Why Following Your Dream Means Nothing

From a young age, American children are handed conflicting messages. They are told that they are special, that they can achieve their dreams, and that they can be whatever they want to be; they are also told that they must work hard and compete with others to get ahead. Motivational posters that proclaim the powers of dreaming and hard work are so commonplace that an entire subgenre of parody, demotivational posters, exists online. Children are encouraged to dream about who they’ll be when they grow up: where they’ll work, where they’ll live, who they’ll marry. The dreams must be big, and the promises of prosperity and success are more salient in young minds than you might think.

For decades now, young boys and girls have dreamed of being firefighters, doctors, or lawyers — professions that reflect higher pay scales in our economy, and mostly, suggest the hero ethos that America is so consumed with. Jean Twenge in the excellent book Generation Me recalls that one educator interested in turning back this tide of self-indulgent or even delusional dreaming, asked her class what their dreams were, and if they could achieve them. She told them she had dreamed of being a ballerina, and a student enthusiastically told her she could still be one if that was her dream. She told Twenge that as she was over forty and overweight, being a ballerina was not an option…ballerinas must train from a young age, and be relatively thin. She told the class she was no longer able to be a ballerina. They were unwilling to accept it. Optimism, or setting oneself up for failure?

Dreams are just that. Dreams will never get you into the school of your choice, the leading role you desire, the top-paying job. Countless parents have demanded that educators make exceptions for their child for the sake of their dream; lifestyle magazines and the human interest section of the newspaper have trumpeted the incredible achievements of people who followed their dream. TV shows such as “Glee” are pure dream fantasy, with characters who lead exciting and felicitous lives thanks to the power of their dreams.

I would hope that no one takes these stories to be either fully truthful or applicable to everyone. It is a sad fact that most people’s dreams will never transpire. After all, a dream is, literally, a set of illusory images, sounds, and feelings that occur during sleep. To characterize one’s life goal as her “dream” is almost setting it up for failure. I knew someone who dreamed of being a pilot, but he had severe scoliosis and therefore could not. He lived a directionless life, bemoaning that since he could not be a pilot, he had little else to live for.

The cult of the dream and the pressure on children to form and follow dreams do nothing for personal or societal progress, and the concept of a life goal “dream” must not be reified as the formula to personal success. What “dreams” can do is inspire one’s various goals, and to pursue their passion. Certainly one who longs to be a pilot has other interests, but since this individual had listened to the cult of the dream, he was unable to look beyond this.

It is never wrong or misguided to have multiple dreams, or to give up a dream, just as it’s never wrong to have multiple plans or to decide that a plan is not good. And, contrary to what the cult of the dream would have you believe, you can find new dreams. Your “dream” does not materialize upon puberty and become part of your biology; rather, your biology is fueled by the complex and shifting mental processes that constitute such a dream. To live your dream, then, is quite simple: don’t wait for circumstances to hand you your life so that you can have your dream; live your circumstances with dreams in mind so that you will be content — an essential part of mental and emotional health that can happen even if you don’t have the full “dream” on your resumé.

As someone with many dreams (veterinarian, park ranger, evolutionary biologist, sailor, gymnast, filmmaker, screenwriter, playwright, theatre director, teacher, anthropologist, activist…) who has only had jobs or accomplishments for a few of these, I can tell you that dreams are nothing more than the set of illusions that inspire us to seek a good life for things we enjoy, and that we make our own luck.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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