would be happy if we stopped changing and growing when we were infants or children. Just as we mature, evolve and branch out physically, mentally and emotionally, we need to give our dreams the same freedom. Often times when we confine our dreams with rigid thinking and narrow definitions, we find that they stagnate and no longer call to us like they once did. These stagnant dreams in turn become sources of bitterness and resentment.
One way to prevent this stagnating is to break down your dreams and goals and examine what attratced you to them in the first place. Here I will use another personal example from my own life. For most of my childhood I wanted to be a police officer. As I grew older life circumstances dictated that this would be impossible. At first I was angry and bitter, my goal was denied. In time however I came to see that my dream was not necessarily to be a police officer per say, rather it was to help people. By examing my dream, and allowing it to grow, I was able to see that in fact my dream was very much still alive, just existing in another form.
Understand the costs
We talked before about what we invest into our dreams in terms of time, money, energy etc. While few of us expect our dreams to just magically come true, many of us are ignorant of the full cost of their dreams. These costs often extend far beyond the material, and failure to properly account for them leads to burnout and frustration down the line.
Think of a person who longs to be a powerful business person. They work day and night, developing and growing their company, meeting clients, managing all the daily minutia and always pushing themselves to do better. Eventually they find that while their business success has materialized, their lives are devoid of real friends and family, and they are in many ways a prisoner to the life they created. For this hypothetical person the cost of their success was their personal relationships. Now, it is important to note that this is not a judgement. If you would willingly trade personal relationships for business success that is your own decision and your own dream. Instead, this example is a warning about not understanding the cost of your dream. The businessperson in this scenario didn't make the wrong choice by choosing to focus on their career, the mistake was in not understanding what that choice would cost.
Take small steps
While it may be romantic to throw away your boring life and whole heartedly embrace your dreams, for many people this is not possible. Maybe you have a family to support, or for whatever reason find yourself unable to drop everything and pursue your passion. Sometimes. this is the breaking point for people. All our lives movies and books have conditioned us to think that following your dreams is an all or nothing investment. Instead, start to see achieving your dreams as a gradual process and you will be surprised how fast you make progress.
These small steps are also key to keeping your motivation high. When you only focus on the end result or the big picture it is easy to get discouraged. Everyday you are not living your dream in its entirety you are failing. When you look at the details though, it is easy to see yourself moving to where you want to be. The easiest place to find examples of this mindset at work is in the business of losing weight. When people begin a weight loss journey focusing only on their final weight, they are much more likely to quit than the person who views every pound lost as a small victory. Look for small ways everyday to make your dreams come alive. If you want to be a cook, set aside one day per week to cook a fancy meal. If your dream is of an athletic nature, resolve to train at least a few times a week. As time moves on you can increase the frequency or complexity of these steps until you are pursuing your goal full time.
Dreams and goals are what sustain us as people. When our dreams die our spirits tend to break soon after. Having a goal and chasing after it is a large part of what makes us human. On the coldly rational side the universe is not there to be our personal genie, and few of us have the luxury to chase our whims with abandon. Start small, move slowly, and constantly reflect and reevaluate. Before you know it your dreams will be reality.