“If you can dream it, you can do it.” “Reach for the stars,”… “You can do anything you set your mind to…”
If we’re lucky, we can barely walk or talk when we first hear these types of fiercely encouraging phrases. (And to be clear, confidence and ambition are great things.) What motivational types, our mothers and our BFFs often leave out of their spirited cheers?… “You might spend your entire life dreaming of outcomes that are totally attainable and that you work hard to see through – only to have life circumstances rip the rug out from underneath you in an instant!” Then what?
I am not suggesting people shouldn’t set goals. I’ve been hopelessly ambitious since I learned my ABCs and 123s, so goal setting is almost an involuntary process for me. Rather, I am suggesting people can benefit from rethinking the ways in which they define success (or happiness) – at early ages. I say this with at least a little authority, having learned the hard way that dreaming in microscopic detail can actually throw you further off life’s course than it helps propel you. As an energetic, overseas female CEO in an industry that didn’t always make time for pleasantries, I was on top of the world. I traveled almost constantly, I was respected, I was able to enjoy many luxuries many never do. In some ways, while only in my thirties, I felt I’d really “arrived.” I hardly had time to bask in the fruits of it all when I awoke one day, unable to speak or move. I’d had a stroke. The next decade or so, I’d struggle to make it through some days. I’d eventually redefine my sense of happiness. I’d come to view success as a process more than a finite set of things I could check off the list. When I reflect on my life, and my approach to it, I realize all the “visualizing,” all the dreaming, can be a harmful way to go. Here are three reasons why:
1. You go against the nature of things.
Life doesn’t happen in a linear sequence. While there can be a general order to some things, life doesn’t unfold in some seamless progression. However, we tend to dream long-term (then work backwards to ensure those long-term dreams are realized). Talk to someone who’s ever lost a child or been otherwise energetic and health before being diagnosed with a terminal illness and s/he’ll tell you: Life isn’t predictable at all – even if you think it is – so don’t try to predict it. While it’s really useful to be able to set short or medium-term goals (i.e., go to the store for dinner, lose five pounds, get a degree); really long-term goal setting (i.e., be married by twenty-five, work for such-and-such company by thirty, retire with x-amount in a retirement fund by sixty-five) depends on everything leading up to those goals being predictable. Even for the most well-intended, focused people, life events not in a person’s control can throw a wrench into things.
2. You set yourself up for failure.
Let’s face it, really good goal-setters, or really passionate dreamers who work hard to accomplish their dreams, are the last ones who would ever want to see themselves (or be seen by others) as failures. I think by all objective standards, I was a really successful businesswoman in the mobile phone industry prior to my untimely stroke. What I failed to make time to dream about – between board meetings and conference calls and flights – was the contingency plan, if it all went away in an instant. Now a business leader in another technology-based industry, I have come to live by the mantra, “the only thing we can know for sure is that we can’t know for sure.” A skilled business person, I am aware that in this age of ever-increasing technology, we are all competing world-wide (and there is a lot of talent out there). Even if I am the best and the brightest, the world outside me is a large contributor to outcomes I’ll experience from an objective standard of success. I know from a wealth of experience (I’d have never chosen) that plans may work out and then some, but other things can happen – things like divorce, disease, loss – things we don’t have control over but that affect everything else when they happen.
3. You stifle yourself.
I am not suggesting we should all be anchorless drifters living off the fat of the land and hoping other successful people (who didn’t read this article) will cheer and finance us right into our golden years. On the contrary, we should know ourselves and our strengths acutely (so we know how to apply lots of them, in lots of different life circumstances). For example: If a person decides at age 15 that s/he wants to be a doctor, be married, have two-point-two kids, a picket fence, etc., the dream leaves out the complex construct that is the evolving human mind, body and spirit – as well as the biggest life “x” factors – things not in our control. Setting the goal to be a doctor is amazing (and I applaud all who work hard to provide fellow human beings with the medical expertise we often require!); but what if the long hours studying leave little time for social engagements… and the goal-setting, hard-working doctor doesn’t meet the person s/he longs to marry? What if… the goal to become a physician and the goal to marry is realized, but the couple finds that having biological children is not possible for them? These types of big, unrealized dreams can feel devastating. By narrowly defining a specific set of goals, we leave out the mystery that is life and the process of growing and changing that happens within all of us over time.
There are few greater gifts than the combination of passion with the fortitude to carry out one’s dreams. The critical thing I’ve learned through my own trials is: Diversify. Loosen up definitions. If you’re a natural leader, follow trails that require you to lead – not just the ones that direct you to the role of “CEO” or “manager.” If you love children, follow roads that lead you to work and/or interact with children, not just the ones that direct you to the role of “mom” or “dad” or “teacher.” If you’re empathetic and great with people, follow roads that allow you to help others in both conventional and unconventional ways, not just ones that leading you to the role of “psychologist” or “social worker” or “minister.” We are dynamic, changing, interesting beings. Allow your goals to be as dynamic and changing as your very spirit. After a long struggle back to a place of happiness following a debilitating stroke in my thirties, it’s the toughest and most worthwhile thing I’ve learned.